Not long ago, I endured an anal probe. I have ass-cam photos to prove it. It was not administered by a green-skinned alien in a spaceship. Rather, a white physician in an unremarkable room in Sandy snaked the high-tech hardware to its destination. Technically speaking, it was an endoscopic probe, aka colonoscopy, but neither word was ever uttered. It was as if those in authority conspired to substitute “procedure” each time the c-word came up.
“The day before the procedure,” I was instructed to gag down buckets of liquid to flush my innards; the day after, a woman called from the clinic to ask how I was faring “after the procedure.” I told her I was OK. I didn’t tell her I was wise to their studied use of an odd euphemism.
Euphemism is lipstick on a pig. When you are dealing with something offensive, like torture or battlefield fratricide, you can pretty it up with a euphemism like “enhanced interrogation technique” and “friendly fire.” Without makeup, the pig is not welcome in the parlor where euphemism is a staple of polite society. Utah is a prime example, given its cultural emphasis on modesty, moderation and righteousness. Here, the gosh-darn pig wears lipstick, mascara and just a hint of blush. Here, Mitt Romney makes the flippin’ news for saying, “H E double hockey sticks” instead of “hell” or “heck.”
I honestly don’t give a darn. I employ euphemism as often as anyone. When in the parlor, sipping coffee from a china cup, I use “BS” instead of “bullshit.” I think it is disingenuous to do so, but I do it reflexively. It is much harder for me to write euphemism because it is so imprecise. It can’t stand up to revision. If you accept the fact that there are no perfect synonyms in the English language, then you will be as uneasy as I with bland, euphemistic words and phrases. I think that is why I had a hard time with “procedure.” To my mind, “colonoscopy” is neither threatening nor tasteless. Quite the contrary: The c-word hails us from billboards and waves at us from the sides of UTA buses. The preference for “procedure” is baffling if for no other reason than it is unnecessary.
Most of society’s substrata have their own argot. Clearly, gastroenterologists have adopted “procedure” into theirs. Government agencies and the military enjoy the well-deserved reputation for converting acronyms to nouns and verbs, some of which make their way into the mainstream lexicon. Snafu, radar and scuba are examples. Parenting has some funny word play within its ranks. I know little kids with penises and vaginas, and I know little kids with private parts. I heard one youngster report that her brother had been struck by a soccer ball “right in the wheaties!” What mom and dad gain by substituting wheaties for testicles I don’t know, but it is something akin to what gastroenterologists are doing with “procedure.”
We all manipulate words. By changing one word to another, we are able to obfuscate, blunt, parry or sugarcoat. But words can be Janus-faced: some with eye appeal may actually be detrimental. On a resume, for example, CareerBuilder.com asserts that such facile constructions as “go-to person” or “team player” are the kiss of death in a job search. Employers want specifics not shopworn generalities. I feel the same way whenever I hear someone say, “he was always there for me.” When I was a teacher and a student wrote that in an essay, I would scrawl, Where is there? in the margin.
In his book The Age of the Warrior, the respected British journalist Robert Fisk criticizes the news media for its weasel-worded coverage of the Second Intifada. In a place where suicide bombers are either terrorists or martyrs, the news media “no longer call murder by its name.” Instead, Fisk writes, Israeli security agents eliminate Palestinian “terrorists” in “targeted killings.” Civilian deaths often result from “crossfire.” Fisk argues that the reportage has been manipulated by Israel. “Murder is murder is murder,” he writes.
Death is the bogeyman lurking in a thicket of euphemism. My cousin Jennifer, a nurse at a Salt Lake City hospital, told me that, in medical parlance, patients “expire.” They don’t “die.” The obituary pages of The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News report on those who have passed away, departed or gone to the other side where they have met their maker. Infirm family pets are put to sleep; criminals are executed. Neither is killed with an envenomed needle because it would be brash to say as much. Such deferential tiptoe treatment seems undeserved. Dead is dead, killed is killed as far as I’m concerned. I say drag the bogeyman into the daylight and look him dead in the eye. Just don’t invite him in for tea and crumpets, and by the way, there is no wingback chair in the parlor for sex, either.
Sex is sexier than death. Not many want to die, but everyone wants to get laid. The ins and outs of sex lend themselves to a frolic of euphemistic expression. I found a Website with an alphabetical listing of 164, from bang to whoopty-do, but I am sure there are many more. “Doin’ the nasty” was my favorite. The list did include Shakespeare’s “making the beast with two backs,” but—no surprise!—such anatomical precision as “penis” and “vagina” is absent. In the wake of my anal probe, I conclude that when it comes to the groin, we are pretty darn squeamish. Any procedure, involving the private parts, medical or otherwise, is best not introduced into polite conversation—ever.