The Art of Euphemism

The Art of Euphemism

The Net is abuzz, including at Cassandra’s place, with the sad spectacle of a blogger threatening a series of critics with libel actions. I’m not familiar with the blogger and haven’t the patience to figure out what she’s on about, but I do have some helpful advice on how to avoid lawsuits of this kind. Truth is a defense, of course, but beyond that, let euphemism be your friend.

I haven’t any entertaining euphemisms on this specific subject, beyond the possible “leak in the think tank,” but I did find an entertaining column the other day about euphemisms for drunkenness. If you’ve never tried “The Word Detective,” now would be a good time to start. I ran across this recent column about the origin of the expression “snootful.” The Detective points us toward last year’s book by Paul Dickson, “Drunk: The Definitive Drinker’s Dictionary” (Melville House, 2009), which lists and explains thousands of synonyms for that blunt accusation, including “not quite himself,” “overwrought,” “outgoing,” or “ruddy-faced.”

The Detective admired “full of loud mouth soup,” but the example most helpful for our purposes today has been employed by British journalists to protect themselves against strict libel laws. The tradition may have begun in 1967, when a press agent for Labour Cabinet Minister George Brown explained one of his notorious public displays by saying he was “tired and emotional.” The phrase proved useful for decades afterward.

The British seem to have a special flair for this kind of thing. One of their expressions, new to this writer, is “pissed as a newt.” A Foreign Office official, informed of Brown’s press agent’s explanation, suggested that Brown had been “tired and emotional as a newt.”

Alas, PC evasions can ever be only temporary. Once the meaning becomes well understood, even the euphemism can land the writer in trouble. An expert writing in 2001 suggested that the phrase “tired and emotional” might expose the writer to liability even if it was meant literally. It must remain the job of restless wordsmiths to expand the boundaries of gentle evasions in every generation.

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