Euphemistically Speaking

By Oswin Craton

[N.B. Because of the nature of this subject it will be necessary in the following essay for me to use some terms that many people find offensive. I will endeavor to keep these at a minimum, but I must on occasion describe the word a euphemism may refer to. I beg the reader to be understanding in this.]

Several years ago I was visiting a Protestant church in my hometown during an evening Bible study. I went principally so see some old friends from my youth, but as I always enjoy religious discussions I also was looking forward to our study. It so happened that the discussion leader that evening had chosen a topic that I found almost laughable, but given that I have heard a number of Christians broach this subject over the years I decided to pay it special attention.

His topic was euphemisms. And his position was that using euphemisms in one’s speech was a sin in that they are simply another way of saying words that are otherwise profane.

I had heard his arguments before, mostly while in the South, and in my experience nearly everyone I’d ever heard who adopted this position had been graduates of a particular Christian college where, evidently, this topic was a pet project of one of the religion professors there. The argument tends to follow a predictable line of reasoning: (a) Using profane or curse words is sinful. (b) Euphemisms are merely slightly altered ways of saying profane or curse words in a way that renders them more socially acceptable. (c) Ergo, using euphemisms is the equivalent of using the words they represent and therefore also are sinful.

Very well. I have no argument with someone who chooses to omit all exclamatory words from their vocabulary. In fact, I admire anyone who is capable of doing this, and I do not impugn their motivation for so doing. I do have a problem, however, when someone tells me that for any Christian to use an exclamatory remark (“real word” or euphemism) is sinful.

As a guest at this particular study session I did not participate to a great extent in the discussion, but I did at one point attempt to express my thoughts on the matter. I pointed out that in my opinion I could be appreciative of the person who chooses to use euphemisms rather than giving in to what is becoming far too commonplace these days of simply blurting out the original vulgarities. To me this represented a conscious effort on their part to avoid offending their hearers and to keep their speech “clean.” I also expressed my belief that it is virtually impossible for one not to use any exclamatory remarks whatever in one’s speech, and that nearly anything one might say could be construed as a euphemism for something offensive.

My thoughts on this matter were immediately shot down, and the retort was made that “Christ didn’t use euphemisms, and we are supposed to follow His example.” Well, I agree that we should be imitators of Christ, but He did after all refer to King Herod as “that fox” and also chased out the moneylenders in the Temple with cords of rope, so I’m not sure just how far to take those particular examples. (We also have no example of Christ ever laughing, so does that mean laughter is a sin as well?)

But I digress. The discussion leader continued to expound his opinion (delivered more as canon law) that euphemisms were sinful. He pressed his point by showing how that many common expressions are clearly just other ways of saying profane words: gosh and golly being euphemisms for God, gee for Jesus, dang and darn for damn, shoot for shit, heck for hell, and so forth. Okay, so they are. But again I stressed the point that a person who would use the euphemism rather than the original word was showing discretion and politeness as few people find such terms offensive. (I’d far rather someone call me a “son of a gun,” for instance, than a “son of a bitch.”) Additionally I challenged him to describe any exclamatory word or phrase that was not a euphemism for something more profane. All (or at least nearly all) exclamatory remarks are either current or archaic euphemisms for something many would consider profane. (The only possible exception that comes to my mind is the word wow which is derived from howl, though I would not be surprised to learn that in earlier times this too might have referred to hell.)

The discussion about this continued, and finally one member of the class related that a friend of hers, who also believed it wrong to use euphemisms, used the phrase “Fiddle dee dee” when expressing an exclamatory thought. It sounds innocuous enough, though I doubt she realized that “fiddle” is an archaic euphemism for vagina; hence the phrase originally referred to a sexual act. That meaning is now lost, but so are the original meanings of most common exclamations we use today. Her statement rather reminded me of a minister who took on this same rant against euphemisms several years ago and concluded with the statement, “Let’s face it: Euphemisms are just pure dee wrong!” — obviously being blissfully unaware that “pure dee” is a euphemism for “pure damn.”

But really these utterings merely prove my point. Nearly all of us use some form of exclamation on occasion to emphasize a thought. Is it conceivable to divest our vocabulary of literally every possible reference to something vulgar, even euphemistically? My hat is off to anyone who can, but as these two devout figures betray, it is by no means an easy task.

Our current society is quite schizophrenic when it comes to the use of language. On the one hand current speech, both public and private, has seen an explosion of utterly vulgar words that heretofore would have been anathema even to the most callous among us. Particularly in film and television, we hear words that would have shocked even the hard-hearted in previous generations. One hears truly vile speech on every hand today, so when I hear someone opting for a more sanitized version of these expressions I feel nothing but gratitude for them.

