Monday, November 09, 2009

Euphemisms & the distateful

When society perceives a word as offensive, or an act or object to which such an object refers as embarrassing and generally disagreeable, they replace it with a well known term which attempts to conceal their embarrassment. The new term is known as a euphemism, that is, a term that is a substitute of a less agreeable word. For instance, the word toilet has historically been a source of great social embarrassment. The truth is that the toilet as a physical structure or as a word, either written or heard, is in itself not a source of humiliation. It is the toilet associations which produce blushes and nervous smiles. The images of an individual in a toilet ‘doing the deed’ are the ones that humiliate. It is seeing through those toilet walls using our mental eyes; imagining what goes in there, that produces shame. A toilet is a private affair and a secret affair. No one wants to be caught with their pants down wiping their bottom.

The toilet has therefore become a necessary taboo. As a primary school boy in the 80s, the word “toilet” was unheard of. We used a more sophisticated term: lavatory, which the illiterate villagers called “lebeterii”. These buildings with fancy names were in effect pungent pit latrines of the crudest kind. I was later to learn of the word “toilet” before my JC. I have never liked the term particularly because naughty boys have the habit of erasing the “i” in the middle of the word so that it reads: “to let”. I have since learnt of numerous “toilet” euphemisms. Amongst these are “public conveniences”, “the gents or the ladies” derived from the outside labels which mark male and female toilets. In Canada they call toilets “washrooms” while the Americans are famous for calling the toilet “the restroom” or “the bathroom” even if it lacks an adjacent bathtub. In certain parts of England a toilet is known as a “water closet” or simply by its abbreviations “W.C.” At Oxford they call a toilet “the cloakroom”. The term may indeed be fitting Oxford’s formal setup, where gowns are worn for daily evening dinners.

It is not only the disturbing images of what happens behind closed toilet doors that has attracted euphemistic language use, words that refer to mental retardation or some form of physical disablement have also been replaced by political correct terms that makes speakers feel good about themselves. For instances, terms such as “idiot”, “moron” and “imbecile” were once neutral terms with no negative connotations. They were used to refer to delayed mental development in children. The meanings of these terms have since expanded to become insults referring to foolish individuals. The neutral meanings have been lost. Because of such loss the terms were displaced by the term “mentally retarded” which was perceived as neutral and not condescending. Later, speakers felt bad about themselves for using such a label and then created a host of other labels including “mentally challenged” “people with intellectual disability” “children with learning difficulties” or “special needs children”.

Terminology to describe physically disabled persons has also changed through the years to respond to what is politically correct at the time. During the times of Jesus, the streets were filled with the “lame” and the “crippled” and there were no “handicapped” or “disabled”. Lately we hear of the “physically challenged” and the “differently abled”.

The changes are not in English only. In the past few years they have found their way into Setswana. We used to have “difofu”, “digole” le “dinnana” now we have “batlhokapono” and “banalebogole”. Some Setswana euphemisms have been with us for a long time. The Setswana term for having sex is “go tlhakanela dikobo” meaning literally ‘to share blankets’! To urinate is “go ntsha metsi” or ‘to release water’. A condom is euphemistically called “sekausu” or ‘a sock’!

At one level, the terminological developments are interesting and appear as products of an extraordinarily caring society, while at another level they appear as silly products of rapid modernisation, deprived theorising and a weak terminology development systems.

The reason why people use euphemisms is largely for themselves. It makes the user feel good about himself or herself. It relieves from such a user, deep seated feelings of shame. Euphemisms do not change the referent (the object referred to in the real or imagined world). Euphemisms also do not in any way lessen the negativity found in the object. To call a toilet, a restroom does not expunge its foul smells, but it does make the speaker feel posh and creates a false perception about the nature and character of the referent. In certain cases euphemisms lack specificity such as when we call “marago” “diphularo” or “the behind”. The fact of the matter, we must finally concede, is that, as long as there is shame and indecency, there will forever be euphemisms.