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On euphemisms, or why ‘heck’ is a four-letter word

On euphemisms, or why ‘heck’ is a four-letter word

reverse_euphemismsWhat is a reference? For a software engineer, that’s a language construct that takes you to a certain place in the computer’s memory. You may have multiple references to that place. They may even be called differently, or describe said place in different terms; if they get you to the exact same place, you can safely say they are equivalent1. They have, if you will, different forms, but the same underlying meaning. References are a programmer’s euphemism, and in this context they’re quite useful, too.

Which is not something I would care to say about the euphemisms in the natural language.

At best, euphemism is metaphor’s retarded cousin. And justifiably so, because a metaphor still leaves some room for the imagination, whereas with an euphemism everyone knows what you intend to say. Semantically, it doesn’t make any difference if you replace ‘hell’ with ‘heck’ each and every time. Rest assured, people will know what you mean. We just do the reverse substitution in our head. You know you’re swearing, we know you’re swearing, so why pussyfooting around that one four-letter word? It may have sounded cute in kindergarten, but you’re an adult now. Either assume your fucking swear words or refrain from swearing at all.

There are only a few valid reasons for employing an euphemism instead of the actual word. The most remarkable is the use of formal or diplomatic language, which is almost as precise as a programming language in nuances and accents. Given that this code was born out of the necessity to communicate a monarch’s wishes to his hated adversary while kneeling within decapitation range, it is no wonder that those glorified messengers tried to convey as little offence as possible. Therefore obscenities and profanity are simply not included in this highly specialized construct. You have to admit though, they would have ensured substantially juicier WikiLeaks disclosures.

Another reason is speaking in front of children. This is still a valid use in my view, because children typically assume and repeat adult behaviour without completely understanding it, which can lead to them being hurt or shunned for no reason. An adult can be reasonably expected to assume responsibility for his utterances – that is, barring exonerating circumstances such as acute Tourette’s syndrome. It is not fair to ask the same of children, especially when they do not discern the true significance and weight that society places on such words.

Other than that? I do not see the point. I’m certainly not advocating swearing like a sailor in polite conversation, but if you feel like swearing either abstain or do it properly. ‘Piddle’ is not currently registered as a swearword. Neither is ‘poppycock’.

Come to think of it, some of the most used swear words of today have begun their career as euphemisms. How sad is that? The aforementioned ‘hell’ is actually an euphemism for ’underground’. In the Norse mythology, Hel is Loki’s daughter, and she’s in charge of – who would have guessed? – Nilfheim, the lowest of all worlds, apparently also populated with evil dead. ‘Cock’ means what you expect, a male mature bird, but it also denominated the firing mechanism on muskets. The expression ‘going around half-cocked’ comes from this latter context, and it actually means having a weapon that is not ready to fire. As for ‘fuck’, the word every prude loves to hate, its original meaning was ‘to thrust’, which explains rather neatly why it was so suitable for describing – euphemistically, of course – the act of sexual intercourse2.

In fact, I have recently encountered said word it in quite polite company. It was used in Jack Vance’s 1966 Nebula award winning novella, ‘The Last Castle3, from which I’d like to quote the full paragraph:

Xanten looked up toward the heavens, kicked at the turf. He drew a deep breath and approached to Glys Meadow-sweet. He noted that she had fucked a flower into her long loose hair.

After a second or two she looked up and searched his face.

“Why are you so angry?”

Xanten slapped his thigh, seated himself beside her.

” ‘Angry’? No. I am out of my mind with frustration. […]”

Jack Vance has a keen interest in language; in fact, languages take centre stage in another one of his masterpieces, ‘The languages of Pao’ where he examines how linguistic relativity could influence a nation’s world view4. You can hardly accuse him of bastardising his beloved English language. And, as a lover of language, I’m sure he cringed at every ‘gosh’, ‘geez’ or ‘golly’ that happened to cross his path.

Note the frustration of his hero, Xanten. Perhaps he too had to deal with one euphemism too many.

Note: This post was inspired by the encounter of one ‘heck‘ too many in  the SCPJ Study Guide book that I’m supposed to study for my Java certification exam. Who says procrastination can’t be fun?

