Blog about Don DeLillo’s novel The Names, which I read a few weeks ago and now only half remember

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A physical copy of Don DeLillo’s 1982 novel The Names is on a shelf a few steps away from me. Normally I’d pick it up and thumb through it before writing about it—or better yet, reread it before writing about it—or even better, simply not write about it at all. But none of that would be in the spirit of these Blog about posts.

The plot of The Names, such as I remember it, is something like this: the novel’s protagonist and narrator (whose name may or may not be named Nick—I don’t really remember) is an American operative of some kind who basically works for the CIA. This specific job description is never really clear to the American protagonist or anyone else in the novel. He moves to Greece to be closer to his wife, who has left him, and his son, a budding novelist of sorts (despite being like nine or ten), whom DeLillo based on Atticus Lish (son of Gordon Lish and now a superb novelist in his own right)  The protagonist’s estranged wife works an archaeological dig headed by an older dude named Owen (the protagonist’s son’s novel is Owen’s fictional biography). Owen, and later (or is it before—I can’t remember?!) the protagonist, encounter a weird language cult that performs ritualistic linguistic murders.

The Names’ great appeal is DeLillo’s riffs on language and meaning in a postmodern era. The language cult isn’t some socioculturally-realistic entity that draws the reader in, but rather an occasion for monologue. The novel is very much a monologue, no matter who is speaking. This may sound like a criticism as I now type it out (it does to me, anyway), but DeLillo’s monologue has a fun force to it. It’s sort of like a Derridean teledrama in novelistic form, all its pollyglossic intentions subsumed into a low dry clipped clever voice: DeLillo waxes on film; DeLillo waxes on pleasure; DeLillo waxes on Americanism; DeLillo waxes on expatriation; DeLillo waxes on globalism; DeLillo waxes on airports; DeLillo waxes on terrorism. A big takeaway from the novel for me was that DeLillo wrote his 9/11 novel two decades before the fact. No wonder he wrote Falling Man so quickly; he’d already thought through the problems.

I can’t really remember the linguistic system or philosophy or language critique in The Names, but I do remember the repetitions—the word name threads throughout, usually pointing toward a symbol, a referent, a landing strip. DeLillo also repeats the word recognition—which I take to simply be the power of name(s) (why would I use the adverb “simply” there?!). But the keyword isn’t name—I think the keyword of The Names is the world, a term that seems to refer to the absolute set of possibility (linguistic or otherwise) that Exist—a shifting, unstable, but nevertheless complete set that everyone must play within.

While its expatriation visions ring true, DeLillo doesn’t fully conjure the world in The Names, although that’s never his intention, I think. The whole affair is more oblique. Clipped is the word I used before—the novel is dry, witty, but resists being pegged as glib through its strangeness and humor.  I laughed a lot in The Names. What I think I like most though is the ending, which I still remember—I haven’t read everything by DeLillo, but I’ve read a lot, and I can’t think of another of his that sticks the ending so well. And he does it by borrowing. DeLillo cribs from the protagonist’s son’s novel—which is to say from a child’s novel—which is to say from a real child’s work, Atticus Lish’s stuff—and that cribbing is somehow the magic ingredient that makes the rest of his novel rise up. It’s a second voice (or hey, the idea of a second voice) in a monologue, and it makes a huge difference.

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Hell is the place we don’t know we’re in (Don DeLillo)

“Singh remarked to me once, his conspiratorial aspect, fixing those flat heavy eyes on me, ‘Hell is the place we don’t know we’re in.’ I wasn’t sure how to take the remark. Was he saying that he and I were in hell or that everyone else was? Everyone in rooms, houses, chairs with armrests. Is hell a lack of awareness? Once you know you’re there, is this your escape? Or is hell the one place in the world we don’t see for what it is, the one place we can never know? Is that what he meant? Is hell what we say to each other or what we can’t say, what is beyond our reach? The sentence defeated me. I was afraid of the desert but drawn to it, drawn to the contradiction. Men will come to fill this empty place. This place is empty in order that men may rush in to fill it.”

From Don DeLillo’s novel The Names.

