On Not Calling a Spade a Spade

IF it is one’s fate to die in America one may hope to enjoy the privilege of being buried by a mortician. Not for nothing will one’s mortal coils have been shuffled off; death will have brought its own consolations. For however unnoticed one was in life, however ill attended, one may feel sure at least of being ushered to oblivion with fine words. And fine words of a satisfyingly up-to-date appearance: not the musty suggestiveness of an antique terminology, but the brisk and efficient language of the specialist — not pompes funèbres, but, as I have said, the mortician. I confess that, not being philologically squeamish, I rather like this modernity of expression. It reminds me of Jean Cocteau’s version of the Orpheus legend, in which the Angel of Death comes to Eurydice in the guise of a hospital nurse, capped, aproned, and rubber-gloved.

And one wil certainly be lowered into American soil, not in a vulgar coffin, but in a casket. This adaptation of the word is no doubt an improvement on the part of some progressive and ingratiating mortician. He may even have referred to my own particular dictionary, which says of the word ‘casket’: ‘small box, often of costly make, for valuables.’

What is the cause of this liking that we all have for euphemism? Must we dismiss it as mere word-snobbishness? Must we accuse the poor undertaker — or rather, the rich undertaker — of choosing another name because he, too, wants his share of nominal importance? Must we confess that we do not care to call a spade a spade because something else sounds grander? Or is this tendency to call things by fine names no more than a symbol of man’s willingness not only to be reconciled to his fate but to make a virtue of necessity? Or, again, is it something in even the most matter-of-fact and unsuperstitious of us that would have us be on the safe side of things, that would have us, whenever possible, placate the hostile powers?

Perhaps it is all three. None of us is so strong and so wise but he harbors in him a patch of soil fertile for the sprouts of foolishness. Ever since the Black Sea was called Euxine, or ‘ kind to the stranger,’ on account of its extreme inhospitality, ever since the Cape of Good Hope was so named, apparently because there was so little hope of rounding it, ever since Good Friday was called Good Friday, because it commemorates the worst of Fridays — ever since homo sapiens has existed and called himself sapient, he has fortified himself with the Dutch courage of palliative expressions, approached danger and unpleasantness with a diplomatic language, and sought to flatter that heartless Moloch who waits impatiently but knows that, at last he will swallow up each of us.

It is common in Egypt for wise men to enchant cobras by uttering the melodious names of Allah; but it is still commoner for hard-headed men of the West to bemuse themselves and each other with verbal incantations. Politicians and publicists, to cast their spells, continue to rely on the force of vacuous words; and the day is not long past, in Europe at least, when doctors were witch doctors who baffled and amazed their innocent patients with great words ill digested from the Greek. Indeed, if doctors no longer practise this facile art of verbosity, at least the maker of patent foods and medicines has clung to his ancient tradition, for he well knows that, almost anything can be sold for almost any purpose as long as he affirms that it is hygienic, prophylactic, antiseptic, vitaminous, or rich in hormones.

Why, then, say that things are what they are? Why call them by their least complicated names? Why not acknowledge the infinite riches of language and its power to make life more acceptable? In this vale of tears we all have need of charms, mysteries, symbols, poetry. Let us therefore continue to tickle Destiny and ourselves with all the sweetness of speech.