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Euphemism represents a mild or roundabout expression substituted
For one considered improper or too harsh or blunt.
In order to develop the discussion on the term euphemisms, one has to place the concept in larger areas of knowledge. First and foremost, euphemisms are to be found in the generous field of language seen as a system of communication by written or spoken words, which is used by the people of a particular country or area in order to ensure the communication process. The study of Euphemisms is to be identified in the frames of Linguistics, more precisely, Lexicology, as one method of Censorship seen as the practice or system of censoring something. Censorship is a suppression of speech or other type of communication, which may be considered to be harmful or inconvenient to people, from a wide known set of rules determined by important controlling body.
The term euphemism comes from Greek, where eu signifies well or sounding good, the stem pheme means speech, and the suffix -ism means action or result. The entire word means speaking well of; good speech; words of good omen. From a linguistic point of view, J. M. Williams (1975) explains that when using euphemisms people are in search of socially acceptable words for concepts of which they can not easily talk about. On the one hand, Neaman and Silver (1990), describe the process as being a way to substitute a less pleasant word structure with a more inoffensive one, in this way the truth keeps its validity and its politeness. On the other hand, H. Rawson (1995) underlines the mild and agreeable way of word preference instead of the coarse and painful one.
What is to be noted is the fact that the choice of words is meaningful, the selection of certain word structures, according to different contexts in society, implies the rejection of others. People develop a certain sensibility when reaching a certain topic, that for them represents a taboo, and so they try to make use of this linguistic device that is euphemism, in order to "soften" what they want to express in regard to a taboo topic.
According to Neaman and Silver (1990) euphemisms date back from Ancient Greek, when words referring to gods or other divinities were only used uttered by the priest in fear of blasphemy, for the common herd these being unspeakable. Actually, the eupheme was a word used in place of a religious word or phrase that should not be spoken aloud.
Etymologically, the eupheme is the opposite of blaspheme, which means evil-speaking. Euphemism was itself used as a euphemism by the ancient Greeks, and it meant 'to keep a holy silence' (speaking well by not speaking at all). Therefore, the common herd resorted to words derived from god's and other divinities' characteristics, such as the Almighty, or the Thunderer-thunder being the weapon Zeus used. Also, when referring to the Black Sea, they called it "the Friendly Sea", for they were afraid of calamity at sailing.
As stated by Keyes (2010), one of the first euphemisms that appeared among the northern Europeans, was one substituting the name of the bear. People preferred not to use its name, instead of which they used characteristics that they found more appropriate: the honey eater, the licker, or the grandfather. Eventually, the word bear derived from a main characteristic that referred to the brown one.
This practice of using words' characteristics when referring to them, has led to the act of deforming. That is, by replacing a taboo word with its defining characteristics, people succeeded to form a new substitute of that word, thus, introducing a new derived word into language.
It is thought that taboo deformations have occurred in Indo-European languages, one example in English being the word "donkey", which replaced the old-Indo-European-derived word "ass". Another example is the word "dandelion", a substitute for pissenlit, which means "wet the bed", which was possibly referring to the fact that the dandelion was used as a diuretic.
A great number of euphemisms in English came from words with Latin roots. Farb (1974) writes that after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066: "the community began to make a distinction between a genteel and an obscene vocabulary, between the Latinate words of the upper class and the lusty Anglo-Saxon of the lower. That is why a duchess perspired and expectorated and menstruated--while a kitchen maid sweated and spat and bled."
The Anglo-Saxon era is considered to be the Golden Age of language expression and the source of four-letter words insinuating, or even directly referring to sex. At that time, as Williams (1975) states it, euphemisms were widely used, as it is evidently found in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. The tales contain a range of euphemisms in place of taboo words, such as eyelash for a woman's intimate part (sexual organ).
In the late sixteen century, euphemisms flourished, especially those associated with royalty, religion and sexual affairs. The name of God was distorted to gad or abbreviated to od, producing curious forms like 'od's my will for "as God is my will" and 'od's me for "God save me."
The Victorian Era is renowned for a multitude of sexual euphemisms, for replacing the terms used for body parts. Hence, they spoke about white meat or dark meat, referring to a chicken leg or breast. Also, they preferred "in an interesting condition" rather than "pregnancy"; and evasions of the words damn, hell, and even trousers were typical of the age.
Later on, before the World War 2, there is a noted situation that occurred at a dinner party in Virginia (Keyes: 2010): Winston Churchill asked the butler for some breast of chicken. According to Churchill family lore, a woman sitting next to him reprimanded the British guest for using this vulgar term. And what should he had asked for? "White meat," Churchill was told. The next day, Churchill sent the woman a corsage with the message: "Pin this on your white meat." It is clearly visible that Churchill was emphasizing the fact that this way of softening the language was actually obscuring the meaning, shaving the truth.
Another remarkable example is one given by George Carlin, concerning the change of the denomination of a condition in combat that occurs when a soldier's nervous system has reached the breaking point. During the First World War, this condition was called shell-shock.
Then, during the Second World War, the condition was euphemized: battle fatigue. After a while, during the Korean 1950 War, the same condition received the name of operational exhaustion. Finally, five years later, during the Vietnam War, they were referring to a condition called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is imperative to say that renaming this condition by manipulating the language has greatly reduced the impact that the initial term made: by euphemizing it, the term lost most of its importance that, when coming across it, people fail to notice its true significance. Therefore, euphemisms can undermine appropriate attitudes towards serious issues.
This manipulation of language developed even more during the twentieth century, for people started using language to purposely conceal the truth, mislead, confuse or deceive. The goal of communication switched to that of manipulation: language used to control thought and behavior. Cultural and political influences had quite an impact on language, especially American English, where euphemisms were used for subjects like disease, politics, money and war.
It may be said that euphemisms underwent a process of evolution. At first, in the primitive society, people simply avoided mentioning certain names, in fear of being punished for doing differently. Afterwards, it was a matter of avoiding vulgarism when communicating, so as to achieve elegance. Beauty was sought in every aspect of the human life, thus people made attempts to dress up words as nicely as they could. Soon after this, people took into consideration appropriateness: they used indirect word structures to achieve politeness. These were euphemisms mainly concerning job titles and physical appearance.
Another so-called stage of the evolution of euphemisms is the disguise: to be more precise, opting for a more sanitized version of expressions in order to render a less-disagreeable truth and a more vague meaning.
It is necessary to mention that, up to a certain point, people are highly interested in using euphemisms for self-presentational purposes, and then for minimizing the threat to the addressee's face.
Besides that, the use of the term politically correct is widespread nowadays. In this aspect, there is an attempt to impose a specific "view" that is inferred to be the correct one. This view deals with not using terms to which people seem to have developed high sensitivity. In the present time, it is a general belief that the use of ordinary terms is no longer politic.
Over time, different words have been euphemized and then, the euphemized term gained a new, more sanitized version, and so, by entering the everyday language, these expressions have become not so euphemized, but more common, more ordinary. This leads to opting for a more politically correct word structure, thus euphemizing an already euphemized term.
More important to say is the fact that a euphemized term is more frequently getting to the point where it receives a negative connotation and, unfortunately, is being used with a negative one, as an insult. This is an explanation for the appearance of other roundabout expressions created for the replacement of those that no longer imply that same inoffensive, positive meaning.