“Slang in America,” an essay by Walt Whitman

“Slang in America”

by

Walt Whitman


View’d freely, the English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted composition of all. From this point of view, it stands for Language in the largest sense, and is really the greatest of studies. It involves so much; is indeed a sort of universal absorber, combiner, and conqueror. The scope of its etymologies is the scope not only of man and civilization, but the history of Nature in all departments, and of the organic Universe, brought up to date; for all are comprehended in words, and their backgrounds. This is when words become vitaliz’d, and stand for things, as they unerringly and soon come to do, in the mind that enters on their study with fitting spirit, grasp, and appreciation.

Slang, profoundly consider’d, is the lawless germinal element, below all words and sentences, and behind all poetry, and proves a certain perennial rankness and protestantism in speech. As the United States inherit by far their most precious possession—the language they talk and write—from the Old World, under and out of its feudal institutes, I will allow myself to borrow a simile even of those forms farthest removed from American Democracy. Considering Language then as some mighty potentate, into the majestic audience-hall of the monarch ever enters a personage like one of Shakspere’s clowns, and takes position there, and plays a part even in the stateliest ceremonies. Such is Slang, or indirection, an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably, which in highest walks produces poets and poems, and doubtless in pre-historic times gave the start to, and perfected, the whole immense tangle of the old mythologies. For, curious as it may appear, it is strictly the same impulse-source, the same thing. Slang, too, is the wholesome fermentation or eructation of those processes eternally active in language, by which froth and specks are thrown up, mostly to pass away; though occasionally to settle and permanently crystallize.

To make it plainer, it is certain that many of the oldest and solidest words we use, were originally generated from the daring and license of slang. In the processes of word-formation, myriads die, but here and there the attempt attracts superior meanings, becomes valuable and indispensable, and lives forever. Thus the term right means literally only straight. Wrong primarily meant twisted, distorted. Integrity meant oneness. Spirit meant breath, or flame. A supercilious person was one who rais’d his eyebrows. To insult was to leap against. If you influenced a man, you but flow’d into him. The Hebrew word which is translated prophesy meant to bubble up and pour forth as a fountain. The enthusiast bubbles up with the Spirit of God within him, and it pours forth from him like a fountain. The word prophecy is misunderstood. Many suppose that it is limited to mere prediction; that is but the lesser portion of prophecy. The greater work is to reveal God. Every true religious enthusiast is a prophet. Continue reading ““Slang in America,” an essay by Walt Whitman”

What if art is not communicative? | Ursula K. Le Guin

“Editorial. By the President of the Therolinguistics Association”

by

Ursula K. Le Guin

from

“The Author of the Acacia Seeds And Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics


What is Language?

This question, central to the science of therolinguistics, has been answered—heuristically—by the very existence of the science. Language is communication. That is the axiom on which all our theory and research rest, and from which all our discoveries derive; and the success of the discoveries testifies to the validity of the axiom. But to the related, yet not identical question, What is Art? we have not yet given a satisfactory answer.

Tolstoy, in the book whose title is that very question, answered it firmly and clearly: Art, too, is communication. This answer has, I believe, been accepted without examination or criticism by therolinguists. For example: Why do therolinguists study only animals?

Why, because plants do not communicate.

Plants do not communicate; that is a fact. Therefore plants have no language; very well; that follows from our basic axiom. Therefore, also, plants have no art. But stay! That does not follow from the basic axiom, but only from the unexamined Tolstoyan corollary.

What if art is not communicative?

Or, what if some art is communicative, and some art is not?

Ourselves animals, active, predators, we look (naturally enough) for an active, predatory, communicative art; and when we find it, we recognise it. The development of this power of recognition and the skills of appreciation is a recent and glorious achievement.

But I submit that, for all the tremendous advances made by therolinguistics during the last decades, we are only at the beginning of our age of discovery. We must not become slaves to our own axioms. We have not yet lifted our eyes to the vaster horizons before us. We have not faced the almost terrifying challenge of the Plant.

If a non-communicative, vegetative art exists, we must rethink the very elements of our science, and learn a whole new set of techniques.

For it is simply not possible to bring the critical and technical skills appropriate to the study of Weasel murder mysteries, or Batrachian erotica, or the tunnel sagas of the earthworm, to bear on the art of the redwood or the zucchini.

