In his 1965 essay "On Evasive Thinking", Václav Havel bemoans a degradation of language from being "a means of signifying reality, and of enabling us to come to an understanding of it" to being "an end in itself". Havel saw the "verbal mysticism" or "ritualization of language" cause the word as such to cease to be a sign for a category and instead gain "a kind of occult power to transform one reality into another".
Havel discussed this shift in the context of 1960’s Czechoslovakia, but the similarity with American proclivity for euphemisms struck me as quite poignant. Anyone struggling with the proliferation of "pre-owned vehicles" (used cars), "concierges" (receptionists), or "correctional facilities" (prisons) can relate:
It’s enough for a good old fireman, a quite ordinary man whose job is to put out fires, to be called an "incendiary engineer", and immediately we not only think of him as having some higher function, we also begin to be somewhat afraid of him.
When euphemisms stay on the micro, interpersonal level, they fulfill their role. Who wants to describe someone as "fat", when "big" or "curvy" can do it more gently? I’ve put my foot in my mouth enough to know the value of diplomacy in conversation (though I still have a way to go before mastering it). In fact, any immigrant who wants to make it in America must learn to navigate the euphemic crust of American English. It’s when euphemisms enter the public discourse that they enter the Havelian land of evasive thinking,
a way of thinking that turns away from the core of the matter to something else—from the word "laziness" to the word "disproportion", from the word "cowardice" to the word "tactics", or from the concrete fact of personal guilt to the abstract category called "the atmosphere of the cult of personality".
Once again, the context is specific to Havel’s place and time, but when instead of concrete words like death, torture, or slum you hear "collateral damage", "enhanced interrogation techniques", or "economically depressed neighborhood", you find yourself in the conflict between the two ways of thinking he observed.
We live in a time of struggle between two ways of thinking: thinking evasively and thinking to the point. We live in a time when reality is in conflict with platitude, when a fact is in conflict with a priori interpretation of it, when common sense is in conflict with a distorted rationality. It is a time of conflict between two gnoseologies: the one that, from an a priori interpretation of the world, deduces how that reality should be seen, and the one that, from how reality is seen, deduces how that reality must be interpreted.
Rather than describing reality as it is, words in euphemisms reflect a speaker’s viewpoint or ideology. Take abortion. Oxford Dictionary describes it as "the deliberate termination of a human pregnancy, most often performed during the first 28 weeks"; Merriam-Webster as "the termination of a pregnancy after, accompanied by, resulting in, or closely followed by the death of the embryo or fetus". The public, political debate about abortion deals not in the concrete but in the ideological. If you’re pro-life, you believe life begins at conception and you are against abortion because it kills a human being; if you’re pro-choice, you believe life begins after birth and that women have the right to decide what to do with their bodies (needless to say, the two sides abhor each other).
Havel’s observation applies in this debate: "the words we use these days are more important than what we are talking about". You can still argue that the debate deals with deliberate termination of human pregnancy, but each camp aims to reframe it to fit their viewpoint, whether it’s human rights, religion, or biology. Speaking about abortion in their respective ideological abstracts, both camps have a problem.
[R]eality can be liquidated with the help of a false "contextualization": the praiseworthy attempt to see things in their wider context becomes so formalized that instead of applying that technique in particular, unique ways, appropriate to a given reality, it becomes a single and widely used model of thinking with a special capacity to dissolve—in the vagueness of all the possible wider contexts—everything particular in that reality. Thus what looks like an attempt to see something in a complex way in fact results in a complex form of blindness. For if we can’t see individual, specific things, we can’t see anything at all. And the more we know only what is apparent about reality, the less we know about reality in fact.
The participants in the pro-choice vs. pro-life debate lose sight of the individual who faces the tough decision whether to terminate her pregnancy. I suspect she cares little about when life begins and whether it’s her right to abort. Maybe she was raped, maybe she’s a teenager who isn’t ready to be a parent, maybe she doesn’t want to bring a disabled child into the world—whatever the circumstance, abortion is a personal tragedy with long-lasting effects no matter what side you’re on.
This is where euphemisms betray us. When language separates us from, rather than connects us to reality; when we approach the world with colored glasses instead of with our eyes and minds wide open; when we invent new words to describe old reality—we lose touch with ourselves and with our world.
When we lose touch with reality, we inevitably lose the capacity to influence reality effectively. And the weaker that capacity is, the greater our illusion that we have effectively influenced reality. And so, in the end, the only thing that fails to conform to our wishes is reality.
As an immigrant, your grasp on your new reality is tenuous and you fight hard every day to strengthen it. Euphemism mines make the going a lot tougher and slower. Through essays like Havel’s, they may even take you where you came from, back in time.
- Source: Václav Havel, "Open Letters: Selected Writings, 1965-1990", New York: Vintage, 1992
- Image credits: mikeyexists and slambo_42 via Flickr
- Read "American Euphemisms and Evasive Thinking, Part 1"
When I was a teenager I remember my ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher trying to explain idioms to us. As a young immigrant with about a hundred words in the English language at my command, I remember how complicated some of these expressions seemed.
I think the euphemisms that served as word replacement were fairly easy to understand when I was learning English. Things like “frak” and “Friggin’” were so obvious. Son of a…”gun.” I remember talking to someone who was telling expressions like “son of a gun” used to be offensive to people back in the day because they didn’t hide the meaning of what was being said. They were a pointless kind of euphemism because they weren’t evasive enough. Yet, it seems evasiveness wasn’t the point because the general meaning of the expression is still intact.
Phrases and idioms took a lot more practice. I found it easier to understand them once I figured their Spanish-language equivalents. For example, the phrase “Let the prisoner escape” (in Spanish) was like saying “cut the cheese” in English. They’re both euphemisms for farting. At the core, there’s a lot of truth to what you say about evasiveness, but seems most of us, children even, understood these euphemisms as placeholders the central idea was not lost in the process. This evasiveness had to do with audience and place. Where one was and who was around to hear it. There’s a wonderful essay by Jill McCorkle titled “Cuss Time” in which she talks about giving her five-year old son five minutes a day to say all the bad words he wanted so he wouldn’t use the words in public. As you imagine this kid would run around the house cursing like crazy for five minutes. What is surprising about it was that to the child all bad words were equal. Things like poop, fart, shit, fuck, all were all equally offensive. I think what we’re seeing as a result of euphemisms/evasiveness is a kind of “flattening” of language. When translating things (novels/essays/poems) there’s always a level of “register;” like pitch in music. This is the level of diction you translate something from one language to another. You don’t translate “bossom” the same way you translate “boobie.” Each word has a different register.
I think in the flattening of language we’re limiting ourselves to engage people in true dialogue. The process of establishing rhetoric the general understating of something has shifted completely that grown people seem completely unable to agree on the definition of anything. The political rhetoric in this country has sank pretty low where the arguments about giving every person healthcare because an issues of “The Government has the responsibility to provide Healthcare for its citizens” Vs “The Government doesn’t have the power to make me buy things I don’t want.”
In general we’re getting dumber with language each day.
@Carlos: Thanks for the thoughtful response. Euphemisms do play an important role in human communication. By shielding us from the truth they may just keep society from falling apart. They are like that prisoner that must be allowed to escape: a safety valve. I’d rather tell someone their grandma is in a better place than that she’s dead. Those ‘harmless’ euphemisms exist in every language, and it can actually be fun to learn them. It’s when euphemisms enter the political arena that they turn into evasive thinking. When they make the concrete abstract, language not only flattens, it moves away from reality and becomes a power tool. Or, to use your analogy, it elevates the register so much only the privileged can hear it, the dogs that they are.