I remember being very confused as a child listening to Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust.” My underdeveloped brain could not fathom why anyone would find dust appetizing. I contemplated the weird things I’d tried in the past, like that one time I ate a dog treat when I was 7, but I just couldn’t get behind dust. After growing up and realizing what “biting the dust” really meant, I’m grateful for two things in retrospect. For one, despite my curiosity I never actually ate dust, although I did think Queen was all for it. Secondly, I now understand just how powerful a euphemism can be.
From childhood warnings against “adult beverages” to classroom chats over who “cut the cheese,” euphemisms are a crux for referencing all things acceptably unacceptable. And there seems to be an intuitive reason for why we use them in the first place: The truth can be difficult, and we don’t always like facing it. Even etymologically, the word “euphemism” comes from what appears to be an innate need to sugar coat.
Deriving from the Greek euphemismos (eu ‘well’ + phēmē ‘speaking’), euphemisms were used both to replace words deemed unfavorable and to avoid using words of ill-omen during religious ceremonies. For instance, prisons were referred to as “chambers,” while an executioner was called “the public man.” And when it came to addressing the ancient female goddesses of vengeance, Erinyes, the ancient Greeks did not hesitate to say “Eumenides” instead, meaning “the kindly ones.” Suddenly, the previously known “infernal goddesses” were now understood as something totally different. Where the logic connects here, I’m not so sure. I don’t usually understand feelings of vengeance to be kindly; mostly I see vengeance as malicious, but this seems to be the paradox.
I can see how labeling vengeance as kindly helped the ancient Greeks sleep at night, but there has to be a cost in averting negative emotions. Sure, they avoided some bad omens, but there’s a danger in disregard. Vengeance taken as kindness will eventually become just kindness if we refuse to acknowledge reality. At that point, any real feelings of vengeance will never be addressed, although they’ll still exist. And that definitely won’t end well for any ancient Greeks with bottled up emotions.
The paradox of euphemisms isn’t just a problem for the ancient Greeks. The way we use euphemisms today has just as contradictory an effect in addressing the truth. We’re accustomed to using euphemisms for just about any taboo or sensitive subject, whether it’s disguising boogers as “gold” or softening Jesus to “jeez.” And while many of these camouflages are in good fun, there’s no denying that we often perceive the substitute to mean something different than its root. In doing so, we dance around the tough truths of the origin while floating contently about the ease of its euphemism, which can become very dangerous depending on the gravity of what we’re concealing.
For example, U.S. government officials often use the expression “enhanced interrogation” when they’re really talking about torture. Just like the ancient Greeks used a euphemism to deny that Erinyes was a spirit of vengeance, it seems as though the U.S. government has adapted their own sugarcoating term for punishment. In a discussion on the $1.1 trillion spending bill to fund a Senate intelligence report investigating CIA interrogation methods, columnist David Brooks highlights that “the best thing about the report is, it cuts through the ocean of euphemism, the EITs, enhanced interrogation techniques, and all that. It gets to straight language. Torture—it’s obviously torture… and the euphemism is designed to dull the moral sensibility.”
Here, Brooks touches on the paradox exactly. While euphemisms work in appeasing moral sensitivity, they fail in addressing stark realities. And this phenomenon is dangerous for the very reason that euphemisms are used: An important truth is concealed in such a way that we become disconnected from the original concept while falsely considering its substitute synonymous. In doing so, we contradict the original meaning and submit ourselves to a deception. Linguist Steven Pinker argues this is unsustainable due to what he calls “the euphemism treadmill.”
Pinker defines the euphemism treadmill in writing that “concepts, not words, are primary in people’s minds. Give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name, at least not for long.” In other words, the moment the emotionally charged stigma of the origin catches up to the working euphemism, people feel a need to invent a new euphemism and chug along the treadmill of trickery. So long as people continue to avoid the hardship of reality and disguise comfort as newly colored concepts, we will continue to use euphemisms.
For now, we have a lot of work to do in acknowledging that the root of our discomfort isn’t so far off from the root of our words themselves. Maybe euphemisms would be less popular in a future where people become more accustomed to addressing the truth head on, despite the soreness of reality. After all, using language as a shield for the uncomfortable will never actually get rid of the uncomfortable, but rather brand it as new before becoming damaged by wear. And we’ll run on that treadmill forever if we don’t realize the danger in doing so.