Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms

By: Ralph Keyes

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Author Ralph Keyes takes readers on an exploration of euphemisms past and present. How and where did some of our most popular euphemisms originate? Why are some formerly popular euphemisms no longer in use? Why do we use euphemisms and what does that say about our culture? Almost as much a study on social mores as it is a study in clever word play, Euphemania examines in a fun and entertaining way, not only the etymology of euphemisms, but also why our society is so caught up in their usage.


Lately, I've realized that I'm something of a language geek particularly in the area of etymology, so the instant I saw Euphemania, I was thoroughly intrigued and knew I wanted to read it. What I got was a fascinating study in euphemisms which intermingled the words and phrases themselves with their origins and social commentary on their use. I learned a lot of new euphemisms with which I was not familiar, as well as where many I already knew came from. The author draws on a wide variety of sources including quotes from famous people, songs and literature. Oddly enough, I've never studied Shakespeare (not even in school), so until reading this book, I never realized how incredibly "naughty" the Bard actually was. I was also amazed to discover that the original King James Bible contained many words and phrases which over the years have been sanitized, because they came to be considered vulgar. Since censorship is an area ripe for the use of euphemistic talk, there is some interesting discussion on what words and phrases can and can't be used in movies, television and other media both now and down through history. Could anyone possibly imagine Rhett Butler's famous last words in Gone with the Wind being, "I don't give a hoot" or "My dear, I don't care?" I know I sure couldn't. I also found myself nearly ROTFL at a sidebar discussion on automatic censoring in Internet forums.

In addition to the great history of words, I also got a wonderful study on the sociology and psychology behind word usages (two of my favorite scientific areas of interest). The sociology angle explores which words and phrases were acceptable in polite company in various eras and cultures and why that is. It is absolutely fascinating how something can be perfectly acceptable in one country/culture and considered insulting in another or how a particular saying could go from being acceptable to vulgar, and perhaps back to acceptable, depending on the time frame in which it was used. In this vein, there was another hilarious side bar on the conflicting meanings of various euphemisms between America and Britain. The psychology angle discusses how "prettying-up" certain words can fool the brain into thinking they are more appealing, such as how adding French words to the name of a food that would normally be considered icky on a restaurant menu will make it sell better. The author also makes some fabulous points on the use of euphemisms, one being that, when done well, euphemisms can show a marked talent for creativity and they can be a really fun way to communicate, the other being that euphemisms can sometimes be overused to the point that they sap power from the words that they replace.

Euphemania covers a large selection of potentially taboo or at the very least uncomfortable subjects with major chapter topics including sex, anatomy, bodily functions, illness and death, food, money and commerce, and war. This book is chock full of "bad" words and "naughty" phrases which could be offensive to some readers, but when one critically analyzes the subject matter, I'm not sure how a book like this could have been written without them. I personally found the author's directness to be refreshing. There is also an index and extensive bibliography that looks like it might make for some interesting extended reading on the subject. For me, Euphemania was a fast-paced, humorous, and entertaining look at why we use euphemisms that is definitely going on my keeper shelf for future reference. Ralph Keyes certainly has a way with making a topic that could have been dry into something fun and easy for the average lay-person to understand. I only wish all non-fiction books were so engaging and well-written.

Note: I received an ARC of Euphemania from the publisher in exchange for my review.


Ralph Keyes