Euphemism


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Euphemism

 

the replacement of coarse or offensive words and expressions with less offensive ones or of certain names with conventional designations. Euphemisms are the result of lexical taboos imposed by various prejudices, superstitions, and religious beliefs on the use of the names for specific objects and phenomena in life, thus necessitating other means of expression.

In the early stages of social development of many Indo-European peoples, the names of various animals were euphemisms. Thus, the Russian word medved’ (“bear”) is an artificially created compound meaning “honey-eater”; it replaced an earlier word, which was placed under taboo because of mythological beliefs. Among professional hunters the word medved’ subsequently underwent a second taboo and was replaced with new euphemisms, such as khoziain (“master”), mokhnach (“hairy one”), and lomaka (“bone breaker”). When taboos are rooted in superstition and prejudice, euphemisms arise for the words for death and illnesses. Thus, Russian umer (“he died”) is replaced with otpravilsia k praotsam (“he went to join his forefathers”), otdal bogu dushu (“he gave his soul to god”), or prikazal dolgo zhit’ (“he ordered a long life”).

In a civilized society one of the principal causes for the use of euphemisms is etiquette, which bans the use of coarse or indecent expressions. Thus, instead of saying “you are lying,” one says “you are inventing things,” “you are mistaken,” or “you are not entirely correct.” Physicians often use Latin names for illnesses or special medical terms: in Russian, “cancer” and “tbc” (both spelled with Latin letters) may be used for the standard Russian terms rak and tuberkulez; smert’ (“death”) may be replaced by letal’nyi iskhod (“fatal outcome”). In modern societies, euphemisms are also used to impose censorship on the revelation of military and state secrets. In such cases the proper names of countries, cities, and military units are replaced by letters and conventional designations, such as “N” and “Nth,” or by descriptive expressions, such as “a neighboring power.”

Some jargons, in addition to embellishments and euphemisms, also use reverse euphemisms, or dysphemisms, which involve the replacement of neutral expressions with coarser, more familiar, or more vulgar ones. Thus, Russian dat’ duba (literally, “to give the oak”), sygrat’ v iashchik (literally, “to play the box”), and skopytit’sia (literally, “to be knocked off one’s feet”) may be used for the neutral umeret’ (“to die”). Such substitutions sometimes serve the purpose of disguising the meaning of conversations likely to be overheard.

REFERENCES

Reformatskii, A. A. Vvedenie v iazykoznanie, 4th ed. Moscow, 1967.
Bonfante, G. “Etudes sur le tabou dans les langues indoeuropéennes.” In the collection Mélanges de linguistique offerts à Charles Bally. Geneva, 1939.

A. M. KUZNETSOV

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