Bears are scary animals. They are so scary that early northern Europeans referred to them by substitute names for fear that mentioning their actual name might summon these ferocious beings. Instead they talked of the honey eater, the licker, or the grandfather. Bear itself evolved from a euphemistic term that meant “the brown one.” It is the oldest known euphemism, first recorded a thousand years ago.
Such substitute words provided a safe vehicle for talking about frightening, taboo, or sacred topics. They still do. We all rely on euphemisms to tiptoe around what makes us uneasy and have for most of recorded history.
Nearly a century ago a University of California linguist collected hundreds of euphemistic American exclamations. Some showed remarkable ingenuity. Jesus Christ became Jeans Rice, grease us twice, or holy Swiss cheese. “Christ” alone inspired cripes, crikey, and Christopher Columbus.
A good way to determine what concerned human beings at any given moment is to examine their verbal evasions. When fear of blasphemy reigned, we converted damn to darn, and hell to heck (or h-e-double-hockey-sticks north of the border). Then prudery kicked in as the gonads became family jewels, the vagina down there, and underpants unmentionables. Today we may feel free to say damn! and to call underpants underpants, but death, disability, and discrimination are another matter as we grope for inoffensive names to give members of minority groups, those with special needs, and ones who have bought the farm or gone offline.
About the author: Ralph Keyes is the author of fifteen books, including Chancing It, The Courage to Write, and Is There Life After High School? He has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered, Fresh Air, and Talk of the Nation, as well as on Oprah, the Today show, The Tonight Show, ABC World News Tonight, and 20/20. He has written for numerous publications, including GQ and Good Housekeeping. A trustee of the Antioch Writers’ Workshop, he lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
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