'Pushing Up Daisies' And Our Passion For Euphemisms From "passed away" to "Chilean sea bass," euphemisms are a way to avoid unpleasant terms or phrases. But in Euphemania, Ralph Keyes argues that using them isn't necessarily lazy or evasive: "It takes an even higher order to not say what we mean, while still conveying our thought."
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'Pushing Up Daisies' And Our Passion For Euphemisms

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'Pushing Up Daisies' And Our Passion For Euphemisms

'Pushing Up Daisies' And Our Passion For Euphemisms

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We all use euphemisms every day to avoid uncomfortable words or ideas, often without really thinking about it. When did you tell someone that a family member has died? Did you use the D word, or did you say that so and so has passed? In the news, you might hear the phrase challenging economic environment, when we all know we're talking about hard times.

Author Ralph Keyes argues in a new book that while saying what we mean takes a higher order of intelligence, it takes an even higher order to not say what we mean while still conveying our thought.

So what euphemism do you use and why? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ralph Keyes joins us here in Studio 3A. His new book is "Euphemania: Our Love Affair With Euphemisms." And it's nice to have you with us again.

Mr. RALPH KEYES (Author, "Euphemania: Our Love Affair With Euphemisms"): Good to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And you say that, in fact, well, euphemisms, a lot of them are used to, well, be prim or accept, you know, some prude...

Mr. KEYES: Sure.

CONAN: ...prudery ideas. But a lot of them are also - have an element of word play in them.

Mr. KEYES: Oh. Euphemisms can be incredibly playful and a lot of fun, very creative. Shakespeare was an expert at creating euphemisms in the field of sex, death, what have you. I love - you mentioned death. Some of the euphemisms we have in that area - like the French talk about eating dandelions by the root.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That's sort of like pushing up daisies.

Mr. KEYES: Exactly. It's their version. But as one euphemism collector noted, wouldn't be like the French to make a food event out of death?

CONAN: Event, in fact.

Mr. KEYES: Yeah. Exactly. Event is perfect. That happens a lot in the military when they talk about an event, an unfortunate event. You might figure somebody died, you know, let's say by friendly fire or collateral damage. Getting back to - going offline is one of my favorite new euphemisms for death.

And just before coming here today, I got an email from a high school classmate saying I have a friend who worked for a life insurance company. And when one of their policyholders became eligible for his benefits to go to his heirs, they said he was post-retirement.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I've often heard in the sports business (unintelligible) memorabilia collectors: He's not signing anymore.

Mr. KEYES: Oh, OK. That's a new one on me. I love it.

CONAN: So that's...

Mr. KEYES: I love it.

CONAN: That's - euphemism, you say, is an accurate barometer of changing attitudes that, in fact, many originate from specific events and places.

Mr. KEYES: Well, you think about what we used to have to euphemize. A lot of it was to avoid blasphemy. You know, we couldn't say God so we said gad. We couldn't say Jesus Christ so we said jeepers or - getting back to the creativity, cheese and rice, grease us twice. A guy - a University of California professor a century ago collected some remarkable euphemisms to avoid being blasphemous. Sex is a perennial. Body parts, body functions.

But today, we're much more likely, you know, we're more - we feel freer to discuss body parts or sexual activity more directly, but we're much more likely to euphemize in the area of food, in the area of money and in the area of killing and dying.

Now, let's take food. Who - you know, at one time, Patagonian toothfish was freely available to anyone because nobody wanted to eat it until a very clever entrepreneurial sea importer renamed it Chilean sea bass. Now, this hark backs to a long tradition in which thymus glands became sweetbreads or a body part that should go unnamed became Rocky Mountain oysters or prairie oysters, you know, if we want to talk about creativity. The fish slimeheads, again, nobody wants to eat a slimehead, but orange roughy sounds pretty good.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. KEYES: And that's what it was renamed and kind of euphemistic. Rapeseed oil, very problematic trying to sell that. And, today, it's done a lot better as canola oil.