This is proved conclusively by the failure—a noble failure—of the efforts of Dr. Srivas, in Calcutta, using time-lapse photography, to produce a lexicon of Sunflower. His attempt was daring, but doomed to failure. For his approach was kinetic—a method appropriate to the communicative arts of the tortoise, the oyster, and the sloth. He saw the extreme slowness of the kinesis of plants, and only that, as the problem to be solved.

But the problem was far greater. The art he sought, if it exists, is a non-communicative art: and probably a non-kinetic one. It is possible that Time, the essential element, matrix, and measure of all known animal art, does not enter into vegetable art at all. The plants may use the meter of eternity. We do not know.

We do not know. All we can guess is that the putative Art of the Plant is entirely different from the Art of the Animal. What it is, we cannot say; we have not yet discovered it. Yet I predict with some certainty that it exists, and that when it is found it will prove to be, not an action, but a reaction: not a communication, but a reception. It will be exactly the opposite of the art we know and recognise. It will be the first passive art known to us.

Can we in fact know it? Can we ever understand it?

It will be immensely difficult. That is clear. But we should not despair. Remember that so late as the mid-twentieth century, most scientists, and many artists, did not believe that Dolphin would ever be comprehensible to the human brain—or worth comprehending! Let another century pass, and we may seem equally laughable. “Do you realise,” the phytolinguist will say to the aesthetic critic, “that they couldn’t even read Eggplant?” And they will smile at our ignorance, as they pick up their rucksacks and hike on up to read the newly deciphered lyrics of the lichen on the north face of Pike’s Peak.

And with them, or after them, may there not come that even bolder adventurer—the first geolinguist, who, ignoring the delicate, transient lyrics of the lichen, will read beneath it the still less communicative, still more passive, wholly atemporal, cold, volcanic poetry of the rocks: each one a word spoken, how long ago, by the earth itself, in the immense solitude, the immenser community, of space.

Words may be a thick and darksome veil | Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for May 19th, 1840

May 19th.–. . . Lights and shadows are continually flitting across my inward sky, and I know neither whence they come nor whither they go; nor do I inquire too closely into them. It is dangerous to look too minutely into such phenomena. It is apt to create a substance where at first there was a mere shadow. . . . If at any time there should seem to be an expression unintelligible from one soul to another, it is best not to strive to interpret it in earthly language, but wait for the soul to make itself understood; and, were we to wait a thousand years, we need deem it no more time than we can spare. . . . It is not that I have any love of mystery, but because I abhor it, and because I have often felt that words may be a thick and darksome veil of mystery between the soul and the truth which it seeks. Wretched were we, indeed, if we had no better means of communicating ourselves, no fairer garb in which to array our essential being, than these poor rags and tatters of Babel. Yet words are not without their use even for purposes of explanation,–but merely for explaining outward acts and all sorts of external things, leaving the soul’s life and action to explain itself in its own way.

What a misty disquisition I have scribbled! I would not read it over for sixpence.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for May 19th, 1840. From Passages from the American Note-Books.

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.

The sentence is itself an odyssey | William H. Gass analyzes a sentence from Joyce’s Ulysses

Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom have stopped at a cabman’s shelter, a small coffeehouse under the Loop Line Bridge, for a cuppa and a rest on their way home. And the hope that the coffee will sober Stephen up. After an appropriate period of such hospitality, Bloom sees that it is time to leave.

James Joyce. Ulysses, (1921).

To cut a long story short Bloom, grasping the situation, was the first to rise to his feet so as not to outstay their welcome having first and foremost, being as good as his word that he would foot the bill for the occasion, taken the wise precaution to unobtrusively motion to mine host as a parting shot a scarcely perceptible sign when the others were not looking to the effect that the amount due was forthcoming, making a grand total of fourpence (the amount he deposited unobtrusively in four coppers, literally the last of the Mohicans) he having previously spotted on the printed price list for all who ran to read opposite to him in unmistakable figures, coffee ad., confectionary do, and honestly well worth twice the money once in a way, as Wetherup used to remark.

