There are all kinds of words in a language: plain words, agreeable and disagreeable words, forbidden words and sugar-coated words, etc. This piece is about the sugar-coated words. In technical language these are called “euphemisms”. A euphemism is, from one point of view, a metaphor. But what, pray,is a metaphor? “It is saying one thing in terms of another” – that would do for the ordinary folks, said the expert. Thus,“chandamuhin (face like a moon)” is a metaphor in Odia for a beautiful girl; it describes a girl in terms of the moon. By the way, it was considered to be a compliment once upon a time but now, the target of the compliment would most likely take offence, if addressed directly (in a face-to-face conversation) or even referred to this way in her presence, as though she has been called “podamuhin (one whose face is burnt”), which is also a metaphor. It is used as a term of scolding and abuse and such terms must not be understood in their literal meaning during a tongue-lashing act. But sometimes, in a tense moment, they are, and when that happens, the intended recipient of the word often gets physical
Aeuphemism is a metaphor of a special kind: it suppressesits unpleasantness andsubstitutes it with agreeability and to that extent, it is comforting. (As, by the way, lies are, when artfully designed.) A euphemism has thus a social purpose. Since “piss” is an unpleasant word in a certain cultural context, it is insensitive to use it in public;so one uses “pass water” instead. Seventy years ago, when I was growing up in a village in the district of Cuttack in Odisha (spelt “Orissa” then), we were taught to say to our teacher “eka jibi” (want to go for one) and “dui jibi” (want to go for two) when any of us wanted to go out to piss or defecate respectively. Later I learnt that in educated families, when a family elder or an otherwise respectable person went for either, the expression that was used was ‘baharakujiba (go outside”). When a king, or a zamindar, who conducted himself like a king in his locality, went for defecation, it was called “bahirdeshjiba” (go to the outer area) and when the ordinary mortals did the same thing, the term that was used was “hagiba”, although in written Odia avoided this word and used “jhadajiba” in its place, even for the marginalized people. “Hagiba” was not a word to be used in polite talk. By the way, “bahirdesha” and “bahara” mean the same; the former is merely thehigh-sounding, Sanskritized(i.e., scholarly) version of “bahara”. But how can the same term be used for the powerful and the common “other”, no matter how elderly or respectable he (or she) may be! Let the sound at least be different if the meaning cannot be manipulated!
Still on this idea, for the death of an ordinary person, the word used was “mala” or “mari gala”, but when a rich and a powerful person died, the expression was “chali gale (literally, “left”). Or prana tyaga kale (gave up his life). “Tyagakariba” suggests choice – you give up something voluntarily;so, it was as though he gave up his life on choice. In English, the ordinary folks “die”, some “pass away”, some “breathe their last”, some “rest in ternal peace” and some go to “meet their maker”. Now, as foreign language users of English, some of us were familiar with “royal wedding” and “royal baby”, but“royal pregnancy” – that we hadn’t come across. It was used by some English newspapers to refer to the pregnancy of the Duchess of Cambridge, when she was expecting her first child.
Thus, the use of euphemism is connected with power. Now, no society is flat; all are hierarchical; some more, some less. The language of the more hierarchical societies contains more euphemisms than the language of the less hierarchical ones. That may explain why, broadly speaking, people living in cities use fewer euphemistic terms than the people in the villages; with eateries, hospitals, public transport and more inclusive schools, the city is a leveller. When a traditional society is modernized and the social hierarchy is weakened, quite a few euphemistic terms fall into disuse. The number of euphemistic terms and the nuanced use of them in speech and writing in a certain language directly reflects the degree of hierarchization of the society that uses that language.
There are euphemisms that are not connected with power, not explicitly at least. My mother would not use the words saapa (“snake”) and baagha (“tiger”) at night. That was seventy years ago, when many still believed in the power of uttered expressions – at least in thevillages. You uttered a word, and something related to it was bound to happen. You uttered saapa, and you were most likely to see one that night. So saapa at night was lambajantu (“long animal”), and baagha, just maamu (“uncle”). The thing did not matter, the word did.
I leant it the hard way, when I was about 5 years old. One day when my mother told me that my mamu was coming, I cried. She slapped me. Her brother was coming and there was me, crying! My uncle told me that I had a human mamu as well and that the Tiger mamu would come only if I asked him to and that if I said bagha at night, there are chances that he might think I was calling him. If I said “mamu”, he wouldn’t know which mamu I was calling, so he wouldn’t come. Years later, when I made sense of this, I realized that the nuances of a word are learnt much later, because there are no physical entities that they refer to. So the small child cannot be taught these. Asone’s exposure to the language increases, one learns the metaphorical and the nuanced meanings of words.What helps most is reading.
As the world evolves, language changes to respond to its demands. New words are coined, and some words fade away from use and remain locked in dictionaries, as the words “dhinki”, “dhinkisala”, “sila” and ‘silupua” in Odia. Husk is no more removed from paddy by hand-pounding and this has pushed the first two words out of use and the grinding machine has made the latter two words obsolete. In order to express new objects and new perspectives, new coinages have appeared.
To give some examples from English, where one finds most such coinages, as of now.The rich no longer want to be called “rich”; so, a term had to be created for them: “well-off’. The poor never had the privilege of saying how they should be called. But in the modern paradigm of empowerment that shows respect to the underprivileged and encourages self-respect among them, the poor are referred to as “economically challenged”. It suppresses the age-old negative suggestions associated with the word “poor”. In place of “disabled”, there is “persons with disability”, of “blind” and “mentally ill”, “visually challenged” and “psychiatric” respectively, and for “old men and women”, there is the term “senior citizens”. The materialistic outlook of today tends to look upon the old, who have ceased to participate in economic activities, as people who have outlived their usefulness. “Senior citizens” is a term to comfort them. Arguably, the best euphemism is reserved for the liar: “teller of tall tales”, an expression that elevates the cheat to the status of a narrator of sorts!
Then there are terms that hide the ugly, which should be fine, as euphemism serves a communicative purpose. It is just that one is not sure whether, in certain cases as the following, factsshould be expressed in sugar-coated language so as to lull the people into thinking that things are right with the world:” ethnic cleansing” which is the sanitized term for “genocide’, “enhanced interrogation”, for systematic torture, “put to sleep” for “euthanize” and then the mother of all euphemisms – “alternative facts” for “misinformation”!
(The views expressed are the writer’s own)
Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur
Email: [email protected]
(Images from the net)