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Hows Your Euphemism Feeling?

by Jerry Kolber

One of the things you'll notice both as a result of regular seated meditation practice, as well as living the embodiment of the eight-fold path, is that using euphemisms can start to feel somewhat non-Buddhisty.  But euphemisms - those deligthful little conversational jujubes that let you not say what you mean while sounding like you know what you're talking about - are everywhere.

I remember my first exposure to the power of the euphemism in early high school.

I went to a school that had a large number of Jewish kids (myself included), and over a couple of years a surprising number of the girls (and even a few boys) came down with a case of deviated septum that required corrective surgery.  For those not in the know, a deviated septum is a misaligned septum, causing your nose to be crooked. It typically happens as a result of a blow to the nose or some very specific congential disorders.

The kids who were having their septums un-deviated were also "pleasantly surprised" to discover that the plastic surgery procedure also rendered their noses decidely more traditional and less, ahem, Jewish.  It became a kind of running joke. Girls with the most obviously "untraditional" noses would go to their doctor, discover they had a deviated septum, and eventually show up with a new, newly shaped, fully functioning nose.

The answer to whether my school happened to have a lot of upper middle class children of doctors and attorneys who were getting their noses punched in on a regular basis or some freak of genetic statistics that resulted in a lot of teenagers with this rare condition - or whether there were lots of kids who wanted nosejobs and got the procedure partially covered by insurance for "medical reasons" by claiming "deviated septum"  - is obvious.

In my school, "deviated septum surgery" had become a euphemism for "nosejob" because people didn't want to say "nosejob". Or even worse "nasal rhinoplasty". Like how the government prefers to say "war on weapons of mass destruction" or "war on terror" rather than "securing the oil of foreign countries for American use".  Or "voting with your dollars" rather than "performing an identity I've constructed for myself by carefully purchasing items that let the world know I care, rather than engaging in real person-to-person activism." (myself included, frequently guilty as charged).

My own personal most frequent euphemism? "I'm fine". I'm never fine. I'm generally either coasting on a euphoric wave of creativity, love of all things great and small, and a fervent belief that tomorrow can only be even better than today - or I'm aggravated, petty, annoyed, wallowing in the minutae that make my pains and complaints so vibrant, so juicy, so sticky, so incredibly important that they need to occupy the entire windshield and rear-view mirror of my universe. 

No, I'm never "fine", and I'm likely to share it when I'm feeling great which is the vast majority of the time, so if someone asks me how I am when I'm in the sticky nasty shit, I'm likely to say "I'm fine" rather than "Actually, I'm really enjoying wallowing in a mess that my ego has managed to infuse with a really tasty flavor that I just can't seem to spit out right now, so actually I feel like the whole world has closed in by about 300 million miles and is pressing against me, and everything is a little grayer than it was a few hours ago, and though I know this ego/chemical/memory sensation of awfulness will pass soon (just like the great feeling did and always will) right now I'm not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel so actually, I'm not so hot."

The thing is, just like admitting you're getting a nosejob actually causes people to gossip LESS, just like admitting the real reasons for war actually causes people to respect you MORE (even if they still disagree), and just like admitting that you "vote with your dollars" because you like buying shit more than true activism and it's just a lot easier to swipe a card than change your diet would actually start a great conversation with your friends - just like that, speaking how I really feel when I say "I'm fine" would actually cause me to feel great, because taking the fears that seem so huge inside my little skull and putting them out in the big world outside me is a great way to realize how small the shit I think is so major really is.

All euphemisms share one thing in common - they are a way for the speaker of the euphemism to believe they are retaining some element of control of situation and mesage - but really all euphemisms do is allow the speakers ego to do backflips to convince itself that it is doing the right thing while subconsciously creating a "center of attenion/lack of perspective" energy that just feeds the warm ego embers even more.

What personal euphemisms do you use to hide something that you'd rather not discuss? Share yours below!

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They're Folks NOT People

My favorite euphemism is used frequently by politicians and newscasters. Instead of referring to a given population as "people", they use the much warmer, less sterile word, "folks". Next time you watch The Nightly News, notice how often Brian Williams does this. I've also noticed that Obama prefers the more pleasant sounding "folks" when he's referring to a certain community. However, when it's a group of not so nice people, say the Taliban or some other notoriously bad organization, it's quite acceptable to refer to them as "people". In fact, using the word "folks" would sound completely incongruent and out of place.

but I am fine

how are you is an interesting question. in some situations, with people you don't know well, I think it's more an acknowledgment of your existence than a real inquiry --.I'm here, you're here, let's do business, whether that business is riding in an elevator together, paying for groceries, or washing hands at adjacent sinks. if you answer something other than "fine" -- I'm hot, I'm glad it's wednesday, I'm wishing I was in borabora -- you get a little more human contact, a sentence, a smile, so I've started doing that.

the question gets trickier when you're dealing with people who know you better, who want to trade more than a couple of sentences. for me it gets trickiest when it's a buddhist friend or teacher. I have been known to babble "I'm fine, well, who am I really, I mean this body, this spirit, in this moment is pretty OK and loving life. and yeah there's problems, but right now I'm OK with them." A friend called me out on "stressed" -- which I then detailed, and he said, "yeah, that's a lot of stress."

but lots of the time I'm fine -- I'm tired, parts of my body hurt, the ground of life is shifting under me -- but it is fine. right now. in this moment. if you want to get coffee or wine, we can see if that changes.

nice essay. thanks.

Thanks Jon

Those are good ones - "busy" especially in NYC gets used a lot. I always wonder what that means - it's such a strange word.  thanks for commenting!


Thanks for this Jerry - a great opportunity to notice when we are not present, when we automatically jump to a euphemism to cover up how we're actually feeling. "I'm tired" or "I'm busy" feel familiar. Tired might mean "overhwelmed, beaten down, helpless, angry," or it might mean "worn out but exhilirated." Busy is one of my favorites too. Thanks again.

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