Every Man His Own Euphemist
THERE never was a greater fallacy, as there never was a more famous one, than that of Shakespeare : —
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
For part of the rose’s sweetness is its long lineage of other roses, with rings and rhymes and moonlight and fair women. Calling a rose a cowslip or a cabbage would so alter the suggestions as to destroy the imaginative pleasure which the actual smell merely serves to call into being.
It must be by a converse reasoning upon this principle that many people speak of their own cabbages as if they were roses. So much does aristocratic association count for! Calling the spade a spade is no such simple matter, — our own spade. If one only chooses with a judicious regard for fineness the phrases in which he speaks of his life, how its dull gray commonplaceness grows opalbright! Even one’s miseries afford a doleful pleasure, when they are mentioned respectfully. A man may belong to the class of Blunt Truth-tellers upon all other subjects; but show me the man, much less the woman, who, in speaking conversationally of his own possessions or his own business or his own ailments, does not by the same token pick and choose his way with the punctilious daintiness of a lady on a muddy crosswalk, and you have found the hundredth man and a woman in a thousand. For there is an endearing intimacy about our own affairs that excuses their pettiness and glorifies their shabbiness. They are ours, to us all-important, however insignificant to others; and it is by a natural and pardonable impulse that we treat them tenderly.
This euphemy of one’s affairs is nothing so gross as exaggeration; it is rather a nice choice of terms, a conveyance of the exact shade of sentiment felt. There is a whole vocabulary of euphemism in common use, — a currency of conversation, depreciated to be sure, but at a well-understood ratio, so that nobody is deceived, and its use is hardly at all re stricted. Many men and most women, without falsifying by a hair’s breadth, yet manage by some subtle and delicate art to give the impression that theirs is an enviable lot. In this vocabulary a man’s unpretentious house-and-lot, incidentally mortgaged, becomes a “place,” and his back yard a “garden,” while his “lawns” and his “grounds” are invariably plural. In like manner he refers to his “piazzas,” or even, if sufficiently versed in the demands of the hour on such matters, to his “terrace,” or his “loggia,” or his“ summer-room.” Such a common affair as the “stoop” or “porch” has long since been relegated to the farmhouses of our forefathers and the dialect stories. Why is it that one no longer hears of “folks” or of “sittingrooms”? It is among the possibilities that some of these good old terms have been cast upon the rubbish-heap of vulgarities of speech that all good Americans are striving to avoid.
The euphemistic temperament, indeed, decorates all its pathway with the little flowers of speech. I know a charming woman who is so much an artist in this kind, that, not by her words alone, but by expressive tones, glances, gestures, the most humbly commonplace experience is tinged by her in the telling with the glamour of romantic adventure. It is a gift that places her somewhat uneventful and inconspicuous life upon the plane of glory, in her own thoughts: and I am not sure but that it gives her friends as much pleasure as it does herself.
A colloquy between the Euphemist and the Blunt Truth-teller is always productive of interesting contrasts. The Euphemist. patiently modifies his vocabulary to meet the statistical intelligence of his audience, gently conceding this and that to the narrow spirit of exactitude, but preserving to the last the deliberate kindliness and sunny self-content of his class; while the other, more in anger than in pain at the laxity of conscience which can permit such verbal indulgences, speaks a truth more and more unvarnished in tones ever more acidly uncompromising.
A phase of euphemy by no means least amusing to the interested observer, is the art by which these pleasant effects are produced. The tricks vary according to the impressionability of the hearer and the tact of the speaker. A fondly derogatory air, like that with which one mentions a favorite and spoiled child, or the tone in which the incorrigible New Yorker talks of his “little old town,” suggests much, but is somewhat of the too obvious. A more certain and at the same time more delicate method is the clever use of chiaroscuro, placing the undeniably-to-be-praised in the high lights, and letting the questionable slip back into the shadowy spaces. Vagueness hath its uses, too; the mild mystery, the avoidance of detail, the immeasurable epithet, convey a foggy sense of bigness.
Men as a rule speak euphemistically of their affairs of business, women of their affaires de coeur. But in what touches personal vanity we are all euphemists alike. We prefer not even to think of ourselves as growing fat, or bald, or elderly; so we turn the mirror at a flattering angle, put pink shades on the candles, and drape the distasteful facts in tissues of goodly words.
After all, this euphemism is no mere matter of words, but of the soul, — a kind of optimism. It is a feeling, a sentiment rather, that springs from heart to lips. What we love, that we would speak well of. Fortunately for us, it is the beauty and peace and the joys of home that we recall in absence, and not its shabbiness or its monotony or its family jars. The fittest survives in Memory, as in Natural History. We recall our happiness, not as a confused whole, checkered with petty annoyances and marred with the inevitable imperfections of the finite, but as an emotion simple and clear. Not the pleasure itself do we remember, but a gracious Symbol that suggests the flitted form of Joy herself. What wonder that we euphemize ?