Edward Albee got it absolutely right in his play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” When one of George and Martha’s guests asked if she could use the restroom, George said to Martha, “Will you show our little guest to the — uh — euphemism?”
Euphemism? That’s the perfect word. It means “a mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing.”
Even the word “restroom,” which is where the little guest wished to go, is a euphemism, a softening of the “real word,” toilet. Do people who go to restrooms have any intention of resting?
Anyone who’s traveled to Europe doubtless is convinced that those on the other side of the Atlantic don’t hesitate to use “toilet” to represent what it really is.
We do a lot of euphemizing. It’s strange, but in items streamed to our computers from some fairly raw, raunchy sources, we hear the “f-word” regularly. And by now we ought to have memorized the list of words comedian George Carlin regularly employed, with the result that the Federal Communications Commission put those “Seven Dirty Words” on the taboo list.
As I write this, I feel a bit of challenge: On the one hand, I realize and respect the fact that the Optic is considered a “family newspaper” which thereby omits (or euphemizes) improper language; on the other hand, I find it difficult to write about this topic by having to dance around some of its words.
The first time I heard the f-word — about 67 years ago — I had no idea what it meant or why it elicited expressions of shock and awe among boys and girls my age. We were under the bridge that connects Independence and Prince Street, on the south side of town. I felt guilty believing we all were ditching school that day. The fact was, it had snowed a foot and school was called off. But the feeling that we were getting away with something was enticing.
Some low-lifes had scrawled obscene drawings under the bridge and sprinkled the f-word liberally. Barely able to read, I asked one of the older boys what that word meant. He pointed to the drawings, which didn’t seem at all appealing and used the word. He repeated it in an in-your-face manner, and as he did so, several jaws dropped — not because of the sound or even the meaning of the word but because of the temerity of the fellow who spoke — and kept repeating — the word.
That, then, was my introduction to the f-word. And as an observer and auditor of language, I seldom fail to see the elements of surprise when people use and hear it. But ironically, the word that used to shock is now used with frequency.
For example, I entered the convenience store at the San Felipe Pueblo casino and heard a couple of kids, clearly no older than 10, using the f-word perhaps a dozen times in a conversation that lasted only as long as it took me to pretend I hadn’t heard them, about 10 seconds.
Two kids at the skate park at the Abelino Montoya Recreation Center used the word a dozen times as others walked past them.
Remember when we would urge kids not to use profanity or vulgarity in front of adults? What’s changed? I believe people who grew up in the rarefied, mid-Victorian ‘50s in Las Vegas toned down their language in front of adults.
But that’s not the full explanation: I doubt precious few of us have two registers: one for our playmates, one for when adults are close by.
I still recall one of my co-teachers at Cuba (N.M.) High School telling rambunctious students on the playground to “tone it down; there’s a teacher in the area.”
But that advice rings hollow. I think it’s improper to use foul language under any condition, even when the pain of that hammer against our thumb almost justifies a choice curse word from our considerable arsenal for that occasion. In the case of the boys at play who used profanity-laced chitchat, there was no indication any of the participants were angry or using “fighting words.”
One thing that puzzles me is some people’s belief that they’re getting off free if they alter the word just a bit. I don’t like to hear people using the s-word, for example, and when people try to doctor it up with variants such as “shoot,” and “shucks,” I wonder what the user has gained.
In fact, I’m hard pressed to find any improper word that doesn’t have a euphemism. The f-word itself had several, including “fudge,” “freaking” and “effing.”
Several years ago in Las Vegas there was a much-publicized case in which an elected official invited the media to osculate a portion of the nether anatomy that usually lies in seclusion. Rather than using the vernacular, the Optic writer softened the impact, using only “kiss my a**.”
Now that explains to the reader precisely what the speaker said, but if one can utter the word in public, with impunity, why must the press soft-pedal it?
Language is what we make of it. A cosmetic change, in which we delete one letter and replace it with another, is like playing tennis with the net down. Does it make sense that whereas I object to course, crude, vulgar, profane language, I don’t believe dolling-up would-be profanity does any good?
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Oh fudge! I just discovered the word “toilette” comes from the French, and all it means is the act of washing. So that too is a euphemism. It seems that nothing is graphic anymore. Shucks! I’ll need to do some dang research on this effing question!
Art Trujillo is a copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached by calling 425-6796 or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.