Now, you get into meat and converting meat, converting animals into an edible food stuff. Now we used to say, oh, we slaughtered that animal, we butchered it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KEYES: Nowadays, we process it because I think we're much more squeamish than our ancestors were about dealing with meat and killing meat in order to eat it. We harvest animals.

CONAN: Harvest animals.

Mr. KEYES: Yes. We don't kill them anymore. We do harvest them.

CONAN: David in Fremont, New Hampshire, emails - the best euphemism ever, Mark Sanford, hiking the Appalachian Trail for pursuing an extra-marital affair.

Mr. KEYES: Yes.

CONAN: And it's one that's prominently mentioned in your book.

Mr. KEYES: Yes. Isn't that a wonderful one? And that illustrates how we often will take a current event and convert it into a euphemism that everybody who knows about the event knows what it means. You know, wardrobe malfunction...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KEYES: ...or a wide, you know, a wide stance or, you know, any number of those. In England, in the swinging '60s and '70s, a woman was upstairs, you know, with a guy behind closed door in a room and later, when she came down, was asked what she was doing with the guy, she flushed and said, oh, we were discussing Uganda. For a long time after that, discussing Uganda became a euphemism for sexual activity. Would you like to discuss Uganda?

CONAN: And the case you cite in your book of the man with the unfortunate last name of Bug.

Mr. KEYES: Bug. Oh, yeah, the poor guy changed - his name was Bug, so he changed his name to Norfolk-Howard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KEYES: And then Norfolk-Howard became a euphemism for bug in London.

CONAN: Checked into a hotel, seedy hotel room.

Mr. KEYES: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

CONAN: The bed was full of Norfolk-Howards.

Mr. KEYES: Full of Norfolk-Howards.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KEYES: I mean that's - and that's what - I call it a - in "Euphemania," I talk about the carousel ride of euphemisms, how some get contaminated, others get cleaned up. You think about just a simple phrase like hook up. Now, I'm old enough to remember when hook up simply meant, you know, we got together. But now suppose today I were to say, well, I'm going to hook up with my wife in Grand Central Station. Wow, gee. You know, I don't think so. So this is the way euphemisms, you know, what started out as a nice casual term became contaminated.

CONAN: We're talking with Ralph Keyes about his new book, "Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms." Which ones do you use maybe without thinking of it even? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

Chris(ph) is calling. Chris is with us from San Francisco.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having me on your show.

CONAN: Sure.

CHRIS: These topics you discussed so far are so rife with possibilities, I have to make two comments tangential to what I was going to say, but -about sex. There's a book called "Into Thin Air" in which the Nepalese Sherpas described it as making soup, which I love because it's both - or making sauce, I'm sorry. Making sauce, which is both a food analogy and a sexual one, which is great, so I love that one.

But the one I wanted to comment on was this general thing that people say usually after dropping some bomb on you, which is - I'm just saying. So it kind of, it's not I didn't mean what I said. But it's I'm just saying.

Mr. KEYES: Right.

CHRIS: So if you can comment on to how that waters down what you just said...

Mr. KEYES: Right.

CHRIS: ...as negative (unintelligible), Id like to hear your thoughts on that.

Mr. KEYES: Well, you know, we all have ways when interacting with each other. And interacting, incidentally, is a word with all sorts of interesting possibilities. But, you know, I'm just saying is a way of saying, well, I really don't agree with what you just said but - so here's what I'm just saying.

CONAN: Oh, no, no, no. It's - you know, so and so just lost his job. I don't know if he was drinking on the job. I'm just saying.

Mr. KEYES: I'm just saying. Oh, I see.

CONAN: I think it's in that context.

Mr. KEYES: I see. Right.

CONAN: Okay. So it's a way of saying, you know, I'm not one to disparage somebody. But I'm disparaging somebody.

Mr. KEYES: Got it.

CONAN: So...

Mr. KEYES: Well, and you think about, you know, you might at one time have said, well, I'm really angry at you or I'm really peeved at you or - nowadays, you say, well, I've got issues with you.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KEYES: And issues, incidentally, is one of our - George W. Bush said the economy had some issues beginning in 2007.

