When I was growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, there was an area, about half a mile downtown from me, known as “The Bowery.” One of the most elegant areas of the city during the 1800s, by 1900, the Bowery devolved into low-rent concert halls, flop houses, beer gardens, brothels, and streets that became the living quarters for hundreds of people with no visible means of support. These days, people in those circumstances are called “homeless” or “temporarily unsheltered.” In those days they were known as Bowery Bums. The word, bum, simply refers to someone who refuses to work and tries to live off of others. Those who either chose or were thrust into such penury were also called beggars and tramps. Such references were made during a time in our history when euphemisms were rare.
Today, there are euphemisms for just about every activity that, if given a specific title, would be deemed offensive to civil discourse, also known as polite conversation. Hence, in a continuing effort to soften our language and distort reality, we find words that make us feel better about who we are and how non-judgmental we can be. Those who are extremely overweight are not referred to as obese or fat. Instead, a man would be called heavy-set or husky, while a woman would be full-figured. People who used to be called handicapped or crippled are now labeled physically challenged. The famous comedian Henny Youngman told a joke about his brother-in-law who claimed to be a diamond-cutter. Later, it was learned that he was in charge of mowing the lawn at Yankee Stadium. Ed Norton, the famous sewer worker from “The Honeymooners” television show, introduced himself as “an engineer in subterranean sanitation.” Employees are never fired from their jobs; they are “let go.”
When I was a young lad, people who were physically attracted to the same sex were known as homosexuals. Now they are gays and lesbians. The late English author, Quentin Crisp, who was openly gay, was also very open about the use of softened language. “Euphemisms are not, as many young people think, useless verbiage for that which can and should be said bluntly; they are like secret agents on a delicate mission; they must airily pass by a stinking mess with barely so much as a nod of the head,” he said, adding, “Euphemisms are unpleasant truths wearing diplomatic cologne.” In the days of yore, we never even heard of someone being able to change from one sex to another, but when it became surgically possible it was called a sex change operation. Soon, the term was considered objectionable, so it became “gender reassignment.” Once upon a time, if you supported taking the life of a child in the womb, you were pro-abortion; if you didn’t, you were anti-abortion. Now, you’re classified as pro-choice or pro-life.
Someone who has died is said to have passed away, bought the farm, given up the ghost, kicked the bucket, or, as the great Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “shuffled off this mortal coil.” When ending the life of a pet it’s called “putting him/her to sleep.” When the mob wants to put someone to sleep, they put a “contract” out on him. They don’t want to murder the guy, they want him “whacked, hit, taken for a ride,” or “fitted for a cement overcoat.” The bad guys don’t get sent to prison; they go to correctional institutions.
In military terms, people and places bombed out of existence have been “marginalized.” When innocent civilians are killed during a war, it’s known as “collateral damage.” Slums and ghettoes have been euphemistically excised from the language and reborn as economically depressed or culturally deprived environments. People who violate our laws by sneaking across our borders are no longer “illegal aliens,” they are “undocumented immigrants.”
When taxpayers became aware of the term “earmarks,” which are pork barrel projects intended to benefit constituents of a politician in return for their political support, it became an epithet for wasteful spending. Therefore, it needed a new name, so it was magically transformed into “legislatively directed spending.” All of the foregoing is meant to be more than a linguistic exercise; it’s about questioning where we are as a society. It’s about our refusal to deal with reality, preferring instead to pretend that what is happening before our eyes can be creatively denied by the use of more “tolerant” language. In other words, if we can find a comfortable substitute for the truth, we can avoid facing it. This doesn’t make me sick; it makes me lose my lunch.