Sunday, October 4, 2009


A euphemism is a metaphor - metaphor of a special kind: it avoids unpleasantness, and to that extent, provides comfort. It has thus a social purpose. Since “piss” is an unpleasant word in a certain cultural context, it is insensitive to use it in public, so one uses “pass water” instead. Sixty years ago when I was growing up in a village in the coastal district of Cuttack in Orissa, my mother would not use the words saapa (“snake”) and baagha (“tiger”) at night. That was when many still believed in the power of uttered expressions. You uttered a word, and something related to it was bound to happen. You uttered saapa, and you were most likely to see one that night. So saapa at night was lamba jantu (“long animal”), and baagha, maamu (“uncle”). The thing did not matter, the word did. Now, if euphemism is about being pleasant, then what sense does “dangerous euphemism” make?
From another point of view, euphemism involves the art of concealment; a euphemism relates to a piece of reality through concealment - it conceals in order to reveal. A person is not “blind”; he is “visually challenged”. The expression does not hide reality; it only puts a cover on the stark nakedness of it. But there’s a problem when the cover is too thick, and the link between reality and the word is completely snapped as a consequence. Then the point of the euphemism is lost. Modern political discourse provides numerous examples of such expressions.

In his “Reflections on the Guillotine”, written about fifty years ago and possibly the best essay on capital punishment ever written, Camus gives a telling example of this. When a murderer is executed, what the newspapers report is an instance of euphemism: “(the condemned man) has paid his debt to the society” or “at five a.m. justice was done”. Camus exposes the reality of the event in the following lines. He contextualizes his depiction of it in terms of how the State would warn a person about his fate if he kills:

“If you kill, you will be imprisoned for months or years, torn between an impossible despair and a constantly renewed terror, until one morning we slip into your cell after removing our shoes the better to take you by surprise while you are sound asleep after the night’s anguish. We shall fall on you, tie your hands behind your back, cut with scissors your shirt collar and your hair if need be. Perfectionists that we are, we shall bind your arms with a strap so that you are forced to stoop and your neck will be more accessible. Then we shall carry you, an assistant on each side supporting you by the arm, with your feet dragging behind through the corridors. Then, under a night sky, one of the executioners will finally seize by the seat of your pants and throw you horizontally on a board while another will steady your head in a lunette and a third will let fall from a height of seven feet a hundred-and-twenty-pound blade that will slice off your head like a razor.”

If this is the reality, then the expression “at five a.m. justice was done” completely obscures it. He would prefer crudity to such euphemism, which does disservice to the society, says Camus. It gives the comforting feeling that a wrong has been righted. It completely conceals the indignity, humiliation, and cruelty – nothing short of savagery - that were inflicted on a human being, and it quite effectively blocks the possibility of public protest against capital punishment.