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Quirks of the lexicon-not all euphemisms are like underwear

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Taboo areas of the lexicon perpetuate instability. We saw it in the last Lingofile blog on terms for ageing and aged care facilities — a life cycle of narrowing and deterioration of meaning. American linguist John McWhorter recently put it rather nicely, “we’ll change our terms just like we change our underwear” (https://aeon.co/essays/euphemisms-are-like-underwear-best-changed-frequently

 bloomers

Or perhaps he should have said — just like we change our dessous (after all, it wasn’t so long ago that terms for underwear themselves were constantly being changed, and French has long been a source of deodorizing language for English). 

So euphemisms are not long for this world. At a time when people worried greatly about clothing worn below the waist (even on the outside), a camouflage word like nether garments, or better still nether integuments, soon took on unacceptable erotic connotations and was replaced. To quote McWhorter again: “Thought will always catch up with the word”. This promotes an ever-changing chain of vocabulary replacements for expressions denoting taboo topicsnapery > small clothes > nether garments > drawers > body linen > underwear > smalls > and so on.

The durable euphemism
Well, normally this is the case. The trouble is every now and again I encounter an extraordinarily long-lasting euphemism. No one thinks of changing their underwear.

Read more: Quirks of the lexicon-not all euphemisms are like underwear

Language and ageing

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Euphemisms: the building blocks of aged care homes 

There are certain things in life we’d rather not conjure up too vividly and growing old has become one of these — probably not surprisingly, given the end of the ageing process is death (even those of us with strong religious beliefs aren’t usually in a hurry to meet our maker). And those who are lucky enough to linger a little longer often have to face some unpleasant consequences of reaching a ripe old age.

So how do we talk about the business of “growing old” if it’s such a sensitive subject? 

The answer of course is euphemism — the linguistic strategy that provides us with verbal escape hatches for all sorts of things that go bump in the night. To throw some light on this particular taboo, we set about analyzing the naming practices of “aged care facilities” (itself a nice euphemism) in the Melbourne region. We wanted to see what these names revealed about our current attitudes to ageing and how these attitudes have shifted in the past few decades. 

 Putting a good spin on aged care facilities    Autumn Lodge Village

 

We collected names from 2013 and compared them to those that were around in 1987. Our impression was that the reliance on euphemism was increasing with time — and we were right.

The 2013 sample showed a far greater range of euphemistic strategies compared to the 1987 sample.  For a start, nearly a third (63%) of the institutional names omitted any reference to their actual function. Instead, they employed a wide selection of uplifting metaphors that suggested the facility had nothing to do with aged care at all.

Many used terms that often appear in the names of significant family residences (implying a life of comfort and luxury), as in the case of manor (e.g. Casey Manor), hall (e.g. Benetas Broughton Hall) or house (e.g. Darley House). There was also a handful of lodges (e.g. Elswick Lodge). The usual sense of lodge is that of temporary (typically holiday) accommodation, such as a ski or hunting lodge. So it’s a vacation scenario that’s being evoked here.

Many names referred to gardens (e.g. Monash Gardens), parks (e.g. Eliza Park), lakes (e.g. Waterford Valley Lakes) or views (e.g. Princeton View). So they focused on a secondary aspect of the facility (its location), and consequently backgrounded the function of the residential facility itself. Of course, things located in gardens or parks are often rather lavish too. Think of the world-famous Kew Gardens in London (and Kew Gardens also appeared in our sample).Forest Lake Lodge

Other names (e.g., Glenhuntly Terrace, Goodwin Close) also focused on location. Words such as terrace and close are common descriptors in (typically well-to-do) street nomenclature — and once again the function is absent.

There’s nothing like a lexical exotic to blur disagreeable reality and foreign languages have been providing English with euphemisms for centuries. Two that stick out in our data are Casa Serena and Embracia. Perhaps the motivation is again a holiday scenario, but notice also the near-identical phonology — both names call to mind English words with positive concepts (serenity in the case of Casa Serena, and embrace in Embracia).

The golden age of the nursing home

By comparison, the 1987 names had a far less appealing ring to them. A whopping 82% of the facilities were depicted as nursing homes (e.g. Woodleigh Nursing Home). At this time home would have been euphemistic (bringing to mind the comfort of a permanent place shared by family), and it also featured in a handful of other names (e.g. Life Long Homes, Olivet Aged Persons Home).

But time typically blows the cover of any euphemistic disguise. As expressions become sullied by the concepts they designate, so the negative associations reassert themselves and undermine the euphemistic quality of the word. Home is now well and truly tarnished. These days any home suffers from the image of “a last resort for the aged” (as Garvin and Burger put it in Where They Go to Die: The Tragedy of America's Aged, 1968).

So it’s hardly surprising that nursing homes have all but gone (only 10.2% retained the term in 2013). Nursing might have had a compassionate ring to it in the 1980s, but these days what comes to mind are ill or incapacitated people in a hospitalized setting (earlier discredited practices of the nursing home industry haven’t helped the image either). The 1997 Aged Care Act of Australia dropped nursing home altogether, opting instead for the more euphemistic-sounding high level and low-level carecare is very general (which is what you want in a euphemism), and evokes more positive associations — such as affection and warmth — than nursing home.

Only 7% of the 1987 names used the euphemistic strategy of full omission (i.e., not mentioning the function of the facility in their name. So there’s a hint that euphemism-generating strategies were starting back in 1987, but clearly the naming practices were far less euphemistic than today (recall the 67% in 2013). A tiny percentage employed common nouns such as lodge, house, gardens, park and grange to uplift the concept of an aged care residence. And there were a few retirement villages, retirement communities, and even one retirement lodge (nicely shifting the focus to the general withdrawal from some career or employment).