On the other hand we have the ever-pervasive reach of so-called “political correctness” affecting much of our speech today. While it seems permissible nowadays to address even women and children with the most despicable gutter talk, we are then told it is no longer politic to use ordinary terms that were acceptable only a few decades ago. No longer can we refer to a person as “mentally retarded” but must use the phrase “intellectually challenged.” No longer is someone “short,” he is “vertically challenged.” I find such convolutions of language painfully unnecessary and ridiculous for the most part, but I am constantly amazed at how sensitive some people can be to earlier terms such as “babes” or “chicks” for women while simultaneously being unaffected by hearing references to them as “hoes” and “bitches.” I hear the f-word so often these days, even amongst otherwise polite society, that I am relieved when someone chooses instead something like “frigging,” though our detractors would argue they mean the same thing. Yes, at one time they did, but both “retard” and “mentally retarded” mean the same thing as well, but I would certainly prefer the kinder term, especially if it were applied to me or to someone I know.

Would it be best to eliminate euphemisms from our vocabulary? Perhaps it would, if indeed it were possible. But until someone can devise expressive terms with no hidden or secondary references to something profane, then I say we should use them — certainly in preference to the original words themselves.

And what of the original “curse words”? Should a Christian use such terms at all? While to some degree I feel at ease leaving this up to each individual’s decision between himself and God, I do believe there are some terms we should refrain from altogether. As Christians, we are told not to use God’s name in vain (that is, flippantly or in a disrespectful manner), so I feel uncomfortable when I hear Christians use “God” or “Jesus” in an exclamation, with or without accompanying words. The phrase “My God!” might be appropriate on rare occasions, but its overuse today to refer to anything even slightly out of the ordinary demeans the name of God, which as Christians we consider holy. I have heard many Christians use the phrase “Lord, have mercy!” (it is repeated numerous times during an Orthodox liturgy, so it is a perfectly legitimate request) and when spoken as though the individual genuinely desires God’s mercy, I find no problem with it whatever. To me, it is only when people take these and similar phrases into their vocabulary and use them nonchalantly, without showing proper respect for the name of God or Christ, that I am in any way offended.

As we are told by St. Paul to avoid coarse talk, I believe the use of words that are considered truly vulgar today should not pass our lips. But there are degrees of what we might term “coarse,” and probably not everyone would agree on these delineations. To my way of thinking, there are three main categories of what are generally described as “curse words” (an inaccurate use of the term, but one that carries the commonly understood meaning).

First there is the genuine curse: Damn you, or Go to hell. In these one expresses the desire that someone be genuinely cursed by God. Whether the speaker actually means these curses, they do not reflect a Christian attitude at all and I think should not be used. (Aren’t we as Christians more desirous that people learn repentance rather than being damned to hell?)

The second group of words are what I call profane words. These do not take God’s name in vain or necessarily pronounce a curse on an individual, but they are words that are repugnant to most people who hold to a reasonable degree of civility. The famous “f-word” comes immediately to mind. Perhaps it is my upbringing, but I find the use of this and similar words totally inappropriate in almost all circumstances. Whether their use would constitute “sin” in the Protestant sense I cannot say, but I definitely think it reflects badly on Christ’s church when a Christian is heard to use them.

Then thirdly there are words that are “socially unacceptable” but are neither curses nor true profanities. Typically these are words used to refer to various bodily functions, and some of them were perfectly acceptable terms in earlier times. The word “shit,” for example, comes directly into modern English from the Anglo-Saxon shitte, which meant exactly what it does today but without any coarse connotations. These are terms that may not be the best choices for one’s vocabulary, and probably should not be used around children or others sensitive to hearing them spoken, but I could not say they are necessarily wrong. “Piss,” for instance, is considered by some a “curse word,” though it is used even in Scripture to describe the act of urinating and is a perfectly good, if at times socially inappropriate, word to use. While it may be offensive to some people in certain circumstances, it would not be a term whose use I could in any was say is a “sin.”

So how do our anti-euphemism friends handle speech in everyday life? I’d be curious to know. I dare say they all train their small children in toilet habits with the words “pee” and “poop,” euphemisms for “piss” and “shit.” And that is entirely appropriate as I do not think it wise to use the latter terms with young children. But by the logic proposed by our friends, the former terms would be just as “sinful.” Some of these anti-euphemism Christians have been heard to express surprise or dismay with such phrases as “My goodness!” which is simply a euphemism for “My God!” And while they may speak against any euphemistic curse, how many have uttered something as inoffensive as “Drat!” when something breaks unexpectedly or when they smash their finger with a hammer? (“Drat” is a euphemism for the archaic phrase “God rot [it]!”) Even so childlike a phrase as “Fiddle dee dee,” as we have shown, at one time referred to a woman’s vagina, so is it really possible to act consistently with the idea that all euphemisms are wrong? I rather think not.

Copyright © 2007 by Oswin Craton
The above text may be freely copied and distributed, provided no alterations to the text are performed.

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