Bombs Away

“This is an ex-parrot.” Monty Python’s classic sketch is a trove of death euphemisms.

Word came last week that Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary will from this moment on include the phrase f-bomb (along with such other newcomers as sexting, flexitarian, energy drink, aha moment, earworm, man cave, brain cramp, and life coach).

As Leanne Italie, who wrote an Associated Press article about the additions, observed, “It’s about freakin’ time.”

Merriam-Webster’s first citation of f-bomb dates from 1988 and the mouth of major-league catcher Gary Carter. Since then it has most frequently been dropped, although it is sometimes hurled or flung. It is, of course, a euphemism. Does that mean we should disdain it?

The question is not uncomplicated. Especially when it comes to military language, George Orwell and his descendants have rightly deplored such weaselly terms as armed intervention (war), neutralize (kill), pacify (kill), collateral damage (unintentionally kill), friendly fire (unintentionally kill fellow soldiers), and enhanced interrogation (torture). It’s similarly distasteful to read a corporate suit talk about rightsizing (firing people) or a right-to-work (anti-union) environment.

On the other hand, when people’s lives or livelihoods aren’t at stake, euphemisms can be harmless and are potentially amusing. One can only marvel at the ever more abstract collection of words for the place where one goes to relieve oneself, which itself is a euphemism for urinate or defecate (it could be argued that those terms themselves are pseudo-clinical euphemisms). Thus we say restroom or facilities, which are euphemisms for men’s or ladies’ room, which are euphemisms for bathroom, which is a euphemism for toilet, which is a euphemism for privy, which is a euphemism for … well, the notion is apparently so unpleasant that we don’t actually have a plain word for it.

Bodily elimination is one of three areas that have generated the most euphemisms, I would judge. The second is death. I won’t bother to run through even a selection of these familiar substitutes, many of which are used in Monty Python’s dead-parrot sketch, except to note that one of them, kick the bucket, generated another new Merriam-Webster’s entry, bucket list. Neo-Orwellians insist that the word die be used neat, and raise their eyebrows at the deployment of any other term.

I’m not on board with that—which is something I’ve realized as a result of years of listening to the NPR program Fresh Air. The host, Terry Gross, often has occasion to use some verb of expiration because when introducing the interviews she characteristically rebroadcasts when past guests have recently shuffled off their mortal coil. Gross always—always—says “died.” “John Keegan died…,” “David Rakoff died…,” “Gore Vidal died…,” “actress Lupe Ontiveros died.” These were all in the past few weeks. Because the show’s substitute interviewers and critics also unite in saying died, I am convinced that some memo was long ago distributed, mandating that this word always be used, never a euphemism like passed away.

Here’s the thing: I wish Gross and her colleagues would say passed away. It’s a euphemism, sure, but an apt, respectful and poetic one, with none of the plosive clenched-teeth Teutonic harshness of the word it stands in for. But maybe it’s just me.

The third fertile area for euphemism brings us back to f-bomb. There’s a bit more urgency to devising euphemisms in the sexual arena because the unadorned terms are, generally speaking, unpublishable in polite publications and unsayable in polite conversations. Eric Partridge got many wonderful books out of listing and defining euphemisms and variations for sexual acts and four-letter words because they are legion and because they tend, like f-bomb, to be funny and creative.

So, yes, I like f-bomb, euphemism though it may be. Unfortunately, it is a victim of the success that has now been enshrined by Merriam-Webster. The Lexis-Nexis database of U.S. news sources reveals 998 hits since 2001. There’s no way I would use it in writing. Euphemisms I’m ambivalent about. But I cannot abide a cliché.






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