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A Better Class Of Euphemism
by I. M. Owen

"Melioratives' are those plesant?sounding terms for things that weren't really offensive in the first place GREEKS, AND WHAT THEY HAD WORDS FOR: When I read something like he earned plenty of kudos for ... I suspect, but can't prove, that the writer imagines that kudos is a plural, and its second syllable rhymes with "hose." A headline in the Toronto Star a few months ago left no room for doubt: Kudos flow for Ontario welfare reforms. A kudo, in the headline?writer's mind, is presumably a small chunk of praise. Not so. Kudos is a singular, and its second syllable rhymes With "hoss." It's a word in Homeric Greek meaning "glory"; that gloomy hero Achilles thought it was the only thing that made life worth living. If the Romans had happened to adopt it into Latin, they would have transliterated it cydus, we would have got it from them in this form, and there would be no confusion. And then there's Nemesis. She was the goddess of retribution, entrusted with the task of striking down anyone guilty of hubris, or overweening pride, which was regarded as insolence to the gods. Once she caught up with you, you'd had it. Thus when we read that a boxer, or a tennis?player, or a politician, is looking for a rematch with his old nemesis Soand?so, it's nonsense ? especially if we find that old So?and?so lost the last time they met. There are no rematches with Nemesis. 'Me writer probably thinks it's a fancy way of saying enemy. The word wanted is rival. A. friend reports that she has seen the word in the plural ? nemeses ? and suggests that this is impossible, However, Liddell and Scott's Greek?English Lexicon lists a few instances of the plural'. In Smyrna, it seems, there were two goddesses of the name. The retribution market there must have been too big for one goddess to handle. Lots of hubris in Smyrna.

COHORT: A reader in Saskatoon, writing to agree with me about the conjunctive use of like and the distinction between due to and owing to, disagrees with me about cohort because, he says, "cohort in its military sense is already a transferred usage, grounded on' the literal meaning of the term, 'an enclosed yard.' " If the Romans could make this mysterious leap of meaning, he implies, we are entitled to transfer our meaning from a group to an individual. But wait a minute. What he says is true, I find, of the Latin word cohors. But it's not true of its English derivative cohort, which came into our language only as a translation of the in military sense of cohors. If I told you that I planted two roses in my back cohort the other day, you would be puzzled. This derivations game can be carried too far. The American Heritage Dictionary tracks cohort down to an Indo?European root, gher?,"to grasp, enclose," from which are derived, it says, gird, girth, yard, orchard, garth, kindergarten, garden, horticulture, ortolan, cohort, cortege, court, courteous, courtesan, cour tesy, courtier, curtilage, curtsy, chorus, choir, choragus, choral, chorale, choric, chorister, Terpsichore. All this is fun, and may even be true, but it's totally irrele vant to contemporary English usage. But I'm grateful for the reader's information. I'd always assumed that cohort, like exhort, came from hortari, "to urge," and thus meant a group urged, or called together. I bet a lot of ancient Romans thought so too.

MELIORATIVES: Euphemisms, as we all know, are pleasant?sounding substitutes for terms that designate things indisputably unpleasant, as the Greeks called the Furies the Eumenides, the Wellminded Ones, for fear of offending the brutes; or as people say "passed away" for "died." (A phrase that always makes me laugh when I see it in a death notice is "entered into rest suddenly.") We once employed a well?baby nurse for a few days, for whom the euphemism "bowel movement" was too crude, so she said "motion." But there's another class of ?terms, chosen to make less offensive things that really weren't offensive in the first place. I propose to call these melioratives, from Latin melior, "better," on the analogy of pejorative, from peior, .worse." Once you start inventing substitutes for perfectly clear words on those grounds, it becomes a self?defeating exercise. For example, deaf became hearing?impaired some years ago. But now impaired is considered insulting, I learn from John Allemang in his new column "Word Play" in the Globe and Mail. Alle? mang seems to take both sides in this argument, but on the whole comes down on the side of the melioratives: "If there is a little pretending and well?wishing on the part of those who are recreating this corner of the language, there is much more complacency and prejudice among their opponents." Complacent I may be, and certainly I'm prejudiced in favour of clarity and simplicity. If I ever become lame, or deaf, I'll tell people that's what I am as soon as I meet them. It'll be useful for them to know, and there will be no reason for me to be ashamed of it, as if I'd been exposed as an embezzler. This moves me to speak out against the meliorative gay. My Saskatoon correspondent says: "The great sin of the 'Gay Movement' is that they took over a word which had a unique sense and made it impossible to use it in that sense ever again." Well, I haven't given in; I stand with that decidedly heterosexual cat mehitabel, who was toujours gaie. (Yes, I know that archie typed gai, but I can't help copy?editing even cockroaches.) I also stand with the decidedly homosexual novelist Timothy Findley, who said in the December issue of this magazine, "It offends me deeply and it offends me twice deeply when other homosexuals choose that as an appellation ? as an 'us against them' word. . The point is to join the human race." That's the spirit. By the way, I've only lately noticed that those who use the term speak of gays and lesbians. Why? Is the female of the species gloomier than the male? Then there's concern, the second?most overused word in Canadian English. (I'll tell you about the first?most another time.) It's used for everything from mild anxiety, which it actually means, to sheer rage: the concerns of the pro?choice and right?to?life movements. Next time, perhaps I'll take up the ethnic melioratives, which are a category by themselves.


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