By Mark Herman

Euphemisms are acceptable words substituted for those that, for some reason, are unacceptable. Logically, they should not exist. If the meaning stays the same, why should it matter which words are used to convey it? But language is not logical.

Of course, the meaning may not be the same. In which case the words are not a euphemism but a lie, which becomes a euphemism once the deception is discovered. An obvious example is “enhanced interrogation technique,” once a lie but now a euphemism for “torture.”

Many English euphemisms are collected in A. W. Holder’s Dictionary of Euphemisms (Oxford University Press, 1995). Here are some of my favorites from the “A” section:

AMW: a prostitute (from “actress-model-whatever”)

ableism: insensitivity to lame or injured people

acorn academy: an institution for lunatics

aerated: drunk

alienate: steal

ample: fat

Interestingly, Holder gives euphemisms for “torture,” including “appropriate technology” and “aversion therapy.”

Holder is British, and most Americans would probably consider “aversion therapy” to be an ordinary non-euphemistic term, referring to any procedure, usually not torture, to induce people to stop doing something. (For example, placing a picture of a diseased lung on the door of a cabinet that a smoker would have to open to retrieve cigarettes.)

Two other phrases that Holder considers to be euphemisms but which startled at least this American are “African-American” and “attention deficit disorder.”

Translators must sometimes deal with euphemisms. A word that should be non-controversial can require a euphemism, or at least a restatement of its meaning by other words, because it sounds too much like a controversial word. This problem arises when translating Le médecin malgré lui / The Doctor in Spite of Himself, a 1666 French prose farce by Molière turned into a comic operetta by composer Charles Gounod in 1858. The protagonist Sganarelle is a fagotier. That is, he cuts and binds fagots, bundles of sticks tied together to be used as firewood. The word is etymologically related to “fasces,” a bundle of rods bound together around an ax that was used as an emblem of authority in ancient Rome, from whence is derived the word “fascism.” Unfortunately, “fagot” is a homonym for “faggot,” a disparaging slang term for a male homosexual. Therefore, although a Victorian translation uses “fagots” freely, a contemporary translation cannot. Rather than specifically “bind fagots,” Sganarelle must more generally and even erroneously “cut wood.” This is erroneous because fagotiers were in fact forbidden to cut wood from trees; they could only collect, cut, and bind fallen branches.

Translators may also have to explain a euphemism in the source text. An example can again be found in Le médecin malgré lui, in which a cuckolded husband is signified by euphemisms, including his having a wounded forehead, that is, one bearing a cuckold’s horns. Modern audiences are unlikely to understand this without further explanation. The obvious solution–inserting the word “cuckold”–is not possible because the word does not fit easily into Gounod’s music. We “solved” the problem by adding a footnote, asking the soprano to communicate the meaning visually by holding up two fingers to her forehead–the sign for the horns of a cuckold, and presumably comprehensible to at least some members of the audience.

Euphemisms abound whenever a taboo subject is discussed. Two such subjects are excretory functions and sex. A standard euphemism long employed in sung lyrics, both classical and popular, is “love,” when what is meant is lust and sex. Cole Porter (1891-1964) famously satirized this use of “love” in his 1928 song “Let’s Do It.” In Porter’s song, various humans and other creatures “do it,” and “it” is specified as “falling in love.” However, Porter’s true subject is made clear by what happens as a result of doing “it”: among other things, “it” shocks electric eels and produces Siamese twins.


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