In a week in which Geronimo the alpaca was “euthanised” and anti-vaxxers decreed that dying “after a short illness” really means “from vaccine-related consequences”, there’s been lot of smelly stuff sloshing about.
Neither of those particular side-steps is new. “Euthanasia” is defined in the dictionary as “a gentle and easy death”, which arguably isn’t quite what Geronimo received.
“After a short illness”, meanwhile, declared by some on Twitter to be a swerve away from “death by clotshot”, has been around since the 1890s, and has become an obituary staple when the exact cause of death is private or unknown.
It joins other stock phrases such as “didn’t suffer fools gladly” (for which read “cantankerous”) and “a tireless raconteur” (“never stopped talking”). Thankfully, the days when “confirmed bachelor” and “he never married” were fig leaves for “gay” are long gone.
Of course, euphemism is more or less mandatory in some situations. We would no more declare we’re “going for a piss” during an interview than we would speak of being “off our faces” when visiting the in-laws.
This avoidance of rudeness has always been implicit in euphemism. But this also opens the gates to comedy, which revels in the very subjects we tiptoe around – and in dysphemism, deliberate rudeness.
Sometimes euphemism and dysphemism collide in such glorious sketches as one written in the 1960s by Michael Palin and Terry Jones for the TV series Do Not Adjust Your Set, in which a house guest asks if he can visit “the smallest room in the house”.
The host’s inability to comprehend him results in successively more plaintive euphemisms, from “seeing a man about a dog” to “communing with nature”.
When the guest finally gets to the point (“The truth is, I’m dying for a pee!”) the host exclaims “Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place! [Calling to wife] Darling, show our visitor the doughnut in granny’s greenhouse, would you?”
There are wry smiles in euphemisms of the past, too, a clear rebellious delight in naming the taboo. Those in 18th-century London, for example, tiptoed around the word “gin” at a time when the drink was deemed responsible for an entire city of degenerate alcoholics.
There was a cocktail of terms for the cheap buzz, including diddle, sweet stuff, strip-me-naked, tiger’s milk, and tittery.
Sexually transmitted infections, or STIs – the antiseptic successors of the euphemistic “venereal diseases” (named after Venus, the Roman goddess of love) – have long attracted both moral reprobation and euphemistic jollity.
Nicknames for syphilis included “Cupid’s measles”, “French marbles” and, from Shakespeare, “Neapolitan bone-ache” (these last two demonstrating how each nation blamed it on another: the Italians called syphilis morbus gallicus, the “French disease”).
But if today we are witnessing greater transparency in matters of sex, the taboo of death and dying seems to have taken a stronger hold of our sensitivities.
Here fear, and the need to keep a subject at (linguistic) arm’s length, are intertwined. The idiom of the undertaker (itself a euphemism) contains countless examples of the deodorising of death.
The dead – otherwise known as “loved ones”, “the departed” or “the deceased”, are “laid to rest” in “funeral parlours”. Today’s “funeral directors” talk, with a heavy dollop of black humour, of coffins as “furniture” and their corpses as “customers”.
Meanwhile, the act that got the customers there in the first place can be variously described as “popping one’s clog”, “kicking the bucket”, “kissing the ground” and “snuffing it”.
The primary function of euphemism, however, remains camouflage, a word that itself comes from the French camouflet, a puff of smoke blown into someone’s eyes.
Modern weapons of mass distraction range from the now ubiquitous “supply chain issues”, generally regarded as consequences of Brexit, the “new hospitals” that turn out to be new wings on existing ones, or the use of “levelling up” as a means of avoiding “inequality”. Arguably none is quite as brazen as the “alternative facts” espoused by Donald Trump’s office.
Any linguistic tool that can soften, disguise, offend and tease is a highly versatile one. Euphemism can do all of this. Like cologne, however, a little goes a long way – always useful when there are supply chain issues.
Susie Dent is a lexicographer and etymologist. She has appeared in Dictionary Corner on ‘Countdown’ since 1992. Her book, ‘Word Perfect: Etymological Entertainment for Every Day of the Year’, is out now