This morning I was vaguely encouraged, for no good reason, to read in The Age that 1 October is the International Day of Older Persons.
When I informed my beloved of this, she snorted and enquired as to why they didn’t just call it the International Day of Old People. This set me thinking about euphemisms and their continued popularity. Maybe we could have an International Day of Euphemisms. The difficulty is that these circumlocutions seem to be popular year-round.
Body parts seem to provide a rich source of euphemisms. I was reminded of an old one a few days ago, when my exercise physiologist asked me if I was feeling a stretch in the lower part of my back. Thinking of the antique phrase “lower back”, I asked if she meant my bottom. (She didn’t.) The backside is also referred to in polite circles as the BTM. (Modern American parlance refers to the “butt” — itself also a euphemism, and something that seems to have displaced “bum”.) The nether regions seem particularly to attract euphemisms, “down there” being a sort of catch-all phrase that springs to mind. When considering the business end of the BTM, the “Khyber Pass” (usually abbreviated to “the Khyber”) is one of a large group of euphemisms employing rhyming slang.
Everyone will have their favourite euphemism. The motoring industry has provided a few good ones. One from yesteryear, also qualifying as an oxymoron, was “compulsory option”. (This was a way of allowing a manufacturer to price a car under a particular price point, by “disallowing” a particular feature that purchasers had to pay for separately.) Others that come to mind: “budget” (poverty pack), “detuned” (gutless), “economy” (couldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding), “family” (a boring barge), and “reliable” (whitegoods on wheels).
Euphemisms are a peculiar sub-branch of language because they are a way to refer to something without actually naming what you are referring to. I generally disapprove of euphemisms because I feel they blunt meaning — this being, obviously, their purpose in life. (At least the ones using rhyming slang are a bit witty.) When pondering this topic I thought “Wouldn’t it be great to compile a dictionary of slang?”. A quick Google search revealed that, as often, I am late to the party. Several quite august publishers such as university presses have brought out dictionaries of euphemisms. One example is R W Holder’s now rather venerable A dictionary of euphemisms, published by Oxford University Press. (No, I’m not going to give you publication dates — the thing has gone through more editions than I’ve had hot dinners.) There are numerous lists of euphemisms on the internet, too, of which this one at Lynn Schneider Books has some quite funny examples.
Slang seems to go the other way to euphemisms in finding a zingy and forceful way to refer to things. An earlier post in this august publication, Partridge in a pear tree, listed some of the slang expressions for the male generative organ. (Warning: adult content.)