Euphemistic Living: Finding Meaning in the Peculiar Ubiquitousness of Words
Words are such, and such are words
For as long as there has been language, there has been denotation— what a word means—and connotation—the feeling that the word evokes. When we speak we must constantly be aware of our word choices, of our intended audience, and of the way in which what we’re saying is going to be perceived. Modern language has evolved to a place of verbosity: according to the Oxford Dictionary there are “171,476 [full entries for] words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries.” Despite the incredible amount of words for us to utilize we often fall into a pattern of using euphemisms: terms or phrases intended to soften or mask that which may be found offensive or difficult.
When speaking with a man the other day he told me of his father, a war veteran who had lost a lung while in the war, and explained that, when his father—who lived into his early nineties—was at the end of his life that he simply “ran out of breath”. As moved as I was by his poetic articulation, I couldn’t help but think of how it’s almost tragic that we need to sugarcoat the inevitability of death. Perhaps this is why we have so much trouble trying to digest death, pain, or any difficult situation: if we are confronted with some hardship and we coddle our sensitivities, we don’t actually have to respond or deal effectively. When we actively choose to infantilize ourselves or those around us by choosing passive, subservient phrase are we actually doing ourselves a disservice? I think we may be.
What’s in a Word?
Maintaining control over the use of words has been important throughout history. From these rules of appropriate and offensive stems the creation of prohibition and taboos. Using euphemisms essentially ensures that the societal expectations we have for decorum and civility are followed. Though social norms dictate that we are thoughtful and compassionate when speaking to others, we need to worry about stifling any form of internalization of emotion. Since words are so powerful, we need to be especially cautious in not only what we say, but also how we say it.
There is, of course, something to be said for tact. For every “correctional facility” instead of “jail”, “portly” instead of “fat”, “let go” instead of “fired”, or “put to sleep” instead of “euthanized” there are countless feelings being spared, but there is a shred of honesty lost. Sometimes, it is the hard truths that we most need to hear. Does anyone want to hear bad new? Of course not. That does not mean, however, that we don’t need to hear, with real honesty, what is going on in our lives.
As a child, I was specifically told that my grandmother had “died”. I was, understandably, devastated, though looking at that articulation now, I am grateful that I no one tried to give me the “she passed away” speech. For each real emotion I feel, I am so happy that I am resilient enough to feel them. When I have them taken away by the use of euphemisms, I feel as though I’m being cheated out of a key part of the human experience: I want to feel it all, the good and the bad, and know that I am alive and strong for being able to feel them, be effected by them, and move on if I need to.
There’s Something to be Said for Having a Firm Grasp of Strong Words
How sad it is when we lose such a key facet of the human experience. What a waste of the language we’ve developed and the neural pathways that have evolved within us. We, as living beings, are expected to advance our species and continue to change to meet and thrive in the ever-changing world we inhabit: both physically and emotionally. Particular turns of phrase are effective but, on the whole, for each euphemisitic phrase we coin, how stagnant are we making ourselves? Is trying to save our sensitivities instead of strengthening our resolve really the stand we want to make as we grow into the future? I would rather be sure that in any circumstance, pleasant or otherwise, that I can hold my composed and stand my ground because I haven’t been coddled into submission or had my “tender” feelings protected from the big, bad world around me. All in all, I’d rather live.
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