Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms
Ralph Keyes’s Euphemania is so poorly written that, in spite of the rich and interesting subject matter, it is difficult to read.
On the one hand, Keyes insists that euphemisms—circumlocutionary words and phrases—signal both the pliancy and richness possible in human languages and the creativity of the human mind. On the other hand, he claims that by replacing strong clear words with softer and often foreign ones, our language is thereby made sterile and weak. Here he comes close to George Orwell’s famous (and better written and much more convincing) rant against dead metaphors and fancy Latinate replacement for simple Anglo-Saxon words in the English language. Keyes appears to attempt to make this point about language generally—not about the English languages specifically—and so bounces back and forth between endorsing and bemoaning the creation and use of euphemistic language.
When tracing the genealogy of families of euphemisms, Keyes offers confused and misleading information. For example, when writing about the status of children born to unmarried parents, Keyes equates the concepts of “bastard” and “legitimacy” with “child of sin.” That is to say, he squashes a lineage of concepts involving legal rights, inheritance, property laws, and status and a lineage of concepts involving metaphysics, sin, religious feeling, and moral commandments together as though there were no distinction.
The problems I have briefly noted are annoying and unfortunate. However, Keyes’s attitude toward women throughout his book is plainly offensive. What does Keyes mean to imply about the English Queen Victoria when he says she “was hardly dutiful”? Earlier in the book he explained that “duty” was an old Roman euphemism for sex—but the mother of nine children certainly “did her duty.” Earlier on the page, he mentions a “certain kind of dutiful sex”—is he implying that Victoria was a firecracker in the sack? How on earth would he know? Physical size and shape are prime targets for euphemistic language. Keyes, introducing the euphemism “Rubenesque,” tells us that the women Rubens painted would now be considered “candidates for gastric bypass.” This tells us far more about Keyes’s repulsion toward larger women than it does about Rubens’s art. When discussing words for genitalia, it becomes clear that Keyes is clueless about women’s anatomy: he claims that the offensive term “pudenda” (indicating shamefulness) is the “overall” term for women’s genitals, comprising, among other things, the vulva. Keyes is apparently unaware of the equivalence of vulva and pudenda, and of the preference for vulva.
Overall, this book is a waste of time. Do not put it on your shopping list. Do not give it to anyone who appreciates good writing, clear thinking or accuracy. Above all, do not give it to anyone who likes, supports, understands, or cares about women.