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Euphemisms. Their types and functions

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There are words in every language which people instinctively avoid because they are considered indecent, indelicate, rude or impolite. As the “offensive” referents, for which these words stand, must be alluded too, they are often described in a round-about way, by using substitutes called euphemisms.This device is dictatedby social conventions which are sometimes apt to be over-sensitive, see “indecency” where there is none and seek refinement in absurd avoidances and pretentiousness.

The word lavatory has produced many euphemisms: powder room, washroom, restroom, and ladies’ (room), gentlemen’s room.

Pregnancy is another topic for “delicate” references. Here are euphemisms used as substitutes for the adjective pregnant: in an interesting condition, in a delicate condition, in the family way, expecting.

The love of affectation, which displays itself in the excessive use of euphemisms, has never been a sign of good taste or genuine refinement. Quite the opposite. Fiction writers have often ridiculed pretentious people for their weak attempts to express themselves in a delicate and refined way.

“ Mrs. Sunbury never went to bed, she retired, but Mr. Sunbury who was not

quite so refined as his wife always said, “Me for Bedford”…

To retire in this ironical passage is a euphemistic substitute for to go to bed.

There are words which are easy targets for euphemistic substitution. These include words associated with drunkenness, which are very numerous. The adjective drunk has a great number of such substitutes, e.g. intoxicated (form.), tipsy, high, merry, overcome, full (coll.), drunk as a lord (coll.), boiled (sl. набравшийся), soaked (sl. насосавшийся).

Euphemisms may be used due to genuine concern not to hurt someone’s feelings. For instance, a lier can be described as a person who does not always tell the truth and a stupid man can be said to be not exactly brilliant.

All the euphemisms that have been described so far are used to avoid the so-called social taboos. Theiruse is inspired by social convention.

Superstitious taboosgave rise to the use of other type of euphemisms. The reluctance to call things by their proper names is also typical of this type of euphemisms, but this time it is based on a deeply-rooted subconcious fear.



Superstitious tabooshave their roots in the distant past of mankind when people believed that there was a supernatural link between a name and the object or creature it represented. Therefore, all the words denoting evil spirits, dangerous animals, or the powers of nature were taboo. If uttered, it was believed that unspeakable disasters would result not only for the speaker but also for those near him. That is why all creatures, objects and phenomena threating danger were referred to in a round-about descriptive way. So, a dangerous animal might be described as the one-lurking-in-the-wood. Euphemisms are probably the oldest type of synonyms.

The Christian religion also made certain words taboo. The proverb Speak of the devil and he will appear (лёгок на помине) must have been used and taken quite literally when it was first used, and the fear of calling the devil by name was inherited from ancient superstitious beliefs. So, the word devil became taboo, and a number of euphemisms were substitutes for it: the Prince of Darkness, the black one, the evil one, deuce (coll.), (Old) Nick (coll.).

The word God, also had a great number of substitutes which can still be traced in such phrases as Good Lord!, By Heavens!, Good Heavens!, (My) goodness gracious!

Even in our modern emancipated times, old superstitious fears still lurk behind words associated with death and fatal diseases. People are not superstitious nowadays and yet they are reluctant to use the verb to die which has a long chain of substitutes, e.g. to pass away, to be taken, to close one’s eyes, to go West (sl.), to kick off (sl.).

 

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All the above examples show that euphemismsare substitutes for their synonyms. Their use and very existence are caused either by social conventions or by certain psychological factors. Most of them have stylistic connotations intheir semanticstructures. One can also assume that there is a special euphemistic connotation that can be singled out in the semantic structure of each such word. Let us point out, too, that euphemistic connotations in formal euphemismsare different in “flavour” from those in slang euphemistic substitutes.In the first case they are solemn (официальный) and delicately evasive (уклончивый), and in the second rough and cynical.

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