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Euphemisms

There is a variety of periphrasis which we shall call euphemistic.

Euphemism, as is known, is a word or phrase used to replace an unpleasant word or expression by a conventionally more acceptable one, for example, the word 'to die' has bred the following euphemisms: to pass away, to expire, to be no more, to depart, to join the majority, to be gone, and the more facetious ones: to kick the bucket, to give up the ghost, to go west. So euphemisms are synonyms which aim at producing a deliberately mild effect.

The origin of the term 'euphemism' discloses the aim of the device very clearly, i.e. speaking well (from Greek—eu = well + -pheme — speaking). In the vocabulary of any language, synonyms can be found that soften an otherwise coarse or unpleasant idea. Euphemism is sometimes figuratively called "a whitewashing device". The linguistic peculiarity of euphemism lies in the fact that every euphemism must call up a definite synonym in the mind of the reader or listener. This synonym, or dominant in a group of synonyms, as it is often called, must follow the euphemism like a shadow, as 'to possess a vivid imagination', or 'to tell stories' in the proper context will call up the unpleasant verb to lie. The euphemistic synonyms given above are part of the language-as-a-system. They have not been freshly invented. They are expressive means of the language and are to be found in all good dictionaries. They cannot be regarded as stylistic devices because they do not call to mind the key-' word or dominant of the group; in other words, they refer the mind to the concept directly, not through the medium of another word. Compare these euphemisms with the following from Dickens's "Pickwick Papers":

"They think we have come by this horse in some dishonest manner."

The italicized parts call forth the word 'steal' (have stolen it).

Euphemisms may be divided into several groups according to their spheres of application. The most recognized are the following: 1) religious, 2) moral, 3) medical and 4) parliamentary.

The life of euphemisms is short. They very soon become closely associated with the referent (the object named) and give way to a newly-coined word or combination of words, which, being the sign of a sign, throws another veil over an unpleasant or indelicate concept. Here is an interesting excerpt from an article on this subject.

"The evolution over the years of a civilized mental health service has been marked by periodic changes in terminology. The madhouse became the lunatic asylum.; the asylum made way for the mental hospital—even if the building remained the same. Idiots, imbeciles and the feeble-minded became low, medium and high-grade mental defectives. All are now to be lumped together as patients of severely subnormal personality. The insane became persons of unsound mind, and are now to be mentally-ill patients. As each phrase develops the stigmata of popular prejudice, it is abandoned in favour of another, sometimes less precise than the old. Unimportant in themselves, these changes of name are the signposts of progress."



Albert C. Baugh gives another instance of such changes:

"...the common word for a woman's undergarment down to the eighteenth century was 'smock'. It was then replaced by the more delicate word 'shift'. In the nineteenth century the same motive led to the substitution of the word 'chemise' and in the twentieth this has been replaced by 'combinations', 'step-ins', and other euphemisms."

Today we have a number of words denoting similar garments, as 'briefs', and others.

Conventional euphemisms employed in conformity to social usages are best illustrated by the parliamentary codes of expression. In an article headed "In Commons, a Lie is Inexactitude" written by James Feron in The New York Times, we may find a number of words that are not to be used in Parliamentary debate. "When Sir Winston Churchill, some years ago," writes Feron, "termed a parliamentary opponent a 'purveyor of terminological inexactitudes', every one in the chamber knew he meant 'liar'. Sir Winston had been ordered by the Speaker to withdraw a stronger epithet. So he used the euphemism, which became famous and is still used in the Commons. It conveyed the insult without sounding offensive, and it satisfied the Speaker."3

The author further points out that certain words, for instance, traitor and coward, are specifically banned in the House of Commons because earlier Speakers have ruled them disorderly or unparliamentary. Speakers have decided that jackass is unparliamentary but goose is acceptable; dog, rat and swine are out of order, but halfwit and Tory clot are in order.

We also learn from this article that "a word cannot become the subject of parliamentary ruling unless a member directs the attention of the Speaker to it."

The changes in designating objects disclose the true nature of the relations between words and their referents. We must admit that there is a positive magic in words and, as Prof. Randolph Quirk has it,

"...we are liable to be dangerously misled through being mesmerized by a word or through mistaking a word for its referent."

