Indirect Speech

Words fascinate me.  People’s reactions to them fascinate me even more.  Some people react so harshly to certain words or phrases that they use euphemisms to help them feel better about what’s been said.

A euphemism is essentially the substitution of a mild, indirect, or vague expression for one that might be seen as offensive, harsh, or blunt.  According to Wikipedia, the word stems from the Greek word euphemia, which means “the use of words of good omen”.

There are over 300 million people who speak English as their native language.  With that many people, it’s not surprising that euphemisms are abundant in our culture.  What did surprise me was discovering just how many different types there are, and that we all use them from time to time.  Wikipedia shows the various types to be:

  • Abstractions and ambiguities – passing away for “death”, or do it for “intercourse”
  • Indirections – unmentionables, privates, go to the bathroom, etc
  • Mispronunciation – goldarnit, dadgummit, efing, be-otch, shoot
  • Litotes or reserved understatement – not exactly thin instead of “fat”, or not completely truthful for “lied”
  • Changing nouns to modifiers – …makes her look slutty rather than “…is a slut”, right-wing element for “Right Wing”
  • Personal names – such as John Thomas or Willy for male genitalia, or Fanny (in British English) for female genitalia
  • Slang – pot for “cannabis”, laid for “having sex”

Some of these have been in our language for so long, it’s like we were PC before that term ever entered our vocabulary.

Personally, I’m a fan of saying it like it is.  I don’t use phrases like “tinkle” or “powder my nose” when I have to do a function so natural in this world that every living creature does it.  However, in that last sentence I exhibited a euphemism because I didn’t want to offend anyone reading this blog.  Even if I hadn’t written the phrases in quotes, chances are you still would have known what I was describing in the roundabout way I did it.  Euphemisms like that one can take more time to get the point across, but they can also be very useful when writing a book or article.

They can help to describe a character’s personality without you ever having to spell it out.  If you had a character that always used mispronunciation (as described above) when swearing, a reader would be able to discern that said character thinks swearing is a sin, or was at least taught not to swear.  Someone who always uses abstractions to describe the death of a loved one could let us know that they’re still dealing with that death, and that maybe there’s some residual pain left from it.

While I don’t always like euphemisms – and even sometimes think they’re rather silly – the research I’ve done about them recently has shown me that they are incredibly useful in our language, and in society.  While I’m certain there are people in this world who set out to intentionally offend or hurt someone with their words, by and large, I think most of us don’t intend to use words that will upset others.  It’s just that, with over 300 million of us speaking the language (more, if you count those who speak it as a second language), there’s no way to gauge how any one of us will feel about a given word or turn of phrase.  So, while the synonyms for euphemism are “floridness”, “grandiloquence”, “pomposity”, or “pretense”, I prefer to think of them as a “nice way of saying something”.

Yep, another euphemism.


10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Craig
    May 06, 2011 @ 10:04:14

    I’ve noticed that euphemisms can be self-perpetuating. Many of them are used because the direct word might be considered offensive, or even censored or forbidden by law or policies. Since we can’t use the words, we use the euphemisms, thereby increasing the shock of the original words because we don’t hear them often. If we just used the original words more often, we would take them for what they are, rather than cursing or offensive. They would be commonplace and wouldn’t have as much power. Then we wouldn’t have to use a substitution.


    • Alyx Morgan
      May 06, 2011 @ 10:12:04

      A very interesting insight. I know that I grew up in a family where swearing was as commonplace as saying colors, so there isn’t a swear word that offends me. However, I become very offended when I hear racial slurs, which might not offend someone in whose home they were frequently used.

      It all comes back to perspective, doesn’t it?

      Thanks for posting today, hon.


  2. Dana
    May 06, 2011 @ 13:34:24

    I love the English language… nothing to add other than I really enjoyed the post!


  3. Mom
    May 06, 2011 @ 16:58:53

    I believe words are power, so, of course I prefer the: “the use of words of good omen”. I am not only a euphemism user, I’ve created a few for my own comfort/harmony. ;} LOVES ;;)


  4. Donnell Bell
    May 06, 2011 @ 22:56:47

    Alyx, fascinating blog. I’m with you many euphemisms are silly. Something that comes to mind is when my kids were little. I called their body parts by anatomical name. There wasn’t a wee wee in sight 😉 The other names you refer to be otch etc. are slurs, aren’t they? I refrain from going that far. I just don’t say it.


    • Alyx Morgan
      May 07, 2011 @ 23:25:52

      LOL Yeah, calling it a wee wee is just plain weird, in my opinion. I’ve never used be otch myself. At least, I don’t remember having done so. But, I read that women say something like, what 20,000 words a day? If that’s true, it’s entirely possible that I’ve uttered the word at some point.

      Thanks for stopping by.


  5. E. B. Davis
    May 09, 2011 @ 13:50:51

    If I’d use euphemisms in my writing, it would have to be in the dialogue of a weeny type of character. I’m a fairly direct person and don’t use euphemisms, but I know people who do, and usually they are such sensitive people you can barely understand what they are trying not to say. So, I’d use euphemisms, but only as a way of characterization. Fun post Alyx!


    • Alyx Morgan
      May 09, 2011 @ 14:57:09

      Glad you enjoyed it, EB. 🙂 I agree, direct is the best way to handle things . . . it leaves less room for ambiguity. But it’s definitely a good characterization tool.

      Thanks for stopping by!


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