Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Euphemisms: When Good Words Go Bad

A euphemism is a nice way of saying something not so nice.  The problem with euphemisms is that the more successful they are, the more likely they are to take on the not so nice meaning of the thing they're trying to be nice about.  Once this reversal happens, they transition from a euphemism to a synonym and a new euphemism must be created.  It's an interesting quirk of language that a word or phrase can be intended to mean one thing and then become so popular that it comes to mean something entirely different.

One example is the phrase "making love".  The original meaning of the phrase was exactly what it sounds like, creating love.  In other words, flirting.  If you were wooing someone you might send them love letters, make them fancy meals and generally put in lots of effort to create love.  This is a beautiful and somewhat innocent idea.  Which is exactly why it makes such a great euphemism.  Back in olden tymes one could have said "Ebeneezer and I were 'making love'", implying that you were in the process of forming a relationship when really the only thing you were forming was the beast with two backs.

The problem with this euphemism is that it's too good.  Everyone started using it and that was its downfall.  By becoming so successful the phrase grew more popular and consequently more people started to catch on.  It got to the point where today "making love" only means "having sex" and has completely lost its original meaning.

This isn't specific to this one phrase.  Almost every successful euphemism faces this burden because by becoming successful it means that people use it and if people use it then they know what it means and consequently its meaning changes to what people are actually using it for (as opposed to its original meaning).  There's even a a phrase to describe this phenomenon: The Euphemism Treadmill.

Another great example is the word "retarded".  The verb retard means to make slow or to delay.  It was, at one point, a gentle way of describing a mental deficiency.  In fact it's very elegant.  It didn't mean that a person was incapable of anything, merely that they could arrive at the same place as everyone else, it just took them a little longer because they were slowed.  In essence, something was delaying their progress not impeding their completion.  I think this is a lovely way of describing a phenomenon, but alas so did a lot of people.  And once again, that was the problem.  When everyone started to use "retarded" in this way it took on a negative connotation.  As with other euphemisms, it's gotten to the point today where most people think of the insulting definition first and the slowed definition second (if at all).

I think there are a lot of people who see language as static; that a word means something which can never change; that there is a correct usage which cannot grow or evolve.  Euphemisms are one example that clearly show how languages are affected by the way that they are used. I think it is this feature of language, that they alter and self-correct over time to better reflect the people that use them to communicate, that makes language and etymology so interesting.

1 comment:

  1. I can't stand "making love", either. It's so treacly sweet that it makes me nauseated.

    Another euphemism for "having sex" that's even worse to me is "sleep with". NO. People don't get into bed in order to SNORE together. People should say what they mean and not use this mealy-mouthed euphemism. There's nothing wrong with "have sex with". It's not vulgar and it doesn't give too much information. "Sleep with" just makes me roll my eyes.