Language and the Use of Euphemisms

The language individuals use also refers to power and its manifestations among different groups. Usually it is more powerful groups (politicians, business people, the media, etc) which use the language more advantageously. But less powerful groups also make use of these devices to defend themselves or attack the more powerful ones. Humour and the reference to gender, race and religion are some examples of various ways in which people choose to differentiate from others.

Most euphemisms are now embedded in the language and most people do not always realise they are actually using them. In most professions there are already known euphemisms which only those who practise it would understand.

In most cases euphemisms are used to express feelings or thoughts which might be harsh or difficult to deal with and therefore people try to be gentler by using them. They are used for other reasons too; to avoid embarrassing situations, to avoid offence or pain on the receiver, for reasons of compassion, or when the media is the means to sell products and therefore needs to persuade people to buy. But euphemisms may unfortunately also be used for mean purposes; to confuse and manipulate and to exclude certain people from groups within communities.

In the past euphemisms were often used to avoid expressions of or reference to issues which were taboo. For instance, sex, money and death. Although nowadays things are changing and societies became more tolerant and flexible, one can still find euphemisms which show this tendency; to ‘pass away’, to ‘make love’, the ‘filthy rich’.

It has been said that most professions share specific uses of euphemisms, jokes and references to others in a way that only those involved in those professions might be familiar with. Politicians, lawyers, business people, estate agents, doctors, journalists all would gather in any social event and particularly use language that they find familiar and which bonds them together as a distinctive group. The use of a language clearly establishes relationships and it reflects the attitudes of those who use it towards other groups.

‘Neither a Bull nor a Bear’ on the latest issue of the The Economist and ‘Bear Hugs and Bo Derecks on Wall Street’ by K. Odean show with wit how brokers and traders on Wall Street share a characteristic use of slang, euphemisms and metaphors. The mere terms so frequently used, Bear and Bull to refer to the stock exchange market, are the first examples of these. ‘Traders work on the floor…, brokers work upstairs…’. ‘They use nicknames for prominent Wall Street figures such as Icahn the Terrible…and Irv the Liquidator….’

Sexual references have always caused an extra element of excitement among individuals. Probably because it has been a taboo for so long, this usually causes laughter and intrigue. Brokers refer to companies or bonds as Americas’ Playground, Lolas, and Love ‘em and Leave ‘em. Lawyers have also used euphemisms to refer to ‘couples partaking in marital relations or having carnal knowledge. And rape used to be known as a criminal assault and a criminal operation was a euphemism for an abortion.’ (D. Rannick)

The media uses many euphemisms on the press, radio and television. One often finds headlines that say ‘the IRA admitted responsibility for a murder’ or ‘the ethnic cleansing continues unpunished’. These are ways of disguising the real issues which are the killing of people by whichever means. Advertising continues to use euphemisms like Durex, Tampax and Andrex toilett paper to call those products by names which might sound more ‘scientific’ and perhaps less offensive.

Selective reference to gender is often found in the every-day jargon of most professions. Traders speak of stocks using women’s names: Floras, Claras and Coras. The popular proverb used when the market crashes and strong and weak stocks fall -when the paddy wagon comes, they take the good girls with the bad- also ‘treats stocks as feminine’. It is interesting to notice that most times it is men who use gender reference to show ‘male status’ and to exclude women who are often considered to be a less deserving group. Although this conception has been changing -women are now occupying higher work positions in their careers- men are still ‘stronger’ and more ‘suitable’ for certain jobs. Traders also portray their ‘macho’ image by using expressions such as the last frontier to refer to their work, or they are known as gunslingers and hip shooters. In takeovers, white knights acquire sleeping beauties or damsels in distress. And, of course, takeover artists meet at the Predator’s Ball to discuss the latest business techniques.

There are also specific euphemisms on the media jargon that relate to gender. Blondes and redheads are for example lamps used on Television sets. And news can become sexy if they are considerably interesting.

Euphemisms accompanied by humour in particular are very frequent among Wall Street traders. One example on Kathleen Odean’s article may delight or horrify you:

A: What happens when you cross a Wall Streeter with a pig?

B: There are some things even a pig won’t do.

Men joke about their mothers in law, individuals make fun of certain religions; the butt of humour can be women, traders, investors, and priests among plenty.

Those who are not in ‘The City’ have also managed to create euphemisms which show their distrust for brokers and traders. ‘Let Wall Street have a nightmare and the whole country has to help them back in bed again’ is an example of the public’s bitter feelings towards market behaviours and their dealers.

And finally, traders also mock customers when they are not successful by calling them suckers, lilies, Aunt Janes and widows and orphans. Those investors may be ‘wiped out’ or ‘cleaned out’ when they lose money.

The type of euphemism, humour and other distinctive elements a language develops varies from one social group to another. Different cultures in different parts of the world may use them in particular contexts. What seems to be evident is that they all use them. And if their intentions are fine, it is part of the richness of the language that allows individuals to express themselves in various ways. Constructive and clear communication is a key factor in the development of any society and the language of its members.

By the Blogs Team, adapted from 2004 “Euphemisms” by Patricia C Prada Jimenez

Biblio Sources

D. May, “Euphemisms and the Media”

D. Rannick, “The Law”

K. Odean, “Bear Hugs and Bo Derecks on Wall Street”

L. Thomas and Shan Wareing, Language and Power, Routledge, London, 1999

The Economist, China’s economy, Neither a Bull nor a Bear. Apr 30th 2016