Commonplaces     Narrative Events

1. to cut a long story short     authorial intervention

2. grasp the situation     subjective interpretation

3. rise to his feet     narrative action

4. don’t outstay your welcome     rationale or justification

5. first and foremost     subjective evaluation

6. good as his word     characterization

7. foot the bill promise, therefore     a prediction

8. take the wise precaution     subjective evaluation

9. mine host     authorial archness

10. parting shot     subjective evaluation

11. scarcely perceptible sign     narrative action

12. to the effect that     subjective interpretation

13. amount due is forthcoming     subjective interpretation

14. grand total     characterization

15. literally the last of the Mohicans     authorial intervention, allusion

16. previously spotted     subjective interpretation

17. all who run can read     authorial intervention, allusion

18. honestly (in this context)     subjective interpretation

19. well worth it     subjective interpretation

20. worth twice the money     subjective interpretation

21. once in a waysubjective     allusion

22. as [Wetherup] used to [remark] say     attribution

The sentence without its commonplaces:

To be brief, Bloom, realizing they should not stay longer, was the first to rise, and having prudently and discreetly signaled to their host that he would pay the bill, quietly left his last four pennies, a sum—most reasonable—he knew was due, having earlier seen the price of their coffee and confection clearly printed on the menu.

Bloom was the first to get up so that he might also be the first to motion (to the host) that the amount due was forthcoming.

The theme of the sentence is manners: Bloom rises so he and his companion will not have sat too long over their coffees and cake, and signals discreetly (unobtrusively is used twice) that he will pay the four pence due according to the menu. The sum, and the measure of his generosity, is a pittance.

The sentence is itself an odyssey, for Bloom and Dedalus are going home. They stop (by my count) at twenty-two commonplaces on their way. Other passages might also be considered for the list, such as “when others were not looking.” Commonplaces are the goose down of good manners. They are remarks empty of content, hence never offensive; they conceal hypocrisy in an acceptable way, because, since they have no meaning in themselves anymore they cannot be deceptive. That is, we know what they mean (“how are you?”), but they do not mean what they say (I really don’t want to know how you are). Yet they soothe and are expected. We have long forgotten that “to foot the bill,” for instance, is to pay the sum at the bottom of it, though it could mean to kick a bird in the face. Bloom, we should hope, is already well above his feet when he rises to them. The principal advantage of the commonplace is that it is supremely self-effacing. It so lacks originality that it has no source. The person who utters a commonplace—to cut a long explanation short—has shifted into neutral.

From William H. Gass’s essay “Narrative Sentences.” Collected in Life Sentences.

A review of Gordon Lish’s novel (spokening) Cess

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-What is the book about?

-Language.

-I mean, like, what’s the plot?

-Okay. I’ll try. The narrator is Gordon Lish—a version of Gordon Lish, of course (Gordon!), who tells us about a cryptographic “test” his aunt, an agent for the National Reconnaissance Office, sent him in 1963.

-Why did she send him this test?

-Poor Gordon was jobless and had a wife and kids to support and-

-You mean his kid the novelist Atticus Lish?

-Please don’t interrupt; no, these, these are other kids; Atticus comes later, but Lish does write about him in Cess. Anyway-

-What does he say about Atticus?

-He writes that “Atticus is, a, you know, a writer by Christ—is a novelist, by Christ, is indeed, if I, by Keerist, may say so myself, ever so proudly so, ever so rivalrously so, a novelist of nothing less than of rank.” Okay?

-Okay.

-So: The narrator gets this “test” from his aunt and-

-What does it look like? What is it?

-It’s a long list of esoteric words.

-May I see?

-It’s a pretty long list.

-How long?

-About 170 pages, about 22 words per page.

-May I see a section then?

-Sure:

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-Whoa!

-That’s what I thought too! In fact, I first got a digital copy from publisher OR—so I was just reading, you know, on an iPad—which is, I mean, if you can imagine, I wasn’t doing the flicking through thing, the physical browsing thing—so I had no idea that there would be this big long list of words as like, the main course. I was shocked. It was electric. Continue reading “A review of Gordon Lish’s novel (spokening) Cess”

Struggle (Wittgenstein)

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From Culture and Value.

Words is oh such a twitch-tickling problem to me all my life (Roald Dahl’s The BFG)

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“Dictionary” — Ambrose Bierce

Dictionary

(From The Devil’s Dictionary, of course).