This becomes particularly noticeable in connection with what are called political euphemisms. These are really understatements, the aim of which is to mislead public opinion and to express what is unpleasant in a more delicate manner. Sometimes disagreeable facts are even distorted with the help of a euphemistic expression. Thus the headline in one of jfie British newspapers "Tension in Kashmir" was to hide the fact that "there was a real uprising in that area; "Undernourishment of children in India" stood for 'starvation'. In A. J. Cronin's novel "The Stars Look Down" one of the members of Parliament, referring to the words "Undernourishment of children in India" says: "Honourable Members of the House understand the meaning of this polite euphemism." By calling undernourishment a polite euphemism he discloses the true meaning of the word. y

An interesting article dealing with the question of "political euphemisms" appeared headed "The Vocabulary of the Bearers of the Burden of Power." In this article Entzo Rava wittily discusses the euphemisms of the Italian capitalist press, which seem to have been borrowed from the American and English press. Thus, for instance, he mockingly states that capitalists have disappeared from Italy. When the adherents of capitalism find it necessary to mention capitalists, they replace the word capitalist by the combination 'free enterprisers', the word profit is replaced by 'savings', the building up of labour reserves stands for 'unemployment', 'dismissal' ('discharge', 'firing') of workers is the reorganization of the enterprise, etc.

As has already been explained, genuine euphemism must call up the word it stands for. It is always the result of some deliberate clash between two synonyms. If a euphemism fails to carry along with it the word it is intended to replace, it is not a euphemism, but a deliberate veiling of the truth. All these building up of labour reserves, savings, free enterprisers and the like are not intended to give the referent its true name, but to distort the truth. The above expressions serve that purpose. Compare these word-combinations with real euphemisms, like a four-letter word (= an obscenity); or a woman of a certain type (= a prostitute, a whore); to glow (= to sweat), all of which bring to our mind the other word (words) and only through them the referent.

Here is another good example of euphemistic phrases used by Galsworthy in his "Silver Spoon."

"In private I should merely call him a liar. In the Press you should use the words: 'Reckless disregard for truth' and in Parliament—that you regret he 'should have been so misinformed.'"

Periphrastic and euphemistic expressions were characteristic of certain literary trends and even produced a term periphrastic style. But it soon gave way to a more straightforward way of describing things.

"The veiled forms of expression," writes G. H. McKnight, "which served when one was unwilling to look facts in the face have been succeeded by naked expressions exhibiting reality."1

Hyperbole

Another SD which also has the function of intensifying one certain property of the object described is hyperbole. It can be defined as a deliberate overstatement or exaggeration of a feature essential (unlike periphrasis) to the object or phenomenon. In its extreme form this exaggeration is carried to an illogical degree, sometimes ad absurdum. For example:

"He was so tall that I was not sure he had a face." (O. Henry) or, "Those three words (Dombey and Son) conveyed the one idea of Mr. Dombey's life. The earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in and the sun and moon were made to give them light. Rivers and seas were formed to float their ships; rainbows gave them promise of fair weather; winds blew for or against their enterprises; stars and planets circled in their orbits to preserve inviolate a system of which they were the centre." (Dickens)

In order to depict the width of the river Dnieper Gogol uses the following hyperbole:

"It's a rare bird that can fly to the middle of the Dnieper."

Like many stylistic devices, hyperbole may lose its quality as a stylistic device through frequent repetition and become a unit of the language-as-a-system, reproduced in speech in its unaltered form. Here are some examples of language hyperbole:

'A thousand pardons'; '"scared to death', 'immensely obliged;' 'I'd give the world to see him.'

Byron says:

"When people say "I've told you fifty times" They mean to scold, and very often do."

Hyperbole differs from mere exaggeration in that it is intended to be understood as an exaggeration. In this connection the following quotations deserve a passing note:

"Hyperbole is the result of a kind of intoxication by emotion, which prevents a person from seeing things in their true dimensions... If the reader (listener) is not carried away by the emotion of the writer (speaker), hyperbole becomes a mere lie."

