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It’s all out in the open

The rancid noun, the foetid verb and the acid invective that we heard this election season suggest that euphemism is on its way out. Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes.

columns Updated: May 30, 2014 22:20 IST
Gopalkrishna Gandhi

Hypocrisy, that odious thing, has one thing going in its favour.

It has given to the world a delightful gift — the euphemism.

A spontaneously occurring phrase, very raw, very coarse, very rough, rendered into a candied version of it, is a euphemism. It is, basically, an exercise in concealment and, therefore, nothing more than a piece of charming deception that really deceives no one.

One of the early euphemisms in literature is the one Shakespeare puts into Mark Antony’s powerful speech at The Roman Forum in Julius Caesar: ‘Honourable’. Antony uses it with deadly hypocrisy. By the time he comes to ‘…So are they all, all honourable men…’, the honourable men have been stripped of the last shred of honour.

What are the words Antony had in mind when he switched to the euphemism of ‘honourable’? My guesses would be ‘fiends’, ‘vermin’, ‘bloodsuckers’, ‘ghouls’, ‘traitors’. Euphemism was necessary because Antony’s using the words on his mind pat could have led to his being put to death, pat. The knives were out and waiting. Besides, Antony using euphemisms had the effect of slowly but surely turning the Roman populace’s mood. If he had started with a hate speech, the mob could have turned against him. That entire monologue of Antony’s is, in fact, a euphemism. He means one thing, says another. But the effect on the throng of citizens? Electric.

Who says simple folk need to be given raw words, raw?

During the height of the non-cooperation movement in Madras, the Rt Hon’ble Srinivasa Sastri and the Congress stalwart S Satyamurti shared a platform. A silver-tongued Sastri opposed the Congress programme eloquently in a long speech in English which the gathering heard sullenly. All that Satyamurti had to do was to begin his Sanskritised Tamil rejoinder with “Srinivasa Sastri…”…pause… “…Mahanubhava…” Satyamurti, who was also a skilled stage-actor, rolled out ‘Mahanubhava’ to the fullest extent of that word’s syllabic scope and made a mockery of its meaning, ‘most honourable’. The audience was in Satyamurti’s palm for the rest of the speech. What was the description Satyamurti could have had in mind for Sastri? I think, ‘sanctimonious stooge’. Very unfair to the great man, but then Satyamurti was not wanting to pay a compliment. He was deliberately employing a euphemism.

Indian politicians, lawyers and editorial writers have been adept at doing this.

But alas, now, the Indian-English euphemism is on its way out.

The raw, the coarse, the rough have now begun to assert themselves, throwing off the charade of fake courtesy. Politicians prefer to say it straight, lawyers come more quickly to the point, editorial-writers prefer to write as they speak and speak as they think.

‘My good friend’ was perhaps the euphemism Indian public speakers used most often while referring to their opposite numbers. And some still use it. ‘My good friend is totally mistaken….’, ‘As my good friend surely knows…’

By that seemingly courteous form of reference, of course, they could mean anything from a whole range of adjectives such as ‘my worst enemy’, ‘my pet hate’, ‘you despicable creature’, ‘mushroom head’, ‘cabbage brain’, ‘chamber pot’, to descriptions that ink would not roll on. And the ‘good friend’ knew very well what was going on in the speaker’s mind.

Another euphemism that was used regularly (and which still lingers) is ‘with due respect’. This was, of course, about everything except respect and, as a sentence-opener, prepared the ground for the torrent of criticism that was to follow. When a speaker began ‘with due respect’, the person addressed knew what was coming and braced himself for the imminent attack. ‘With due respect’ had a cousin in ‘I beg to differ’. What the respectful beggar really hid under those words was ‘I don’t care a cracked fig for you and am actually over the moon showing you up to be the fungoid fool that you are…’ But no, form had to be maintained, the euphemism used and the festering thought processed into ‘With due…’

‘May it please your honour’ is a form of address that is still sometimes used in petitions received by district officials. Now this is no euphemism, only a form of address sanctioned by colonial custom. But I used to often wonder when I handled those papers as an assistant collector in South Arcot, whether the writer was not being euphemistic when he wrote those words at the start of the petition. There was definitely a process of idea-translation going on in the head of the writer. And the following occurred to me as the probable ‘originals’: ‘May it enter your dense Head’, ‘May it dawn in your inky brain’, ‘May your dung head understand’.

Many years later, in Kolkata I received an inland letter in Bangla which seemed, in closely-written letters, to pay me compliment after compliment but which, in actual fact, was doing the exact opposite. What sounded like a blessing, I made out in my second reading of the letter, was in fact a prayer for my early exit from the face the earth. And it ended with the author’s very legible two-name signature: Kamana Biswas, which translated into Longing Faith. The climax lay in the letter’s very end. The sender gave her supposed address as: Nimtola Ghat Road, Kolkata. This is the road on which one of the city’s better-known crematoriums is located. My enjoyment of the letter’s Swiftian satire made up for my astonishment at the bile in the writer’s imagination.

I hope euphemism was the intention of another writer who started her effusive letter to her governor with the words ‘It is an honour to be writing to the Figurehead of the State’.

Such humour stands above the rancid noun, the foetid verb and acid invective that we have been hearing in the current election’s discourses. Or, I should say (mauling Shakespeare) such humour stands way above the refined gold of our campaign speeches, the many-hued rainbow of their refinement and the fragrant violet of their great goals.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is former administrator, diplomat and governor. He is currently senior fellow, Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University, New Delhi

The views expressed by the author are personal