We all use euphemisms. We ask for directions to the "ladies room" or convey the news that someone has recently "passed away." In fact, euphemisms have existed throughout recorded history: they are used by preliterate peoples, and have probably been around since human language first developed. And the same is true of offensive language, or "dysphemisms"–words used as weapons against others, or as release valves for anger and frustration.
In this fascinating study, Keith Allan and Kate Burridge examine the linguistic, social, and psychological aspects of this intriguing universal practice. They cover the many shapes euphemism can take, from circumlocution and acronym to hyperbole and understatement, metaphor, and even technical jargon (many medical terms ultimately derive from euphemisms–stool, for instance, comes from "go to the stool," and diabetes comes from a Greek word meaning "to go a lot," since people with diabetes urinate frequently). They discuss the many euphemisms and dysphemisms for tabooed body parts (there are, the authors point out, at least 1,200 terms for vagina and 1,000 for penis), bodily functions, death, and disease. They describe euphemisms used to avoid religious blasphemy, from the archaic "egad" and "zounds" and "gadzooks" to the modern equivalents, such as "Jiminy Cricket" and "golly" or "gosh." They even discuss the political use of euphemism; for instance, when at war, to shield the public from upsetting details (or shield politicians from the voter), concentration camps become "pacification centers," bombing raids become "surgical strikes," and bombs dropped on our own troops become "friendly fire." (President Reagan, a master of euphemism, insisted that the attack on Grenada was not an "invasion," but rather a "rescue mission.") Along the way, the authors provide illuminating discussions of word origins, the use of bawdy language in Shakespeare, and many other fascinating topics.
With thousands of examples drawn from speech, literature, newspapers, television, and film, Allan and Burridge invite us all to ponder and enjoy the creative products of the human mind as it confronts the problem of talking in different contexts about sex, lust, disapproval, anger, disease, death, fear, and God.