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Euphemisms - When a 'spade' is not a spade!
"Humpty Dumpty: When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less. Alice: The question is, whether you can make words mean so many different things. Humpty Dumpty: The question is: which is to be master - that's all." - Alice in Wonderland

It is said that civilizations and sophisticated societies need a veil of hypocrisy, to smoothen the wheels of human intercourse. If you call a spade a spade, then you are a cave man and not fit to hobnob in civil company.

It would be a Himalayan blunder on your part, if you happened to mention the age of a lady, who was on the wrong side of the current ‘benchmark age’. If you want to show, that you had the polish of a public school, then you had better refer to her as ‘a lady of certain age’.

I doubt if this usage confers any magical transformation in the attributes of the lady, but you yourself are assigned a proper niche in the upper crust. Such is the magic of words! Going by the British penchant for the understatement, one could take it that they must be the most civilized souls on earth!

I don’t think that things were that prim and proper in the England of Chaucer’s days, better known for their ribaldry. Perhaps, this prudish trend was set into motion by the Ruler of the Realm, Empress Victoria, who was seldom amused.

From her days till India’s independence in 1947 and a little later, this Victorian prudery prevailed. Soon the more boisterous Indian English took over. In the days of the Empress, one could not utter, even to oneself the uncouth word ‘underwear’! If you did not want to be ostracized, then you had better say, ‘I must buy a few ‘unmentionables’.

As if this prude and proper word did not trigger off even more improper imagery in one’s mind!  Genteel ladies were supposed to swoon and drop to the floor, on hearing the word ‘underwear’.

America of 19th century was still laced with English cultural influences. So in deference to the ladies present, one used the word’ limb’ and not ‘leg’ - otherwise there was sufficient swooning to impress their elegant suitors. Linguist, Peter Farb describes how over a period of time the Americans have dealt with  the subject of death: “In the United States ‘undertaker’ drove out ‘mortician’ until it in turn was replaced by ‘funeral director’ as result of a PR campaign……… ‘coffin’ has become ‘casket’. ‘Hearses’ are now ‘coaches’ and the ‘cadavers’ they used to transport from the ‘funeral parlor’ are now the ‘loved ones’ escorted from the ‘chapel’.

I do hope and pray that the grief of those left behind has become more bearable, thanks to this word play. I also do pray, that the passage of the dear departed to their heavenly abode, has become that much more blissful, thanks to proper use of words.

Dictionaries define ‘euphemism’, as replacing an offensive word with a more socially acceptable word. I often wonder why we have to play this charade. Does this change the reality of the situation at all? In the 60s, I was bugged by the American craze for being considered as socially and politically insensitive, if we called anyone ‘poor’.  The right word, if you were a caring member of a civil society, was to say ‘He belongs to the low income bracket’.

Congratulations, civil society, by waving this magic wand of verbal abracadabra, you have made the hapless subject richer by few thousand dollars, every year. Earlier, I used to lampoon fairy tales, but now I am a true believer - by just waving the magic wand of word play, the bitter reality can be redeemed, and so easily!

In India also, the way the delicate news of someone’s death is conveyed, has often taken me by surprise. As a north Indian, when I started my career in Bombay, I had to get used to the local lingo and mores. There was a knock and as I opened the door, there stood my neighbor, who solemnly declared, ‘Mr. Patel is off.’ Has Mr. Patel taken a day off or is he off mood - was the thought that crossed my mind. It took this dull head some time to realize the sad truth that, Mr. Patel had indeed died!

So over a period of time, I learnt that in the Gujarati community, in their version of English ‘off’ means, that the person is dead! Not bad by any standards! Come to think of it, the electrical switch of the life force of Mr. Patel was permanently switched ‘off’ by the Lord above. What a true description of that cosmic reality!

Politicians are past masters at the game of word play and sadly enough the media also falls for their ploys. For Pentagon, the Viet Nam war not a ‘war’, but ‘international armed conflict’. Both in Viet Nam and Iraq, when American soldiers got killed by fire from American soldiers, because of goof ups by the generals, the immense tragedy was written off by Pentagon as ‘collateral damage due to friendly fire’!

‘Friendly fire’: how do they explain this to the mourning bereaved families? Where are the generals? Let’s see them engage in such a public display of friendly fire themselves, right in front of our eyes.

To survive in a society run by manipulative presidents, manipulative politicians, manipulative salesman, etc. one has to understand their word play. They are past masters in the use of euphemisms - thereby painting a rosy present and a still rosier future. They make you feel rich, when there are holes in your pockets! To paraphrase from Hamlet:

“Words, words, words! Hamlet, what IS the matter?”

Hamlet to his inquisitor: “Words ARE the Matter!’

Our understanding of our condition and its imagery is purely based on the words we use or the others use to describe our ‘reality’. It is not experiential and it is clear deception. But by word play every things sounds so goody-goody, because it makes the unpalatable reality so charmingly bearable!

Editorial NOTE: This article is categorized under Opinion Section. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of In case you have a opposing view, please click here to share the same in the comments section.
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