The E Word

"We are not at war with Egypt. We are in a state of armed conflict."-- ANTHONY EDEN DURING THE SUEZ CRISIS, 1956


DRIVING along a highway in southern New Mexico not long ago, I came within the gravitational pull of a truck stop, and was ineluctably drawn in. This was not one of those mom-and-pop "truck stops," so prevalent in the East, where cars outnumber semis and the restaurant has a children's menu. This was the real thing, lit up in the desert darkness like an outpost in Mad Max, visible from six counties. Cars in the parking lot looked like Piper Cubs at O'Hare. It was the kind of place where tough men sit at the counter and call the waitress "doll," which she likes, and order flesh and starch while they smoke, leaning over the counter, a crescent of lower back visible between pants and shirt. Outside, their mounts hungrily lap up petrochemicals.

In a truck stop such as this the aesthetic pinnacle is typically reached in the design of the men's-room condom dispenser, and here I was not disappointed. Taking up nearly one full wall was a kind of Ghent Altarpiece of prophylaxis, each glass panel displaying its own delicately crafted vignette: a yellow sunset through palm trees, a couple strolling lazily along a beach, a herd of galloping white stallions, a flaxen-haired succubus in gauzy silhouette -- exquisite examples of late-novecento venereal iconography.

Above it hung a sign saying FAMILY PLANNING CENTER.

. . .

Robert Burchfield, for many years the editor of once observed that "a language without euphemisms would be a defective instrument of communication." By this criterion, at least, contemporary American English cannot be judged defective. All epochs, of course, have employed euphemisms both to downplay and to amplify: to camouflage the forbidden, to dress up the unseemly and the unpleasant, and, like Chaucer's Wife of Bath, to find genteel expression for some earthy fun. Some periods have specialized. The eighteenth century is famous as a time of inventive sexual innuendo and political circumlocution (consult almost any passage in ). The Victorians were linguistically circumspect not only about sex and the human body but also about money and death. But in the late twentieth century euphemism has achieved what it never achieved before: it has become a fit medium for the expression of just about everything. Putty as it is in the hands of its employer, bereft (unlike irony) of any solid core, euphemism can take on almost any task at all. It is the characteristic literary device of our time -- as much a hallmark of the era as were inflated honorifics in fifth-century Rome.

The one thing that all euphemisms have in common is their willingness to show themselves in public -- sometimes with audacity. A press release arrived recently from the Fur Information Council of America, and it contained this sentence: "Twice as many animals are killed each year in animal shelters and pounds as are used by the fur industry." The word "partition" was politically unacceptable in the Dayton Agreement, signed by the warring parties in the former Yugoslavia, and so the agreement does not employ it; but what might the term "inter-entity boundary" mean? A spokesperson for the United Nations, asked to explain the routine disappearance of millions of dollars' worth of computers, vehicles, and cash whenever UN forces withdraw from a locale, blamed a phenomenon she called "end-of-mission tristesse."

Most euphemisms, though, do not call such attention to themselves; we slide right over them. Some weeks ago I decided to spend a day with the euphemism detector set on high, just to see what kinds of things turned up in newspapers and magazines, on radio and television, and in ordinary conversation. Here is part of the harvest: "deer management" for the enlistment of paid sharpshooters; "remedial college skills" for reading; "traffic-calming measures" for speed bumps; "comparative ads" for attack ads; "legacy device" for an obsolete computer; "assistance devices" for hearing aids; "firm," in the parlance of produce merchants, for underripe; "hand-check," in the parlance of basketball players, for shove; "peace enforcement" for combat; "hard to place" for disturbed; "growth going backwards" for recession (itself a euphemism); "post-verdict response" for riot; "cult favorite" for low-rated; and "gated community" for affluent residential compound with private security. (Imagine a sign outside Windsor Castle 500 years ago: A GATED COMMUNITY.) This is but a modest sample, and I have not included any euphemisms ending with "syndrome" or "challenged."

