Thursday, January 15, 2009


It’s hopefully not too prudish to suggest that randy euphemisms can really ruin words for everyday use. A common example is the adjectival form of ‘adult,’ which dictionaries define in relatively tame terms like ‘grown-up,’ ‘mature’ and  ‘for or of adults’—while also citing the euphemistic meaning, ‘sexually explicit.’

There was a time when one could refer to books, movies and situations as adult without warranting a nudge or a wink. Those days may be gone. A few exceptions remain, like ‘adult contemporary’ radio stations, which specialize in easy listening music that is very tame indeed—but for the most part, the word has needlessly been burdened with bawdiness.

It may not help matters that ‘adult’ has always been linguistically tied to ‘adultery,’ which by definition denotes a sexually explicit act. Yet that aside, the current trend of referring to the risqué as ‘adult’ smacks of euphemistic opportunism, a gradual neutering of ideas and contexts that, while not inherently wicked, tend to strike the fainthearted as distasteful.

Euphemisms are among the worst kinds of buzzwords. They can’t be justified on the basis of ignorance or innocence; everyone knows what they've come to mean, yet they’re used anyway to pussyfoot around the rougher edges of language.

Rougher edges help make languages colourful, not just dull and practical. As the cliché goes, “Call a spade a spade.” Blunt and specific should win out over gentle and vague.

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