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Our 'Love Affair' With Euphemisms

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Our 'Love Affair' With Euphemisms

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Our 'Love Affair' With Euphemisms

Our 'Love Affair' With Euphemisms

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In Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms, author Ralph Keyes explores the power of words and our power over them. Keyes tells host Robert Siegel he's always been interested in the intersection of language and culture, and how the way people talk reflects changes in society. Nothing, he says, does that more than euphemisms.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In his new book about euphemisms, Ralph Keyes takes me back to browsing through a book on my parents' bookshelf about 50 years ago. It was a psychology text, probably written sometime before the Second World War, probably for some education course my father took. And it described the precise ranges of IQ that defined an idiot, a moron and an imbecile.

My father instructed me that those terms and the broad category that included them all, the feeble-minded, were old ways of saying what we now said more properly. Such people were not to be called feeble-minded, idiotic, imbecilic or moronic. They were to be called retarded, mentally retarded. It was only deep into adulthood that I realized after using that word, that phrase, that it had become completely unacceptable.

So it goes with euphemisms. One generation's version of polite and scientific is the next generation's standard for ham-fisted and defamatory.

How and why this happens is the stuff of Ralph Keyes' book, "Euphemania." And the author joins us now from Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Welcome.

Mr. RALPH KEYES (Author, "Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms"): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And I want you to explain the point you make in this book that many of the expressions, which we avoid by using euphemisms instead, were themselves introduced as euphemisms.

Mr. KEYES: That happens all the time, Robert. Look at what's happening with hookup. I'm old enough to remember if I said 20, 25 years ago, I'm going to hookup with my wife in Grand Central Station, nobody would have batted an eyelash. If I said that today, I would be in deep doo-doo.

SIEGEL: To use a euphemism. Our challenge here is to discuss things for which we use euphemisms precisely because we don't want to discuss them.

Mr. KEYES: Exactly.

SIEGEL: And a big part of what you're talking about in the book is bodily functions. Why are we so squeamish about bodily functions?

Mr. KEYES: Well, there's been a lot of research that shows whatever disgusts us is a prime candidate for euphemism, and so we come up with different words to refer to them. At one time, the word body wax was a euphemism for excrement.

SIEGEL: And as you write, there are a great many words that have a Latinate, scientific air about them. Defecate is one...

Mr. KEYES: Yeah. Yup.

SIEGEL: They sound authoritatively authentic, but as often as not, they were just dug up to replace some coarser words.

Mr. KEYES: Exactly. Copulate is a Latinate word that simply meant at one time joined together. Then, of course, it became a euphemism for a certain kind of joining together, and now that's pretty much all it means.

SIEGEL: At the end of "Euphemania," your book, you turn to linguistics and evolutionary biology for a theory, which I find very interesting, of why blurting some words in moments of anger or fear or pain may be fundamentally different from expressing ourselves reasonably with language. And therein may lie the difference between some words that we use without thinking, and then the way we think how not to use them.

Mr. KEYES: Yes. It's well-known that some people who suffer certain kinds of stroke lose their ability to speak, but they don't lose their ability to curse. And this has led linguistic researchers to conclude that swearing comes from a very primitive part of our brain and almost as not language at all. It's closer, say, to a dog's barking than to actual sophisticated conversation.

So euphemisms, the ability to create indirect ways of referring to topics that make us uncomfortable, I think, illustrates a fairly high order of intelligence and evolution.

You know, when Shakespeare called the sex act, making the beast with two backs, we had a very creative mind at work.

SIEGEL: An area of language where it's less obvious to me why we should have so many euphemisms is eating and food. There's a whole - OK, many euphemisms surrounding food.

Mr. KEYES: Well, there certainly are. You think back to the words sweetbreads for the thymus glands. Who wants to eat thymus glands? But sweetbreads doesn't sound so bad. Rocky Mountain oysters for fried calves' testicles or lambs' testicles.

But we don't even have to go that far back. The fish we today call Chilean sea bass, and have for the last 30-some years, originally was called the Patagonian toothfish - not too appetizing. Orange roughy is a euphemism for the fish that was originally called the slimehead.

SIEGEL: But the Patagonian toothfish is the case of a name for fish. And there's this - a man who renamed it Chilean sea bass. That was actually a piece of marketing.

Mr. KEYES: Yes, Lee Lantz, a fish wholesaler in Los Angeles. And he just said, this is a good fish. Nobody wants to eat it. Let's just change the name. He came up with Chilean sea bass. And voila, it became so popular under the new name, that now there's a movement to limit its catch and limit eating it in restaurants.

SIEGEL: At one time, you remark, to mention - just to say legs - I guess this is in the Victorian era - to speak of legs, right there, this would be a remarkably rude thing to introduce into conversation.

Mr. KEYES: Yes. Legs were considered a very suggestive part of the anatomy. Women in Victorian times not only covered them up, but they thought that using the very word was suggestive. So you were not supposed to say leg. You said limb.

SIEGEL: Extremities was also...

Mr. KEYES: Extremities is a - yes, is another word. And this then got carried over, going back to food, into poultry. You know, when you were invited to have dinner at someone's house, you knew better than to ask for a leg. You asked for a drumstick.

When Winston Churchill, after World War I, was eating at a wealthy home in Virginia, the butler asked him what kind of chicken meat he'd like. And he said, some breasts, please. Well, the woman next to him blanched and said, we don't use that word here. And Mr. Churchill said, well, what word do you use? She said, white meat. So the next day, he sent the woman a corsage with a card stuck in the middle that said, stick this on your white meat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Ralph Keyes, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. KEYES: Thank you, Mr. Siegel.

SIEGEL: Ralph Keyes is the author of "Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms."

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