The newest category of euphemism -- which takes the idea into unexplored metaphysical territory -- is one in which a euphemistic term is invented for a word or idea that actually requires none, the euphemism thereby implicitly back-tainting the original word or idea itself. In its most widespread manifestation this kind of euphemizing takes its form from such locutions for unutterables as "the F word" and, in a racial context, "the N word." Thus, during his race for the presidency against Michael Dukakis, George Bush castigated his opponent for being a liberal by bringing up what he called "the L word." Since then we have had "the O word," referring to orphanages (or, at the other demographic extreme, to old age); "the T word," referring to taxes; "the U word" (unions); "the V word" (vouchers); and "the W word" (welfare). William Safire, who briefly took note of this phenomenon in its infancy, during the 1988 campaign, predicted that it would "probably peter out in a few years, after we go through the alphabet and begin to get confused about what a given letter is supposed to signify." In fact the euphemistic abecedarium is now both complete and several meanings deep, and seems to be evincing considerable staying power. The cheap mass production of E words has apparently proved irresistible.

. . .

On balance, are euphemisms bad for us? One school of thought holds that a truly healthy, stable, psychologically mature society would have no need for euphemisms. Those who subscribe to this school would hold further, with George Orwell, that political euphemism "is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." They might add that the emergence of the new genre of faux euphemism is particularly insidious, in that it implies a kind of equivalence among the concepts or terminology represented by letters of the alphabet -- as if "the L word" and "the T word" really did belong in the same category as "the N word." There is something to be said for all these points, the last one in particular. I'm surely not alone in observing that the phrase "the N word" has lately come into the mainstream, as the N word itself never could again.

A second school of thought about euphemisms might be called the white-blood-cell school; it holds that yes, an elevated count might well be a sign of mild or serious pathology -- but it's also a sign that a natural defense mechanism has kicked in. By and large my sympathies lie with the white-blood-cell school. Although euphemism sets some to spluttering about its deceitfulness, I suspect that few people are really deceived -- that, indeed, the transparent motives and awkward semantics only undermine the euphemist's intention. When a nuclear warhead is referred to as "the physics package," when genocide is referred to as "ethnic cleansing," when wife-beating is referred to as "getting physical" -- in all these cases the terminology trains a spotlight on the truth.

Philosophers and linguists will argue the matter for years to come. In the meantime, though, it might be useful to begin acquiring a database of euphemisms by monitoring their prevalence in our national life. The model would be the Consumer Price Index.

The Consumer Price Index does not, of course, keep track of inflation by watching trends in the prices of everything. It focuses on a "basket" of major economic goods and services: food, clothing, rent, oil and gas, interest rates, and so on. With euphemisms, too, a handful of big items account for a disproportionate share of all euphemistic activity. Thus we might devise a preliminary formula with a basket of concepts including sex, God, money, politics, social pathology, bodily functions, disease, and death (along with, perhaps, a few minor bellwether indicators such as euphemisms for criminal behavior by juveniles and for lack of achievement in school). Logoplasticians, as those who study euphemisms might be called, would follow the emergence of promising synonyms in all these areas, producing at regular intervals a Semantic Engineering Index, or SEI.

Some might anticipate that in a society like ours the SEI would show gains quarter after quarter. I am not sure that this would happen in the aggregate: a macro-euphemistic view of history shows significant ups and downs over time. But in any event internal shifts would be abundant and revealing. Euphemisms are fragile organisms, surprisingly sensitive to the outside environment. Frequently they come to embody so fully the thing being euphemized that they themselves demand replacement. H. W. Fowler's Modern English Usage (Second Edition) shows how "toilet" is but the latest in a series of progressively superseded euphemisms -- "water-closet," "latrine," "privy," "jakes" -- going back many centuries. (Last year a Methodist singles group, recognizing the danger of euphemistic succession and hoping to stave it off, held a retreat with the theme "Intimacy Is Not a Euphemism for Sex." Good luck.) Some euphemisms eventually attract such knowing derision that their useful life is abbreviated. This was the case, for instance, with the term "revenue enhancement" as a stealthy substitute for "higher taxes." Other euphemisms, such as "custodial engineer" and "sandwich technician," pass from the moment of coinage into a state of ironic suspension without ever experiencing an intermediate condition of utility.

Given the avidity with which professional lexicographers today comb through books and periodicals for evidence of emerging and fading terminology, compiling a Semantic Engineering Index would no doubt be quite simple. And popular acceptance of the idea of "leading euphemistic indicators" would come easily. "The SEI rose three tenths of a point this month, paced by a rise in the T word and public jitters about peace enforcement." I see a cult favorite already.

Illustration by David Goldin

The Atlantic Monthly; September, 1996; The E Word; Volume 278, No. 3; pages 16-18.