One of the subtleties of language is the use of euphemisms. A euphemism is a less offensive word or phrase used in place of another term that might be considered too direct, harsh, unpleasant, or offensive. It substitutes an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that might offend or suggest something unpleasant. The word comes from the Greek euphēmismos, which comes from eu (auspicious, good, pleasant) and phēmē (speech).
In many cases euphemisms are harmless, even rooted in a kind of charity and a desire not to offend unnecessarily. For example, we may say that someone has “passed away,” or “departed this life,” rather than that the person died. A woman may say she is going to “powder her nose” rather than that she is going to the bathroom. We may say a man is stocky, or a woman full-figured, rather than saying he or she is fat or overweight. Parents say they are going to have “the talk” with their kids or tell them about “the birds and bees,” rather than saying, “I’m going to talk to my kids about sex.”
In many ways these are polite circumlocutions that get across the basic message but seek to describe less pleasant notions in more pleasant or discreet ways.
Some euphemisms are downright silly: you aren’t poor, you are economically disadvantaged; a company isn’t failing it is being right-sized; you aren’t broke, you have negative cash flow; it’s not a used car, it’s pre-owned; your stocks aren’t losing money they’re underperforming; and that booze you’re drinking is an “adult beverage”—silly stuff, really.
But in some cases, euphemisms cause harm since they seek to deceive by hiding the truth of things that are morally wrong. It is one thing to describe a reality politely or softly, but it is quite another to outright hide the reality of something by using words meant more to distort or conceal.
Most odious is the use of phrases and terms meant to conceal the violent murder of a child in the womb by abortion. Thus proponents of this horrifying act use euphemisms such as “choice,” “reproductive rights,” “reproductive freedom,” “women’s health,” etc. Abortion facilities are called “clinics” or “Women’s Healthcare Centers.” The brutal reality is that the “choice” being advocated is the killing of a child in the womb, usually accomplished by methods such as chemical poisoning (abortifacients), chemical burning (saline), curettage (scraping), dismemberment, and suctioning. “Choice” and other such terms do not merely render this act more politely. Terms like this intentionally seek to deceive and to hide the awful reality of what is happening.
In the area of sexuality, too many euphemisms seek to render sinful things in more “pleasant” terms. These euphemisms are not merely polite terms but seek more to obscure and even celebrate what is sinful.
Thus what we used to call fornication, “living in sin,” or “shacking up” is now called “cohabitation,” “living together,” or “common law marriage.” Never mind that fornicators do not inherit the kingdom of God (e.g., 1 Cor 6:9; Eph 5:5; Gal 5:19-21) and that this sort of behavior dishonors marriage and has caused great harm to families. Never mind the children who often die by abortion (85% of abortions are performed on single women) or if not still face the injustice of being raised in broken or incomplete homes.
Sadly, this sinful behavior is either rendered in abstract and pleasant terms, or even outright celebrated in popular culture. The euphemisms do not help in disclosing the reality that what is really going on here is illicit sexual union that is offensive to God, dishonoring of marriage (Heb 13:4), harmful to children, and destructive of culture.
And of course there are many euphemisms associated with homosexuality. Nothing could be more abstract and misleading than the term “gay.” Even homosexuality is a recently coined term to replace the biblical terms “sodomy” and “sodomite.” And while the Church is careful to distinguish between the orientation and the actual sin of homosexual acts, we must be clear that even the orientation is disordered. That is, the desire is not ordered to its proper goal. So euphemistic is the word “gay” that most people never even stop to consider what homosexual acts actually involve.
A recent article by Kevin O’Brien in Gilbert: The Magazine of the Chesterton Society speaks to the modern problem we face wherein homosexual acts are considered only abstractly:
Take the recent flap involving Phil Robertson of duck dynasty … who made what was once the rather normal observation that our sex organs are not designed for the degraded use that is made of them by male homosexuals …
The problem was that Robertson did not use euphemisms, but described rather vividly and accurately what “gay” sex consists of (Page 3, vol 17, No 4, Jan/Feb 2014).
Frankly, the physical reality is rather an unpleasant thing for the average person to consider. Uncloaked from euphemisms and abstractions like “gay,” and “two people loving each other,” the physical description of the act discloses to the average person how abnormal the action is, and that the organs involved are not intended for the purposes for which they are being used.
Frank language alert. Skip this paragraph if you do not wish to read non-euphemistic descriptions of sexual behavior. To be utterly non-euphemistic, an anus is intended to assist in the expelling of feces. It is not a sexual organ and those who use it as such (homosexual or heterosexual) engage in disordered sexual behavior. They deviate from what nature and God provide for and intend. It is no surprise that disease, tearing, and infection result from this sort of unhealthy behavior. Likewise too for the mutual masturbation that occurs in the other deviant and disordered practices of both homosexuals and some heterosexual couples.
Calling a spade a spade, as Phil Robertson did, blows the cover under which the abnormal folks are hiding – the cover of euphemism – of coming up with a false and fancy way of saying something to gloss over and obscure the truth it represents. GK Chesterton said it best, “[Many] depend almost entirely on euphemism. They introduce their horrible heresies under new and carefully complementary names … The names are always flattery; the names are also nonsense.”
O’Brien Concludes: The furor of the “gay” community over Robertson’s statement belies a troubled conscience. (Ibid)
Other troubling euphemisms exist such as calling patient suicide or the killing of the sick and dying “euthanasia” (from the Greek, meaning good or pleasant death). It is not good; it is sinful. It is either suicide or murder, but in no way is it good and it cannot be captured in abstract terms like euthanasia. Human beings have souls and are not meant to be “put down” like animals. Suffering is clarifying, sanctifying, and noble for human beings. We are not required to prolong life by absurd means. But neither should we diminish the dignity of human life and the dignity of those who suffer by killing them.
There are a lot of euphemisms in the areas of war and politics as well. I will avoid discussing political euphemisms since this is not a political blog. But regarding war, I will say that we have tended to try to obscure the fact that war is awful. What we call “collateral damage” means that a lot of innocent people were killed or had their homes and neighborhoods bombed back to the Stone Age. At the end of the day, war is about killing people and breaking a lot of things; it is a foretaste of Hell. No euphemism (e.g., an action, an incursion, a coalition, a “war to end all wars,” “Operation Freedom,” etc.) can or should seek to cover this fact. I am no pacifist, but we need to be clear that war is terrible; it is bloody; and once a war is begun, it is VERY difficult to ensure that even the best intentions do not turn sour and evil in its fog. War sets loose and invites the very demons of Hell; it is ugly and awful no matter what party or president calls for it. It is no video game, and it should always be a last recourse used only in the gravest of circumstances.
So euphemisms have a place when charity and discretion are the goal. But too easily and too often today euphemisms are not used in charity but rather to hide the truth and to render abstract and murky what is sinful and wrong. We do well to insist on honesty in labeling. Charity, yes, but the truth cannot be sacrificed. Veritatem in Caritate (The Truth in Charity).