Another paradox (David Foster Wallace)

This is another paradox, that many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person’s life are ones that flash through your head so fast that fast isn’t even the right word, they seem totally different from or outside of the regular sequential clock time we all live by, and they have so little relation to the sort of linear, one-word-after-another-word English we all communicate with each other with that it could easily take a whole lifetime just to spell out the contents of one split-second’s flash of thoughts and connections, etc. — and yet we all seem to go around trying to use English (or whatever language our native country happens to use, it goes without saying) to try to convey to other people what we’re thinking and to find out what they’re thinking, when in fact deep down everybody knows it’s a charade and they’re just going through the motions. What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant. The internal head-speed or whatever of these ideas, memories, realizations, emotions and so on is even faster, by the way — exponentially faster, unimaginably faster — when you’re dying, meaning during that vanishingly tiny nanosecond between when you technically die and when the next thing happens, so that in reality the cliché about people’s whole life flashing before their eyes as they’re dying isn’t all that far off — although the whole life here isn’t really a sequential thing where first you’re born and then you’re in the crib and then you’re up at the plate in Legion ball, etc., which it turns out that that’s what people usually mean when they say ‘my whole life,’ meaning a discrete, chronological series of moments that they add up and call their lifetime. It’s not really like that. The best way I can think of to try to say it is that it all happens at once, but that at once doesn’t really mean a finite moment of sequential time the way we think of time while we’re alive, plus that what turns out to be the meaning of the term my life isn’t even close to what we think we’re talking about when we say ‘my life.’ Words and chronological time create all these total misunderstandings of what’s really going on at the most basic level. And yet at the same time English is all we have to try to understand it and try to form anything larger or more meaningful and true with anybody else, which is yet another paradox.

From David Foster Wallace’s short story “Good Old Neon,” collected in Oblivion.

I read “Good Old Neon” first back when Oblivion came out in hardback. It was good then, but it seemed more poignant and deeper after Wallace’s suicide. I reread it again last night, and I’m convinced it’s his finest discrete piece, and rivals some of the strongest sections of Infinite Jest and The Pale King. Anyway, I encourage doubters to check it out if they haven’t read it.

I’ll close by suggesting that in some way I think the story works through an idea from Ludwig Wittgenstein:

Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in the way in which our visual field has no limits. (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.4311).

A Complete Clustercuss (Fantastic Mr. Fox)

Walt Whitman, Unsurprisingly, Was Not a Prescriptive Grammarian

More from Walt Whitman’s essay “Slang in America”:

Language, be it remember’d, is not an abstract construction of the learn’d, or of dictionary-makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground. Its final decisions are made by the masses, people nearest the concrete, having most to do with actual land and sea. It impermeates all, the Past as well as the Present, and is the grandest triumph of the human intellect.

“The Unswerving Punctuality of Chance” (And Other Citations from William Gaddis’s Novel JR)

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In JR, the sprawling novel of capitalism and art by William Gaddis, Jack Gibbs loads his pockets with crumpled newspaper clippings, racing forms, and citations for a book he’s working on. “More trash,” he mutters about this list (which appears on page 486 of my Penguin Twentieth Century Classics Edition).

Gordon Lish on Beckett’s Boils and Other Matters of Literary Import

Hey. Do yourself a favor and listen to Iambik’s first podcast, a raucous, rambling conversation with legendary editor/short story author Gordon Lish. I finally got around to listening to the discussion between Lish and his publisher John Oakes. (Why the delay? I’ve been listening to and very much enjoying another Iambik recording, an audiobook of Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, and I needed to get to a decent stopping place before the Lish (review of the Millet forthcoming)) . I had already listened to Lish reading a selection of his own stories which was nine kinds of awesome (thanks again to the good folks at Iambik, whose hooking me up with the sweet mp3age has in no way affected my fondness for their operation (review of the Lish selections forthcoming)).

Hearing Lish in this conversational, easy manner is revelatory. Wise and funny, erudite and crafty, you’ll learn something and be entertained:

Iambikcast #1a (mp3)
Iambikcast #1b (mp3)

What does he talk about? I’ll crib from Iambikist Miette’s write-up, which hardly sums it up but does a nice job of surveying the discussion–

In the first part of the conversation, Lish covers Beckett’s boils and other afflictions of our literary heroes, remembrances of Neal Cassady, and the writer as witch doctor.

The second part focuses on Lish’s (as always, uncensored) assertions on the state of contemporary American letters, in which we’re imparted with opinions on Allen Ginsberg and Philip Roth, achieving religious experience through DeLillo, the finer points of book blurbing, and encouraging the further crimes of Tao Lin.

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.