Wednesday 7 March 2012

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About Euphemisms)

I've just finished reading the French translation of Stefan Zweig's well-crafted novella Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman and I loved it.  In its just-over-a-hundred pages I found a wealth of human virtues and frailties. Emotions run wild (especially the female character's) and they are the book's focal point. There's also a subtle linguistic touch underlying the narrative. It is used very effectively by the eponymous woman of the title to deal with the novel's thorny issues. This made me think of one of the more recognisable traits of the British persona: their euphemistic approach to certain subjects. There's a particular passage in which this attitude is clear and yet, it's only after you've read the scene that the lingering effect of that which has not been explicitly said makes you come back and re-read it again, this time in an attempt to decipher the message.

Since the novel is written in the first person singular and the narrator is a French man, the following excerpt could also be taken as a foreigner's/male outsider's insight into the fine art of euphemism amongst the British upper classes and/or women. Please, note that only the first sentence is in English and that's how it appeared in the original novel in German. The rest of the passage is in French. Just to give you some background so that you can understand, the novel is about a group of wealthy travellers who find themselves sharing the same hotel in Monte Carlo in the days after World War I. A married woman staying in the same place with her daughter and husband elopes with a young man whom she only meets twenty-four hours before. The woman is condemned by all the guests except for one person - our narrator - who stands up for her. This creates some friction between him and the rest of the married couples. Enter Mrs C., a respectable English lady in her 60s. With the self-restraint characteristic of her class at that time, she interrupts the heated argument and asks the narrator if he really thinks that the wife's questionable behaviour is beyond reproach. To which his answer is yes. After asking the same question a couple more times in different ways she surprises him (and herself) by giving him the following response, thus, allowing the actual plot to unravel:

I don't know, if I would. Perhaps I might do it also.

Et pleine de cette assurance indescriptible avec laquelle seuls des Anglais savent mettre fin à une conversation, d'une manière radicale et cependant sans grossière brusquerie, elle se leva et me tendit amicalement la main. Grâce a son intervention le calme était rétabli et, en nous-mêmes, nous lui étions tous reconnaissants de pouvoir encore, bien qu'adversaires l'instant d'avant, nous saluer assez poliment, en voyant la tension dangereuse de l'atmosphère se dissiper sous l'effet de quelques faciles plaisanteries.

The effect of these pleasantries might dissipate the tension but it unwittingly also ignites the volcano seething inside this English woman. A volcano caused by a young Polish man whom Mrs C meets in a casino twenty years before. Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman is a gigantic euphemism for passion. The kind of passion in which a forty-old-year old aristocratic lady cannot afford to indulge.

All languages have euphemisms. In Spanish when a person passes away, we have many phrases besides the standard "morir" (to die) to refer to that act. For instance we talk of the deceased joining "los callados" (the quiet ones). In that respect English is no different.

Where it does differ, however, is in the frequency with which these inoffesive words crop up. Euphemisms are so embeded in the British way of life that sometimes you have short, whole sentences that are nothing but a variation of a phrase that can be considered offensive or hurtful. For instance, a couple of days ago on Radio Four I heard one of the presenters say, à propos de Putin's re-election in Russia, that the British Foreign Office was monitoring the situation in that European nation. Which is shorthand for saying that they're doing nothing because they're really scared of Putin. When Gordon Brown was said to be fully committed to his job as Britain's Prime Minister, the message was that he was a workaholic. When it was implied that he was strong of character, it was an underhand move to downplay comparisons with Stalin. Understanding these linguistics tricks  is the result of living in the UK for so many years.

However, my comments shouldn't be taken as a slight against this most British of British personality traits, up there with self-deprecation and resilience. On the contrary, this post was born out of a fascination for what I consider to be an art in the UK. Besides, coming from a land where straightforwardness is the standard, I welcome a culture where often you say what you mean but you not always mean what you say. Of course, sometimes euphemisms can be used to look down on others. For instance, imagine you're having a conversation and your interlocutor suddenly says "To be honest with you..." You'd better brace yourself, for he/she is just to unleash the hounds of hell on you. Same with "Saying that/Having said that, though...", usually deployed after you think that the other person has completely agreed with your argument. But no, he or she hasn't and they're just about to let you know why. Possibly euphemistically. And what to say of those fashionable phrases, "efficiency savings" and "staff restructuring", covert terms for "cuts" and "sackings" respectively?

Still, as I mentioned before, the benevolent nature of euphemisms shouldn't be overlooked. And sometimes they even make a person feel better about his or her job. If not, ask my school's site manager. Or caretaker, as we used to say back in the day.

© 2012

Next Post: "Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music", to be published on Sunday 11th March at 10am (GMT)


  1. Or ask the janitor . . .

  2. I had to google define euphemism. I think Malay expressions are full of euphemism, we like to talk in shadows and hints. Maybe once, we were really shy people.

  3. I want to read that book. I've have heard mention of it before reading about it here. Checked Amazon. $109.00 for a paperback!!!! It must be out of print. I'm going to have to go book hunting which is always a joy.

  4. Hi, vicomtesse. Is it really that expensive? Ha! It cost me nothing! I was at the Brick Lane mrket last December and a bloke just gave it to me for free because I'd just bought a novella by Julian Barnes (a couple of quid it cost me).

    Mim, you're right! :-)

    oceangirl, I did notice a certain bashfulness in Malay people the second time I was there. But I also noticed a big smile wherever I went.

    Greetings from London.

  5. I think that the British art of euphemism is heavily linked to the British sense of irony. Pointing out the absurdities or oddities of life in an understated way is so very English.




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