Pleasant Words & Ugly Books

"Then shall I dare these real ills to hide
In tinsel trappings of poetic pride?"

—George Crabbe

English must be kept up. It rarely is. But what a splendid collection of offenses against it is in D.J. Enright's book of euphemism. Those who delight in the instructions for Japanese small appliances will here encounter the ultimate in linguistic self-destruction. Here is a pair of advertisements for continental hotels anxious to sound contemporary: The first offers "two rooms with a vulgar balcony and excommunicating doors" along with a gift-shop where you can buy "jolly memorials for when you pass away." I particularly like the second, which says of its rooms, "I am superb in bed," and which advertises for breakfast "patty of fungus a specialty."

The word euphemism is older than we think. Both word and idea suggest middle-class hypocrisy but hypocrisy—and ingenuity and over-refinement and rhetorical play—are much older than the middle class. The word itself goes back to the mid-17th century, when it was defined as "a good or favourable interpretation of a bad word." Its great uses then were as now in detailing, or in camouflaging, realities of politics and sexuality. It is important to realize that euphemism can do both: it can hide, or it can delineate even more sharply with metaphor...

Join now to access the full article and gain access to other exclusive features.

Get Started

Already a member? Sign in here