  1. I know, I know, I oversimplified things. I’ll see your union and raise you a reinterpret_cast<> 😉 []
  2. And it also has precisely four letters! How convenient! []
  3. The linked article is more of an author review, but you’ll get the idea. []
  4. A topic that is making a come-back nowadays in the field of neurolinguistic programming in applied economics, and consumer behaviour in particular. []

Teach your children to lie

Teach your children to lie

lieNo, no, no – you say. Lie? We should teach them to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help them, cross their heart and all that. They have to be honest to a fault, you know, straightforward and trustworthy. That is, just like their parents.

Sounds familiar? Almost every one of you reading these words has heard the sermon about lies and liars and (if you were lucky enough) the eternal rewards set aside for the good honest children. Your parents tried in their own way to teach you that lying is bad for you. And in 99.999% of cases, they failed utterly.

If truthfulness is such a praised and desired quality in today’s society, why aren’t the liars the exception, rather than the rule? If everyone was better off telling all of the truth, all of the time, why aren’t we living in a world where lies and deceit are things that belong to an ancient, unenlightened past? I’ll tell you why. Because that in itself is the biggest lie of all.

Indeed, unless you’ve spent your tender years in a vegetative state – in which case, you have my sympathy – you first leaned how to lie from your own parents. They lied to you, willingly or not, and when you lied to them, they rewarded you, thus reinforcing the behaviour. And when you got caught with a lie, they punished you for it, thus forcing you to learn to lie better next time. And so you lied, and so it went, and if anything, you should be thankful to them for teaching you. After all, your own ability to function in society is solidly based upon your ability to lie.

There are indeed degrees to a lie, and you went through them all. First there was the blatant, stupid lie, when you painted the walls with your mother’s cosmetics and then denied vigorously – while wiping rouge off your hands. Your parents’ feedback made you give that up pretty early in your lying career, and you should be grateful for that.

Then you learned about the difference between telling the truth and being polite, like that time when Aunt Irma brought you that horrid pink sweater for your birthday, and not only you had to thank her, you had to wear the damn thing until she was gone. Or when you had to spend a whole day in your room for telling your daddy’s boss that he’s ugly and he smells – because he did, and it was the truth, and why weren’t you supposed to tell it all of a sudden?

In time you also learned that you can protect your parents from certain aspects of your young life that they strongly disapprove. Like hanging out with friends they don’t like – “Where were you?” “Oh, out playing, ma'” “Not at Johnny’s?” “No, I was with Paulie and Amber with the bikes around the park”. It’s just a little white lie, and they’re now happier for it. Or, if your parents were really strict about lying, you would just “forget” to mention some parts of your day. Lying by omission is not technically a lie – after all, you haven’t said anything untrue. And so it goes.

Of course you’ve seen your parents do it. You’ve seen your mum being all nice and sugary the new neighbour, only to talk trash  her with her girlfriends afterwards. You’ve seen dad handling door-to-door salesmen. You’ve seen them engaged in a million social interactions where they lie and hide and smile about it, because that’s how it’s done.

That’s how we’re able to function as a society. There was a film called “Liar Liar” where a young Jim Carrey was compelled by his son’s birthday wish to tell the truth for one whole day. The results were hilarious – in the movie – but also quite scary, when examined in depth. We tell a hundred lies a day and never even think about them. They are ingrained in our social persona, part of the reason we are able to live among people. Ever tried spending one whole day telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Try it, and tell me how you failed.

So teach your children to lie. If you’re squeamish about the word “lie”, call it something else, but teach them anyway. Teach them how to lie and how to recognize a lie. Teach them about self-serving lies, social lies, political lies, attorney lies and advertiser lies. Teach them how to recognize the intent behind a lie. Teach them how to use lies, fight lies and go beyond lies to find out who they can and cannot trust.

And if you want to teach them to always tell the truth to their parents, you have to make yourself worthy of their trust. Teach them that your love for them is unconditional and not affected by what they say or do. That being your children is reason enough for you to help them and support them to the best of your abilities. Everybody makes mistakes in life – I know you did – and the best you can do is learn and move on. And if you love them enough, and care about them enough, you will teach them above all this one important lesson.

Everybody lies.