Quirks of the lexicon-not all euphemisms are like underwear
- Published: Tuesday, 13 September 2016 20:57
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
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 topics— napery > 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.
Take the word age and its derived expressions. It entered English from French some time during the 14th century with the meaning ‘period of human life’, but soon narrowed to ‘the end part of life’. Since the 1400s, aged also has used to refer to those closer to the finish, and since the 1800s so has ageing. From birth we are ageing and yet the meaning is always ‘old’!
These three terms have narrowed but in most contexts would simply be the direct terms, so neither sweet-sounding, evasive, overly polite (euphemistic), nor harsh, blunt, offensive (dysphemistic). Elderly has been in the language since the early 1600s. Its verbal veneer might be wearing a bit thin, but it’s not yet disrespectful. So how did all these expressions escape the corrosion that sullied once pleasing expressions such as geriatric and senile? Clearly, familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt.
Even death and dying occasionally throw up some remarkably durable euphemisms. Ancient Greek and Latin have exact counterparts to the English if anything should happen to me; this is a very persistent euphemism that’s been in English for a long time. The reason for its longevity is perhaps its subtlety. Not only does it avoid mentioning death, it pretends that death is uncertain! Death as a loss (with lose meaning ‘to perish, be deprived (of someone) by death’) has been around since Anglo-Saxon times, the verb to pass away / pass since the 14th century, and deceased, departed and no longer with us ‘dead’ since the 15th century. These are real success stories — expressions that have not only survived and resisted contamination, but even retain their euphemistic qualities.
Sneaking under the radar
Certainly these “longer-living” euphemisms have linguistic stealth. The generality of age, aged and aging means they allude to taboo topics in a very remote way. Their association lacks any sort of precision, allowing them to remain unobtrusive and to sneak through the discourse unscathed — they kind of slip under the radar. And the comparative origins of elderly continues to throw up smoke by providing the hedge ‘somewhat aged’ — you could compare older (euphemism paradoxically renders the older person not as old as the old person).
So these familiar euphemisms can remain polite over long periods precisely because they come to offer routine and unexciting ways of indirectly mentioning taboo topics. But you know, routine and familiarity effects can’t provide the whole story here, since these expressions have to survive in the first place in order to become a habit.
Alas I have no answer. It remains a fact of linguistic life that the majority of euphemistic expressions deteriorate over time and often spectacularly (as in the case of senile and geriatric).The longevity of these euphemisms remains an anomaly, in the manner of those atypical slang expressions that manage somehow to retain their original energy, sometimes over centuries. Current-day colloquial terms like grub, grog, greedy guts and gob all have entries in Captain Francis Grose’s The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue from the 1700s. These have remained contemporary-sounding — still a little improper and still a little slangy after more than 200 years.
The long shelf-life of some euphemisms, like the long shelf-life of some slang terms, remains a mystery.
By Kate Burridge - let me know what you think!