Thursday, February 24, 2011

“You want to throw me under the bus? Hit the road and don’t darken my door again or you’ll be pushing up daisies.”

The words and phrases we call euphemisms add color, power, humor and sensitivity to written and oral speech.  Created as substitutes for words or phrases that might make us uneasy, euphemisms may sensitize us, make us think more deeply, or make us laugh.

In his new book Euphemania, Our Love Affair with Euphemisms, Ralph Keyes explains that euphemisms are used to “neutralize uncomfortable terms,” especially those related to bodily functions. But, if you look and listen carefully, you’ll find euphemisms of every category everywhere.

Occasionally, when a euphemism lessens the harshness of a word or term, it makes the meaning more palatable but less effective. (“ill-advised” for “very poor or bad,” and “enhanced interrogation technique” for “torture.”)

Many euphemisms have to do with death. While there’s the somber “passed,” “out of his misery” and “crossed over,” we also have the humorous: “sleeping with the fishes” and “playing harp duets with Hoffa.” 

The government and the military are prone to creating euphemisms when they want to lessen the harshness of a topic.  “Friendly fire” and “collateral damage” are two examples. The medical profession, corporations, and individuals have their own euphemisms, sometimes called “doublespeak.” And, of course, euphemisms abound in books, magazines and newspapers.

Just this morning, I read a newspaper article about job-hunting in which someone was “pounding the pavement.” 

If you’d care to spill the beans about your favorite euphemisms, post a comment here or email me at No snail mail, please.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A word for those who listen clandestinely

Have you ever wondered how certain words came to be part of our language?  Eavesdropping, for example.  It happened to me last week during a conversation with my seven-year-old granddaughter. After I explained the meaning of eavesdropping as listening to private conversations without the consent of the participants, I wondered how the two parts of the word related to listening surreptitiously.

I found the answer on The Phrase Finder:     EAVESDROP - ".comes to us virtually unchanged from Anglo-Saxon days. In those times a house had very wide overhanging eaves, not unlike those that may still be seen on thatched cottages in Devon. Since rain gutters and spouts were unknown then, the purpose of the wide overhang was to allow rain to drip safely away from the house's foundation. So the 'eavesdrip,' which later became 'eavesdrop,' provided a sheltered place where one could hide to listen clandestinely to conversations within the house."  From "Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins" by William and Mary Morris (HarperCollins, New York, 1977, 1988.) 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Too much negativity

The title of the magazine article jumped out at me: “Can’t Hardly Wait.” This is wrong, isn’t it? A double negative:  “can’t” and “hardly.” Yet it passed the scrutiny of the magazine editor.

Just to be sure, I checked. “A double negative is the nonstandard usage of two negatives used in the same sentence so that they cancel each other and create a positive. In Shakespeare's day, double negatives were considered emphatic, but today, they are considered grammar mistakes.”

Lists of negative words - no, not, nobody, nothing, none, never, hardly, scarcely, barely, only - and practice worksheets for avoiding double negatives can be found on several websites. 

Just because "Can't Hardly Wait" was the name of a 1998 movie and a popular song does not justify its acceptability. There are other examples of poor grammar being spoken more frequently. What comes to your mind?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

“If you want a tweet, buy a bird.” - Mario Cantone

Tweet is one of many words that have developed new meanings thanks to the growth of social media websites. Today Tweety Bird is far from the thoughts of millions of people who post their tweets on Twitter. Another member of the animal kingdom, the sleek prowling cougar, is now synonymous with an older woman who dates a younger man. And cheeseball, which used to be served at a cocktail party, is today directed as an insult at anything or anyone lacking in taste or style. And if you hear the word pimp, don’t assume it only means an “agent” for “ladies of the night.” It’s now used as a verb and means to make something more showy or impressive.

So, if I want to pimp this blog, I’d post a tweet and hope that no one would describe it as a cheeseball or call me a cougar (unless George Clooney calls).