Lyly, Blair, and Euphemism

Let’s concern ourselves directly with the term, “euphemism.” Oops: we must take a detour first. I don’t like when that happens.

Detour: I was taught by several professors (and I still assume) that the word “euphemism” came into English via the influence of John Lyly’s enormously popular work Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit--Euphues being the main character, of course.

It seems one cannot prove the connection by citing the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, however. Here is the OED’s second definition of the word, followed by its citations:

2. An instance of this figure; a less distasteful word or phrase used as a substitute for something harsher or more offensive.
1793 BEATTIE Moral Sc. §866 The euphemism [‘he fell asleep’] partakes of the nature of metaphor. 1860 FROUDE Hist. Eng. VI. 27 foot-n., A shorn crown..a euphemism for decapitation. 1865 TYLOR Early Hist. Man. vi. 143 The euphemism of calling the Furies in the Eumenides. 1877 E. COUES Fur Anim. vii. 216 The Skunk yields a handsome fur, lately become fashionable, under the euphemism of ‘Alaska Sable’.

I cherish the “sable” example.

(The OED also provides the Greek roots, if you’re interested.)

Lyly’s work appeared in 1578. Here is a link to a biographical sketch of the author:

And, from the work, here is a brief excerpt, which illumines Euphues and other users of euphemisms (and we all use them):

“The freshest colors soonest fade, the teenest razor soonest turneth his edge, the finest cloth is soonest eaten with moths, and the cambric sooner stained than the coarse canvas: which appeared well in this Euphues, whose wit being like wax apt to receive any impression, and having the bridle in his own hands, either to use the rein or the spur, disdaining counsel, leaving his country, loathing his old acquaintance, thought either by wit to obtain some conquest, or by shame to abide some conflict, and leaving the rule of reason, rashly ran unto destruction. Who preferring fancy before friends, and his present humor, before honor to come, laid reason in water being too salt for his taste, and followed unbridled affection, most pleasant for his tooth.”

[I took this excerpt from]

End of detour. Euphues is shallow and seems to speak and to behave the way he does because he wants to entertain and to be liked. So his euphemisms, etc., lead him away from honor and reason and toward inappropriate ends, but they don’t yet have the sinister political and social effects that Orwell identifies. In “the” essay, Orwell claims political language is full of euphemisms, but less predictably, he claims,

“The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism.” How fascinating that Orwell–vaguely?–changes the meaning of euphemism from denoting a word that clouds meaning or takes detours (circumlocution) to denoting a whole style of writing or speech. In so doing, he seems to take the word all the way back to 1578 and to Euphues’s broad range of behavior.

By the way, if you were puzzled by Lyly’s use of “teenest” in connection with razors, you “aren’t alone<' which is a euphemism. The OED on "teen" used this way:

¶3. ? Corruption of keen. rare.

When a question mark precedes a definition and the definition begins with “Corruption,” the OED is unamused, which is a euphemism.


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