The “longevity revolution”

Given our death-denying culture, it’s not surprising to see that aged care facilities tune down the negative characteristics of ageing with their strong hints of retirement, lifestyle choices, friendships, leisure and the like. Recent naming practices place the negative associations of old age (such as decrepitude, dependence and loneliness) into the background, and focus instead on the traits that are associated with what’s now known as “successful ageing” such as emotional well-being, active lifestyle, and social and community involvement.

Newly minted expressions like gerontolescence (< gerontology + adolescence), zuppies  (< zestful upscale person in their prime) and zoomers (< boomer + zip, and playing on zoom) also help feed the image of the “successful ager”.

So will these expressions be tarnished by the taboo and eventually fall victim to the euphemistic treadmill (and thus need replacement) — or are they evidence of a real change in how we think about old age and ageing? Time will tell. By Kate Burridge, Professor of Linguistics, Monash University, and Reka Benczes, Research Fellow, Monash University. 

If you’re interested in reading more about this study, have a look at:

Réka Benczes and Kate Burridge 2015. Current attitudes to ageing as reflected in the names of Australian aged care facilities, Names — a Journal of Onomastics Vol. 63 (No. 2): 96–114

And if you’ve got 10 minutes and would like to complete a questionnaire on ageing and stereotypes in Australian English, please visit this link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/5X9BRGZ.

The details of the Monash study “The Cultural Model of Ageing in Australian English” do please visit: http://artsonline.monash.edu.au/lsc/the-cultural-model-of-ageing-the-australian-conceptualisation-of-the-third-age/.

Old expressions in a new world

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Some time back I received the following email query from ten-year-old Darcy — clearly a budding etymologist:

I want to know that if oct means 8 like octopus, why is October not the eighth month.

It’s an excellent question. The name of the month October (as well as September, November and December) would appear to be wrongly labelled. But their names are a hangover from the ancient Roman calendar, which had only ten months — the beginning of the year was March and this then made October the eighth month. As Darcy figured out, October is based on the classical Latin word for ‘eight’ octo. But when January and February were added (some time during the 8th century B.C), the name persisted despite this new arrangement.

Languages are full of fossilsand digging beneath the surface of expressions in this way can sometimes reveal fascinating fossil traces of outmoded practices and also technologies. And people get very excited by these, if the ongoing flourishing of articles on the internet is any indication. Arika Okrent’s piece, for example, “15 Common Expressions Younger Generations Won't Understand” (http://mentalfloss.com/article/64669/15-common-expressions-younger-generations-wont-understand) lists vintage tech terms that appear to have outlived their meanings, and yet they don’t become obsolete — they hang around. Phones and alarm clocks continue to ring even though they’ve lost their bells; we no longer think of luggage as something that is lugged about (little wheels and convenient handles have changed all that). 

Read more: Old expressions in a new world

Scales and squishes in grammar

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Recently I’ve had some interesting email correspondence over the grammatical labeling of certain English words that seem to be hybrids — these are the ones that (for various reasons) don’t fall nicely into any of the major categories of speech. Two examples were

      A newly learned language

      A recently escaped prisoner

Old definitions die hard

Even those who haven’t had much grammar in their lives probably recall definitions such as:

  • a noun is the name of a person, place or thing
  • a verb is a doing word
  • an adjective is a describing word

Somehow these descriptions never leave us — even though it doesn’t take long to realize that huge numbers of nouns don’t in fact “refer to persons, places or things”, a good many verbs aren’t “doing words” either, and all sorts of different words describe things. So semantics isn’t a lot of help here.

Read more: Scales and squishes in grammar

I myself personally speaking

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"Help!  I'm going crazy with the seeming loss in recent years of the word "ME".  It seems to have been replaced by I and myself - incorrectly.  Are we still using "ME" in general conversation, Kate?  It seems to have happened in the past ten or fifteen years when widespread complaints were heard of people thinking too much about themselves -  "Oh, it's all about ME, ME, ME."  Maybe I'm just a grouchy old thing, but it's a daily wish of mine that we'd again hear these words, and that they are used appropriately."

So began an email query I received not long ago. It’s one of many lately on the topic of pronouns — and in particular the first person pronouns I, me and myself. Many books could be written on what’s been happening to this group of words generally over the last few hundred years; so let me simply focus here on the reflexive pronoun myself.Myself

Reflexive pronouns make up a special category within anaphora — the relationships between words and other things that have already been said in the interaction (or written in the text). Think of these pronouns as reflecting (or being “reflexes” of) noun phrases that occur elsewhere in the same clause.

I bumped into Jo and knocked myself out.

Read more: I myself personally speaking

Introducing Kate Burridge

Kate Burridge, our resident linguist, is Professor of Linguistics in the School of Languages, Literature, Cultures and Linguistics (Monash University) and a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. Her main areas of research are: grammatical change in Germanic languages, the Pennsylvania German spoken by Amish / Mennonite communities in North America, the notion of linguistic taboo and the structure and history of English. She is a regular presenter of language segments on radio and has been a panelist on ABC TV’s Can We Help.

Her books include: Euphemism and Dysphemism: Language used as shield and weapon (with Keith Allan, 1991), Syntactic Change in Germanic (1993), English in Australia and New Zealand (with Jean Mulder, 1998), Blooming English: Observations on the roots, cultivation and hybrids of the English Language (2004), Weeds in the Garden of Words: Further observations on the tangled history of the English language (2005), Forbidden Words: Taboo and the censoring of language (with Keith Allan, 2006), Introducing English Grammar (with Kersti Börjars, 2010), Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English language history (2010) and (with Debbie de Laps) Love the Lingo (2010) and Living Lingo (2011).