CONAN: Its had some issues ever since.

Mr. KEYES: Some issues ever since.

CONAN: This is from Sarah(ph). I use dagnabbit in lieu of cursing. Child-friendly has the added benefit of occasionally putting a smile on an unsuspecting person's face.

Mr. KEYES: Right. Now, it's interesting the way in families we come up with our own euphemisms - our - that are only known to people within the family. In our family, when our oldest son was 13, we took a trip across country. And he decided that whenever we hit an unusually boring patch of countryside, we called it scenic. We said, this is really scenic, isn't it, David? Well, now, in our family, scenic is our euphemism for boring. Man, that party was really scenic. And I think every family has euphemisms like that.

CONAN: Yeah, probably every relationship too.

Mr. KEYES: Yes, every relationship.

CONAN: Let's go next to Kurt(ph), Kurt with us from Phoenix.

KURT (Caller): Oh, hi. Thanks for taking my call. I don't use this euphemism, but the - it is something that sort of annoys me when people, other people use it, and that is inner city. Where they'll say a teacher from an inner city school district. And, you know, really what they're saying is it's from a minority or a poor school district.

CONAN: Right. The slums, I think, is what we usually mean by that.

Mr. KEYES: Yeah. Well, and minority, as the caller says. It's where minority folks live. Urban is the same thing. You know, it's interesting how urban has gone from being just a word meaning city to now you have urban fiction. You have urban music, all of which alludes to being, you know, created by minorities.

CONAN: Thanks, Kurt.

KURT: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email. This from Dan(ph), emailing from Reno. I'm a manager in the restaurant industry. One of my favorite euphemisms relates to terminating an employee. I say they have been promoted to guest.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KEYES: I love it. Promoted to guest. Have to use that one sometime.

CONAN: This is from Frederick - excuse me, Alice(ph) in Frederick, Maryland. As a child, I got confused by my grandfather's common use of euphemisms, and would say, as I headed off to bed, well, I think I'm going to kick the bucket rather than hit the hay. So it is important to get those straight.

Mr. KEYES: Yes.

CONAN: We're talking with Ralph Keyes about his new book, "Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms." And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

And Ralph, as I suspect you know, your book was reviewed in the Wall Street Journal earlier today. And I wanted to ask you about a couple of the criticisms that Eric Felten, the reviewer, had. One of which was that you use euphemisms that were in fact never used, including bombardiers no longer drop bombs, you wrote, they unleash vertically deployed anti-personnel devices. And he says, I don't know of anybody in the military who's ever used that expression.

Mr. KEYES: Oh, a the source of one, he says he called somebody in the, quote, "weapons community" and asked him, and that person said he had never heard it. And this is, excuse me, 20 years after that phrase was first recorded. So he may be right, he may not be right.

CONAN: But you have an example of its being used?

Mr. KEYES: Well, I got it, as the reviewer indicated, from a book called "Doublespeak Defined" by William Lutz, who made a practice of collecting these euphemisms, jargony ones and so forth.

CONAN: He also notes that you said you'd initially tried to differentiate euphemisms...

Mr. KEYES: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: ...from various other things like jargon and slang...

Mr. KEYES: Right.

CONAN: ...and things like that, and found you couldn't do it. And he said, it would have been useful if you had tried.

Mr. KEYES: Well, I did it first, but I define a euphemism as a word we use - I call it a comfort word, a word we use in place of words that make us uncomfortable. And often that can be slang. For example, I think soldiers rarely will say I killed someone. They will say, I waxed, I offed, I greased, I iced. Now, is that slang? Is that a euphemism?

CONAN: Well, it's not euphemism because it's being just as blunt and direct as killed.

Mr. KEYES: Not necessarily. I mean, I think it's a way of avoiding saying - I mean, killed is a very blunt term. I think, you know, waxed or offed or, you know, now we say I lit them up. Sometimes you can say I neutralized them. Those are much more bland words than killed.

