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'Pushing Up Daisies' And Our Passion For Euphemisms

From "passed away" to "Chilean sea bass," euphemisms are a way to avoid unpleasant terms or phrases.

But in Euphemania, Ralph Keyes argues that using them isn't necessarily lazy or evasive; it can actually be harder to not say what we mean and still get our point across.

"Euphemisms can be incredibly playful and a lot of fun -- very creative," Keyes tells NPR's Neal Conan.

Take, for example, the euphemisms we use for death. Keyes notes that the French talk about "eating dandelions by the root," their version of "pushing up daisies." He also recalls an old high school classmate who once told him how the life insurance industry avoids the word: "When one of their policy holders became eligible for his benefits to go to his heirs, they said he was 'post-retirement.'" And one of the author's favorite modern expressions is "going offline."

Keyes says many euphemisms were initially created to avoid blasphemy.

"We couldn't say God so we said 'gad;' we couldn't say Jesus Christ so we said 'jeepers'," Keyes says, or "cheese and rice," or "grease us twice."

Today, he says, euphemisms are more often applied to money, murder and, most of all, food.

"[At] one time, Patagonian toothfish was freely available to anyone because no one wanted to eat it," Keyes says, "until a very clever entrepreneurial sea importer renamed it Chilean sea bass."

According to Keyes, the tradition of using euphemisms for food is pretty widespread: thymus glands are known as sweetbreads, and bull testicles are known as Rocky Mountain oysters and prairie oysters. Rapeseed oil was an especially tough sale until someone thought to rename it canola oil.

Current events have also provided ample fodder for euphemisms -- think "wardrobe malfunction," "wide stance" or "hiking the Appalachian trail," a phrase made famous by South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's infamous Argentine escapade. Still, Keyes says the phenomenon is not new.

"In England in the swinging '60s and '70s, a woman was upstairs with a guy behind a closed door," he recounts. "Later, when she came down and was asked what she was doing with the guy, she flushed and said 'Oh, we were discussing Uganda.'" For a long time after that, "discussing Uganda" was used as a euphemism for having sex.

Euphemisms can also evolve in their meanings in what Keyes refers to as "the carousel ride of euphemisms."  The phrase "hook up," for example, was once a nice, casual term for getting together.  Today, it's meaning is much more suggestive.

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