Saturday, May 23, 2009


euphemism--the substitution of a word or meaning and the subsequent substitution of it with a word, phrase, or concept that sounds more agreeable and polite; abduction of a word or meaning by inferring a less bold, graphic, or socially acceptable meaning.

Perhaps the most common euphemisms in Western culture are those connected with death. Passing, passing on, passing away, and passing over join company with expired, gone to his/her reward, called home, pushing up daisies, the latter of which at least appears to be making fun of itself, and croaked, also far from polite, seems to draw on death rattle for an ironic trope.

There are euphemisms for the three widely touted taboos, sex, religion, and politics, as well, just as split-up is used as a euphemism for divorce or a broken long-term arrangement of any sort. In sports, being sent down to the minors may be literally true but it is also a cover-up for being demoted, just as being held back is a euphemism for flunked.

In much of the world, the infamous n-word has become replaced with Negro, black, Black, and if appropriate, African-American, almost all the euphemisms (including person of color) enjoying a cycle of popularity before falling off the radar (not a euphemism, but a definite cliche). Thus also does midget or dwarf become person of challenged height, which opens yet other doors for vulgar, demeaning conditions manifest in individuals suffering from neurological disorders.

What to do? Of course some characters, by their nature, will use the n-word or any other word that suits their purpose when dealing with a person or trait out of the mainstream, and it is appropriate to show them in full, non-euphemistic action as, say, Ernest Hemingway did when referring to certain of his characters as a rummy, which lets us know that person has a strong attachment to spiritus fermenti or, if you will, booze. Other characters, whom you intend as an embodiment of PC (not a euphemism for personal computer) will pour on the euphemisms, and other still, characters you conceive of as covert bigots, will reveal themselves with their broadcast liberalism by wanting to introduce you to "my Chinese wife." You would be within your rights to say how much you look forward to meeting his Japanese wife and perhaps his Polynesian wife, but you hold your tongue.

Others still of your characters will use euphemisms to deliniate for friends and acquaintances alike the sexual orientation of other characters, including such euphemisms as light in the loafers, walks with a notable limp, and wears pink handkerchiefs as well as the one euphemism most of us use, gay. Some characters will refer to bisexuals in baseball terms as in he/she swings from both sides of the plate or switch hitter, and to women homosexuals as holding passports from the Isle of Lesbos and the one-size-fits-all lesbo, or perhaps dyke or the throw-away observation, "she tends to ride the clutch on her Harley."

There are risks in using PC euphemisms just as there are risks in using vulgar, hurtfully intended ones, and thus the question arises about whether to call characters out in stories that have nothing to do with their sexual, religious, or political orientations, using this information only as it relates to the development of a story.

The answers (for there are more than one) reside within your characters and their intent. If a character brags of having friends who are Jewish, LDS, Catholic, and, say, Lutheran, as well as friends who are Republican and even some who are gay, what does this say of your character. If a character is constantly reminding other characters that little people are not to be called midgets and that the "correct" designation for an Oriental person is Asian, what does this say of her>

And what does it say to readers, literary agents, and editors if the writer writes, "Dennis yanked the Glock from his waistband, squeezed off three shots at point-blank range, then bent down to see if his assailant had crossed over."

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