There are a number of difficulties with dirty words, the first of which is that there aren’t nearly enough of them (William H. Gass)

There are a number of difficulties with dirty words, the first of which is that there aren’t nearly enough of them; the second is that the people who use them are normally numskulls and prudes; the third is that in general they’re not at all sexy, and the main reason for this is that no one loves them enough. Contrary to those romantic myths which glorify the speech of mountain men and working people, Irish elves and Phoenician sailors, the words which in our language are worst off are the ones which the worst-off use. Poverty and isolation produce impoverished and isolated minds, small vocabularies, a real but fickle passion for slang, most of which is like the stuff which Woolworths sells for ashtrays, words swung at random, wildly, as though one were clubbing rats, or words misused in an honest but hopeless attempt to make do, like attacking tins with toothpicks; there is a dominance of cliché and verbal stereotype, an abundance of expletives and stammer words: you know, man, like wow! neat, fabulous, far-out, sensaysh. I am firmly of the opinion that people who can’t speak have nothing to say. It’s one more thing we do to the poor, the deprived: cut out their tongues . . . allow them a language as lousy as their lives.

Thin in content, few in number, constantly abused: what chance do the unspeakables have? Change is resisted fiercely, additions are denied. I have introduced ‘squeer,’ ‘crott,’ ‘kotswinkling,’ and ‘papdapper,’ with no success. Sometimes obvious substitutes, like ‘socksucker,’ catch on, but not for long. What we need, of course, is a language which will allow us to distinguish the normal or routine fuck from the glorious, the rare, or the lousy one—a fack from a fick, a fick from a fock—but we have more names for parts of horses than we have for kinds of kisses, and our earthy words are all . . . well . . . ‘dirty.’ It says something dirty about us, no doubt, because in a society which had a mind for the body and other similarly vital things, there would be a word for coming down, or going up, words for nibbles on the bias, earlobe loving, and every variety of tongue track. After all, how many kinds of birds do we distinguish?

We have a name for the Second Coming but none for a second coming. In fact our entire vocabulary for states of consciousness is critically impoverished.

From William H. Gass’s On Being Blue.

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Euphemania — Ralph Keyes


In his new book Euphemania, a cultural history of euphemisms, Ralph Keyes takes a frank and often bawdy look at why we use euphemisms in social and political discourse, even when such evasions can degrade communication. “We all rely on euphemisms to tiptoe around what makes us uneasy, and have done so for most of recorded history,” writes Keyes, adding that “Euphemisms are a function of their times.” As such, Euphemania surveys different euphemisms throughout different cultures and times, from ancient Greece to the Roman republic, to Shakespeare’s England and the Victorian era (a treasure trove of euphemisms), to our modern age–which Keyes argues is not nearly as frank and open as we might like to think; indeed, one of his most intriguing arguments points out that modern discourse has simply opened up more topics to euphemism, including medicine, politics, and advertising.

Keyes doesn’t intend his book to be a straightforward history or dictionary of euphemisms; rather, he writes “it’s a consideration of the ways euphemisms enter our conversations and how they reflect their time and place. Euphemizing most often results from an excess of politeness and prudery, but it can also demonstrate creativity and high good humor.” Although Keyes always has a keen eye on the prudish mores of which ever age he’s discussing, he balances this analysis with plenty of humorous examples. His tone is fun and earthy, drawing examples from literature, film, TV, advertising, and political rhetoric. Between discussions of the Bowdlerization of Shakespeare, W.C. Fields’s difficulties with censors, or dialog from The Wire, Keyes also holds forth on the strange etymologies of our words. The root of the word bear (the mammal, not the verb) simply means “brown” or “the brown one” — the word bear is an unexpected euphemism, a refusal to name a lethal wild animal. Such examples can often magnify one’s awareness of how indebted our language is to euphemisms. Even when we reach for one of those Latinate technical words, we’ve really just picked up another culture’s euphemism. Our medical standby penis, for example, comes from the Latin word for “tail.” Vagina was a Roman synonym too–it means “sheath” or “scabbard.”

Euphemania is best when Keyes is riffing on naughty bits like these–or sex, or excretions, or violence, or all those things we’d like to otherwise gloss over. Most readers will likely gravitate to chapters like “Anatomy Class” or “Speaking of Sex.” Although Keyes is never dull (if anything, he’s at times too effervescent), his book is less convincing when discussing why we use euphemisms, simply because, at least to this reader, the answers are so obvious–euphemisms are part of the intrinsic codes of our culture. They make it easier to discuss unpleasant things; they build a sense of shared knowledge; they alleviate anxieties of race, place, and gender. At the same time, the cost of euphemisms–particularly in contemporary political discourse–can be astounding, leading to the evasion or outright denial of dramatic problems. Keyes doesn’t offer a pat solution to this problem, which is really better, if one thinks about it, because after all, wouldn’t an overly simplified, self-satisfied answer be just another dodge, another evasion, another euphemism? Good stuff.

Euphemania is new in hardback from Hatchette/Little, Brown and Company.