Euphemism and euideism: distinct semantic strategies for French and Latin borrowed words

The replacement of one idea for another is a strategy that looks like euphemism but is distinct from it. I’d like to call it euideism: just as euphemisms are acceptable word forms for taboo word forms, euideisms replace taboo ideas with acceptable ones. The difference between these two strategies plays upon the twofold nature of the sign observed so long ago by old Saussure: sound shape (word form) and referent (idea) —

euphemism is motivated by an attempt to replace one sound shape for another

euideism is motivated by an attempt to replace one referent for another.

The distinction also plays into differences in register between Anglo-Saxon, French-derived and Latin/Greek-derived vocabulary in English.

Some of our favorite, most comfortable words are, not surprisingly, taboo. Part of what makes a word comfortable is its restriction to the informal environment, and taboo defines the boundary of informality and personal freedom of expression. In formal company we find strategies to avoid those informal, comfortable words. Replacing a taboo word with a formal, often scientific, word is one strategy. The paradigm case is “feces” for “shit.”

The latter word is frequent: it is often used. It is also common: not only is it often spoken, but it is spoken by many people, it is widely used. And it is frequently used by its wide public — most English speakers seem to use it frequently, not rarely. It is a common expletive to express momentary dismay over one’s errors, whereas expletives like “asshole” are used to express immediate dismay over other’s errors, not one’s own. (Compare “schmuck,” which is commonly used as a descriptor, not an expletive, for agents of non immediate events.) Our degree of comfort with “shit” is evidenced by the wide range of its extended uses: “I gotta pick up some shit at the store,” “Girlfriend, you gotta get your shit together if you wanna graduate,” “What a crock o’shit that is,” “Don’t gimme your shit,” “shitfaced,” “You’re shittin’ me,” “What’s this shit?” none of which refer to the denotation of feces.

Typically, the euphemism is drawn from the formal, stiff and high-register Latin-borrowed vocabulary in English. As a replacement for the taboo word, it is only serviceable for one use: “I gotta pick up some feces at the store,” “Girlfriend, you gotta get your feces together if you’re wanna graduate,” “What a crock o’feces that is,” “Don’t gimme your feces,” “fecesfaced,” “You’re defecatin’ me,” “What’s this fecal matter?” are unrelated in meaning to the “shit” versions. “Feces,” in other words, means just one thing. It’s a scientific, specific word for turds.

No one seems to like the euphemism. And no surprise: it means only one thing and that thing is gross and disgusting. The taboo word, with it s many extended uses, arouses much less disgust, if any. There we have the irony of taboo and euphemism: the taboo word is user-friendly, the euphemism is repugnant. That’s what makes the informal environment so much more comfortable.

There is, however, an alternative strategy for avoiding taboo words. It’s not the replacement of a taboo word with an acceptable word carrying the same denotation as “feces” for “shit.” It’s the replacement of the taboo idea with a word that has a slightly different denotation. A good example: “waste” for “shit”/”feces.”

Crucial to this strategy is the shift in focus or prototype. The first association that comes to my mind when I think of waste is paper waste, the waste that most typically finds its way into the office trash basket. It’s a much cleaner prototype than “feces,” which has as its focus human turds, which are at the extreme bottom end of the notion of uncleanness and dirtiness.

Notice that the three strategies, colloquial, formal and scientific correspond to the range of Anglo-Saxon, French-borrowed and Latin-borrowed lexicon mapped out by Hughes in his History of English Words:
A-S words are informal, warm and broad in their denotation and meaning and use
French-borrowed words are more formal and not as broad
Latin-borrowed words are cold, specific, scientific and formal.

The three words under consideration fit neatly. “Waste” is borrowed from French.

The replacement of one idea for another is a strategy that is distinct from euphemism. I’d like to call it euideism: acceptable ideas for bad ieas, just as euphemisms are acceptable words for bad words. The difference between these two strategies plays upon the twofold nature of the sign — sound shape and referent — observed so long ago by old Saussure:
euphemism is motivated by an attempt to replace one sound shape for another
euideism is motivated by an attempt to replace one referent for another.

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