I got into it recently -- in cordial fashion -- with the editors of an editorial page for which I used to labor. One of their columnists had used a word … well, let's say we wouldn't have printed it in Ye Olden Tyme. The editors took exception to the exception I took to the word's appearance on their page. I riposted: whatever happened to euphemism?
What did happen to it? The substitution of inoffensive for offensive words long performed a double function. First, it preserved the notion of good taste in writing. Second, it sometimes brought an appreciative smile to the reader's face. It's also, today, countercultural, which strikes me as possibly the best reason of all for recovering our lost attachment to euphemism. Modern culture, to give it that name, is just a little too brash, a little too bad-mannered, for many who inhabit it.
We're always being told by self-anointed experts that, in talking or writing, candor trumps sweet, gossamer Victorianism. No, it doesn't. It exhibits bad manners. A writer who wants to do more than stir up isn't supposed to rub a Random Reader's nose in what formerly was called Bad Language -- the so-called "F" word, words that insult as opposed to criticize, words that describe human activities normally carried on in private. To use Bad Language was rude, crude, obnoxious.
Alas, it's a pretty rude, crude, obnoxious age. That doesn't of itself cancel out the value of euphemism, as I sought (unsuccessfully) to instruct the aforementioned editors. What's wrong with a little creativity in working around supposedly verboten phrases?
For some reason never clear to me, the British disdain the word "bloody," when used disparagingly. What, though, if you want to disparage something? I used to encounter in British writing the circumventional word "sanguinary," meaning "bloody," of course, but with an extra kick. The writer was engaging in a little mirth: substituting a sort of high-flying word for a ground-level one without disguising his meaning. Another substitute: "blooming." Still another: "ruddy."
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