We humans are peculiar creatures among all the animals, for while the rest of the critters that roam this spinning rock do not try and obfuscate the reality of what they are or the things they do, one species has the innate capacity to wordsmith that which is not from that which is.
This is, of course, accomplished most effectively with that most handy of linguistic devices, the euphemism.
Euphemism as a term seems to have originally itself been a euphemism, coming from the Greek euphemizein, which means ‘to speak words of good omen.’ However, the point of euphemizein was to avoid speaking words of bad omen which, combined with a healthy dose of superstition regarding the use of certain words, meant that in religious contexts some words were to be fastidiously given a wide berth.
Now, euphemisms can be used in a variety of ways, some less objectionable than others, although they generally boil down to two or three main uses.
The first is in the superstitious sense that those lovable pagans of hold coined, in that certain words tend to give off a bad vibe. For example, there are things one might accurately and inoffensively say about a dead person (how their body is decomposing, for example) in certain contexts that one would not say at that same person’s funeral. This form of euphemism can be a bit tricky to pin down, and is entirely conditioned by culture and other such things; but society must have its niceties and its taboos, and so in some ways we will always have these sorts of euphemisms.
The second is less about taboo and more about appropriateness, in that we sometimes use euphemisms simply to be polite. For example, one might ‘use the restroom’ which essentially means one is going to expel excrement from one’s body. The latter is certainly not something one would necessarily want to say when visiting at a friend’s house: “Hey, do you have a toilet I could use? I need to expel some bodily waste in your house…”
These forms of the euphemism are generally quite innocuous, in that what is ‘avoided’ in its use is generally understood by those employing it and hearing it.
However, there is another form of the euphemism which is far less innocuous, in that the intent is not merely to avoid saying certain things certain ways or to pay homage to social niceties, but is rather to either deceive or to obviate the nature of the thing being euphemized. In this case the euphemism is meant to not only avoid saying a certain thing, but also to pretend that a particular word/act/whatever is something other than what it actually is.
The difficulty here is that euphemisms in this sense can often take on emotional content, especially in uses related to emotionally charged things, and unless one is sufficiently applying critical thought to the euphemisms employed, the ‘words of good omen’ can turn good into evil and evil into good.
Thus, when met with instances where euphemisms are employed in such a sense and with consistent regularity, I have found that it greatly aids clarity to (with equal consistency) insert the words attempting to be avoided in every instance where a euphemism seeks to make that word or act into something other than what it is.
A rather striking example was recently provided by means of that bastion of critical thought, Upworthy. To be honest, I am not sure if the site is a very brilliant attempt at irony or is merely a giant exercise in euphemism, for nearly every item to appear in its virtual pages and thus (presumably) deemed ‘upworthy’ is generally nothing of the sort. If it is the latter exercise in the euphemistic, a recent article demonstrates the less than savory use of the euphemism.
The final paragraph in particular is so obviously loaded down with euphemisms that it is hard to tell if the author is intending a satire or has become so self-deluded by the frequent use of euphemisms as to actually believe them. With a site like Upwothy it is increasingly difficult to tell, although the editor’s subtext pretty much gives the game away from the get-go:
Set aside right or wrong just for a few moments. A woman wants to tell you her story.
(In the following the items in parentheses and bold represent that reality that is being avoided in the euphemisms, and are added to clarify the reality of what these statements represent.)
My husband and I had been married only four months when we conceived our baby, intentionally and with incredible joy [This same intentionality will be applied towards having a baby murdered]. When we learned about the baby’s problems, we were on the same page instantly [they both decided simultaneously to have their child murdered?]: We didn’t want to bring a child into this world to suffer [and thus the logical course of action to prevent someone from suffering is to murder them?]. But we didn’t give up easily. We felt we owed it [and by ‘it’ they evidently don’t mean ‘life’] to the baby [who was ultimately murdered] to find out as much as we could about his condition before making a decision about his life [that is, about whether or not he should be murdered]. My husband stood by my side, putting aside all professional obligations to be there at every sonogram and every test, and then he spent hours in the abortion clinic’s waiting room while I underwent three days of procedures [procedures which have the purpose of murdering the baby]. By the end [of the preparations for and the actual murdering of the baby], I felt for the first time that I trusted another human being with my life [ironic, since the baby trusted those who had him murdered with his life]. The following months were heavy with crazy menstrual cycles, epic crying fits on the bathroom floor, and so much sadness for what could have been [but wasn’t since the baby was murdered]. It hasn’t been perfect, but over time we are learning how to be there for each other in our grief [is this grief about murdering the baby?]. We know now that our love can overcome any obstacle [except, apparently, for any obstacle like the baby having problems which compel his parents to have him murdered…], and rather than feel like victims[!!!], we rejoice daily in our many blessings [one of which, presumably, is the blessing of not being murdered in the womb, a blessing this child could never rejoice in], such as the ability to try to get pregnant again. We help each other hold the belief that we did the best thing for our baby [evidently the best thing for a baby with problems is to have them murdered?] and that we will be parents someday [it is perhaps worth noting that they already were parents, and that one of their acts of parenthood was to have their baby murdered]. And every time we learn of a family or individual who has benefited from hearing our story [the story about how they had their baby murdered?], we feel our love [evidently ‘love’ is something which perceives having your child murdered as something which is the ‘best’ for them] for our lost soul [the baby didn’t get lost- rather, he was murdered] deepen with the knowledge that he has left an incredible legacy [part of that legacy is that his parents had him murdered and now euphemize that act].