V. V. Vinogradov, developing Gorki's statement that "genuine art enjoys the right to exaggerate," states that hyperbole is the law of art which brings the existing phenomena of life, diffused as they are, to the point of maximum clarity and conciseness.2

Hyperbole is a device which sharpens the reader's ability to make a logical assessment of the utterance. This is achieved, as is the case with other devices, by awakening the dichotomy of thought and feeling where thought takes the upper hand though not to the detriment of feeling.

D. PECULIAR USE OF SET EXPRESSIONS

In language studies there are two very clearly-marked tendencies that the student should never lose sight of, particularly when dealing with the problem of word-combination. They are \) t he analytical tendency, which seeks to dissever one component from another and 2) the synthetic tendency which seeks to integrate the parts of the combination into a stable unit.

These two tendencies are treated in different ways in lexicology and stylistics. In lexicology the parts of a stable lexical unit may be separated in order to make a scientific investigation of the character of the combination and to analyse the components. In stylistics we analyse the component parts in order to get at some communicative effect sought by the writer. It is this communicative effect and the means employed to achieve it that lie within the domain of stylistics.

The integrating tendency also is closely studied in the realm of lexicology, especially when linguistic scholars seek to fix what seems to be a stable word-combination and ascertain the degree of its stability, its variants and so on. The integrating tendency is also within the domain of stylistics, particularly when the word-combination has not yet formed itself as a lexical unit but is in the process of being so formed.

Here we are faced with the problem of what is called the cliché.

The Cliché

A cliché is generally defined as an expression that has become hackneyed and trite. As Random House Dictionary has it, "a cliché ... has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long over-use..."

This definition lacks one point that should be emphasized; that is, a cliché strives after originality, whereas it has lost the aesthetic generating power it once had. There is always a contradiction between what is aimed at and what is actually attained. Examples of real clichés are 'rosy dreams of youth', 'the patter of little feet, ' deceptively simple'.

Definitions taken from various dictionaries show that cliche is a derogatory term and it is therefore necessary to avoid anything that may be called by that name. But the fact is that most of the widely recognized word-combinations which have been adopted by the language are unjustly classified as cliches. The aversion for cliches has gone so far that most of the lexical units based on simile (see p. 167) are branded as cliches. In an interesting article entitled "Great Cliche Debate" published in the New York Times Magazine1 we can read the pros and cons concerning cliches. The article is revealing on one main point. It illustrates the fact that an uncertain or vague term will lead to various and even conflicting interpretations of the idea embodied in the term. What, indeed, do the words 'stereotyped', 'hackneyed', 'trite' convey to the mind? First of all they indicate that the phrase is in common use. Is this a demerit? Not at all. On the contrary: something common, habitual, devoid of novelty is the only admissible expression in some types of communications. In the article just mentioned one of the debators objects to the phrase 'Jack-of-all-trades' and suggests that it should be "one who can turn his hand to any (or to many kinds of) work." His opponent naturally rejects the substitute on the grounds that 'Jack of all trades' may, as he says, have long ceased to be vivid or original, but his substitute never was. And it is fourteen words instead of four. "Determine to avoid cliches at all costs and you are almost certain to be led into gobbledygook."

Debates of this kind proceed from a grossly mistaken notion that the term 'cliche' is used to denote all stable word-combinations, whereas it was coined to denote word-combinations which have long lost their novelty and become trite, but which are used as if they were fresh and original and so have become irritating to people who are sensitive to the language they hear and read. What is familiar should not be given a derogatory label. On the contrary, if it has become familiar, that means it has won general recognition and by iteration has been accepted as a unit of the language.

But the process of being acknowledged as a unit of language is slow. It is next to impossible to foretell what may be accepted as a unit of the language and what may be rejected and cast away as being unfit, inappropriate, alien to the internal laws of the language, or failing to meet the demand of the language community for stable word-combinations to designate new notions. Hence the two conflicting ideas: language should always be fresh, vigorous and expressive, and, on the other hand, language, as a common tool for intercommunication, should make use of units that are easily understood and which require little or no effort to convey the idea and to grasp it.

R. D. Altick in his "Preface to Critical Reading" condemns every word sequence in which what follows can easily be predicted from what precedes.