CONAN: Let's go next to Harriet(ph), Harriet with us from Cincinnati.

HARRIET (Caller): Hi, this is very timely. Last night, my friend and I were talking with our 9-year-olds. And in her family, they have a saying, when you're playing a game, if you're winning that you're up a tree. And she never knew, she didn't know other people didn't use that saying. And her mother told her it came from her grandmother, who's from Austria. And I was wondering if you knew - if you had ever heard of it or knew where it came from?

CONAN: I'd heard if you are winning that you are sitting in the catbird seat. That's the old red barber expression.

Mr. KEYES: That's right.

CONAN: I've not heard up a tree in that contest.


Mr. KEYES: I've heard up a tree. I've heard up a creek with an extra word added sometimes. I assume they mean more...

CONAN: Without a paddle, I think that's the word you're...

Mr. KEYES: Yes.

HARRIET: Yes, right. Right.

Mr. KEYES: I think they mean - I assume they mean more or less the same thing.


CONAN: Or - well, anyway. Thanks very much for the call, Harriet.

HARRIET: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Tristan(ph). Cribbed from a book I enjoyed, the euphemism transcortical high velocity lead therapy, meaning to shoot someone in the head.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KEYES: New one on me.

CONAN: So that's like your bomb analogy there.

Mr. KEYES: Yes.

CONAN: This one from Carlos: Web 2.0 euphemism, he is 404, meaning clueless.

Mr. KEYES: Huh. I wonder what the genesis of that is.

CONAN: I have no idea. It is interesting that the genesis of euphemism, you traced back to the nurse of the muses?

Mr. KEYES: Yes, was named Eupheme. And in Greek, eu is good and pheme is speaking, so it was good speaking. She was a good-speaking person. And so when we speak good or speak well, we use euphemisms, as opposed to dysphemisms, which are insulting terms. And incidentally, blaspheme is the antonym of eupheme.

CONAN: Of eupheme, yes. I'm told, by the way, 404 is what comes up on the screen when the page is not found.

Mr. KEYES: I see.

CONAN: So...

Mr. KEYES: But, you know, going back to the - some of the earliest euphemisms, one of the earliest ones known is bear. Back in, you know, way olden days, in primitive times when, you know, you were living up close and personal with wild animals, bears, of course, were very, very scary animals, and so scary that we didn't even want to say their name. And in northern Europe, they began to call them first the bruins, which means the brown one, and then that converted into bear. And bear, of course, is the name word we use now for that animal, so much so that we don't even know what the original word was that bear euphemized.

CONAN: This email from Chris(ph). My family talks of dying as moving to Albuquerque - I'm not sure why, but it could be because we lived in New Mexico for so long. Moving to Albuquerque.

Mr. KEYES: I won't ask what that says about Albuquerque, a city I've always loved.

CONAN: Let's go to Heather(ph), Heather with us from Oakland.

HEATHER (Caller): Hi, yeah. Whenever I was like four years old, my mom went and said, you know, one day my dad took the dog to the vet, the old dog. And my mother told me very somberly that my dad had taken the dog -put the dog to sleep. I wasn't worried about it because my parents put me to sleep every night.

And so after a few days, my mom says - I kept asking my mom, where is the dog, where is the dog? My mom kept saying, dad had the dog put to sleep. And finally she - I said, but yeah, but when is he coming back?

She says, but the dog is dead. And I said, the dog is dead? Oh, no. Right now, I'm crying, right? And she finally realized that I didn't understand what she had meant by put the dog to sleep. Well, of course that night my - she said, yeah, go put the children to sleep and they made me say a prayer, and now I lay me down to sleep, hope to God I told to keep. If I die before I wake - and I started a bunch of (unintelligible) because my parents put me to sleep every night.

CONAN: I'm sure your psychiatrist has benefited handsomely from this, Heather, thank you.

HEATHER: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Also...

CONAN: Thanks very much for being with us, Ralph.

Mr. KEYES: Thank you.

CONAN: This is NPR News.

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