As a word enthusiast, I enjoy telling you that the Greek word that is pronounced “phehm” is translated in English as “to speak of” and is the root of our word “Fame.” This makes perfect sense because the one thing that famous people have in common is that they are all often Spoken Of.
The Greeks have also given us a very useful prefix: eu-. It means “good“ or “well.” We use it in the word euthanize, along with thanos, the Greek word for “death.” Put the two together, and you see why that word in English means “A Good Death.” And somehow, knowing that, it gave me a morsel of comfort many years ago, when we had to have our beloved yellow lab, Kaboodle, euthanized at age fifteen. (In case you were wondering, yes, she did have a beloved brother named Kit).
Now, one more step. Let’s take that prefix eu- (for “well”) and add it to that Greek word phehm (for Speak Of) and—voila!—we have our word EUPHEMISM which means “Speak Well Of.” And, indeed, Euphemisms are all about speaking well of a subject that would otherwise make us very uncomfortable.
For example, perhaps the bosses who FIRE workers feel better if they call it DOWNSIZING; perhaps youngish men feel better about GOING BALD if we tell them that they LOOK A BIT THIN ON TOP. Even the word for that distressing, growing industry of PORNOGRAPHY is a euphemism. It allows those in that degrading business to use a fancy Greek phrase (porno-graphy translates as “writing about prostitutes”!) to disguise the fact that their actual business is FILTHY FILMS INCORPORATED.
We use euphemisms most often when we must talk about the two areas of human performance that make us most uncomfortable: in the bathroom and in the bedroom. Take the word Bathroom. Yes, it is true that the room can be used for taking a bath. But it is also true that today the room is far more frequently used for taking a shower, brushing our teeth, or combing our hair.
And if a survey were done on what part of the bathroom is used by far the most , the toilet would win out overwhelmingly over any other activity done within its confines. It is the “number one” use of that room. I swear that I didn’t intentionally create that euphemistic pun.
But we can hardly call it The Toilet Room. And yet notice what our euphemism does: it moves the action geographically away from what we are uncomfortable talking about, using the toilet, to something much nicer (and cleaner), using the bathtub.
And now we come to that other room that seems to breed euphemisms: the bedroom. We associate it with having to talk about that most uncomfortable subject that sometimes takes place within it: sex.
As opposed to the euphemism “bathroom,” the term “bedroom” is not a euphemism, since a bed implies all sorts of activities that can be done within its confines: resting, sleeping, dreaming, recovering from an illness — none of which embarrass us in the least. But sexual activity within the bedroom has led to a remarkable euphemism. In describing the activity of those who seem to have far too many indiscriminate trysts there, we use the euphemism “sleeping around.”
I don’t know about you, but the first time I heard that euphemism I was around twelve years old and had just been told all those scary Facts Of Life by my squirming parents. Later at school some friends were giggling about somebody’s much older, loose sister who was “sleeping around.” When I tried to make sense of what I’d just learned about the sex act with this new business of people sleeping around, I came up with the notion that the greatest joy a husband and wife could ever share in bed was if they both fell asleep at the exact same moment!
With “bathroom” we moved geographically away from the embarrassing toilet to the cleansing bathtub. With “sleeping around” we chronologically move away from embarrassing sexual activity and move toward what often happens afterwards: sleeping, a perfectly permissible activity that even babies do in the extreme.
Sometimes, euphemisms can be downright dangerous. There’s the sad case of the young woman who’d served her two-year sentence for cocaine possession. Her parole officer was so supportive that when her incarceration ended, he took her out for a celebratory dinner. Halfway through the meal, she arose and said, “Excuse me while I go powder my nose.”
Back to prison she went for another two years.