"When does an expression become a cliche? There can be no definite answer, because what is trite to one person may still be fresh to another. But a great many expressions are universally understood to be so threadbare as to be useless except in the most casual discourse... A good practical test is this: If, when you are listening to a speaker, you can accurately anticipate what he is going to say next, he is pretty certainly using cliches, otherwise he would be constantly surprising you."

Then he gives examples, like We are gathered here to-day to mourn ('the untimely death') of our beloved leader...; Words are inadequate ('to express the grief that is in our hearts').

"Similarly when you read," he goes on, "if one word almost inevitably invites another, if you can read half of the words and know pretty certainly what the other are, you are reading cliches."

And then again come illustrations, like We watched the flames ('licking') at the side of the building. A pall ('of smoke') hung thick over the neighbourhood...; He heard a dull ('thud') which was followed by an ominous ('silence').

This passage shows that the author has been led into the erroneous notion that everything that is predictable is a cliche. He is confusing useful word-combinations circulating in speech as members of the word-stock of the language with what claims to be genuine, original and vigorous. All word-combinations that do not surprise are labelled as cliches. If we agree with such an understanding of the term, we must admit that the following stable and necessary word-combinations used in newspaper language must be viewed as cliches: 'effective guarantees', 'immediate issues', 'the whip and carrot policy', 'statement of policy', 'to maintain some equilibrium between reliable sources', 'buffer zone', 'he laid it down equally clearly that...' and so on.

R. D. Altick thus denounces as cliches such verb- and noun-phrases as 'to live to a ripe old age\ 'to grow by leaps and bounds', 'to withstand the test of time', 'to let bygones be bygones', 'to be unable to see the wood for the trees', 'to upset the apple-cart', 'to have an ace up one's sleeve'. And finally he rejects such word-combinations as 'the full flush of victory', 'the patter of rain', 'part and parcel', 'a diamond in the rough' and the like on the grounds that they have outlasted their freshness.3 In his protest against hackneyed phrases, Altick has gone so far as to declare that people have adopted phrases like 'clock-work precision',

tight-lipped (or stony) silence', 'crushing defeat', 'bumper-to-bumper traffic', 'sky-rocketing costs' and the like ". .. as a way of evading their obligation to make their own language."1

Of course, if instead of making use of the existing means of communication, i.e. the language of the community, people are to coin "their own language," then Altick is right. But nobody would ever think such an idea either sound or reasonable. The set expressions of a language are 'part and parcel' of the vocabulary of the language and cannot be dispensed with by merely labelling them cliches.

However, at every period in the development of a language, there appear strange combinations of words which arouse suspicion as to their meaning and connotation. Many of the new-born word-combinations in modern English, both in their American and British variants, have been made fun of because their meaning is still obscure, and therefore they are used rather loosely. Recently in the New York Times such cliches as 'speaking realization', 'growing awareness', 'rising expectations', 'to think unthinkable thoughts' and others were wittily criticized by a journalist who showed that ordinary rank-and-file American people do not understand these new word-combinations, just as they fail to understand certain neologisms, as opt (= to make a choice), and revived words, as deem (= to consider, to believe to be) and others and reject them or use them wrongly.

But as history has proved, the protest of too-zealous purists often fails to bar the way to all kinds of innovations into standard English. Illustrative in this respect is the protest made by Byron in his "Don Juan":and also:or:"...'free to confess'—(whence comes this phrase? Is't English? No—'tis only parliamentary)."

"A strange coincidence to use a phrase By which such things are settled nowadays."

"The march of Science (How delightful these cliches are!)..."

(Aldington)

Byron, being very sensitive to the aesthetic aspect of his native language, could not help observing the triteness of the phrases he comments on, but at the same time he accepts them as ready-made units. Language has its strength and its weaknesses. A linguistic scholar must be equipped with methods of stylistic analysis to ascertain the writer's aim, the situation in which the communication takes place and possibly the impact on the reader, to decide whether or not a phrase is a cliche or "the right word in the right place". If he does not take into consideration all the properties of the given word or word-combination, the intricacies of language units may become a trap for him.

Men-of-letters, if they are real artists, use the stock of expressive phrases contained in the language naturally and easily, and well-known phrases never produce the impression of being cliches.


Date: 2014-12-29; view: 1998


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