A Rose by any Other Name

Words have meaning
Words have meaning

Over a half century ago, there had been a large Jewish hospital in the New York region fulfilling a unique societal need. It had opened its many long-term beds for the continuing care of people impaired by chronic, essentially incurable, neurologic diseases. Other hospitals in the community, with a sigh of relief, happily transferred such patients to this humanitarian institution.

One weighty problem persisted: This needed institution chose to call itself a Jewish home and hospital for the incurables. It was an honest name, each word flawlessly accurate. But the people who worked there and the people who visited flinched when the name was uttered.

The institution asked: Are we not a home for almost 700 impaired humans? Are we not, simultaneously, a hospital for our neighborhood? And are we not unabashedly Jewish? The answers were always yes, but the public clamor still prevailed; eventually, the words ‘home’ and ‘incurable’ were removed from the hospital’s name.

This humanitarian institution, now under a totally ambiguous name, continues to prosper, providing comprehensive care for its community – an institution with a memorable past made great when it gave sanctuary to those burdened by incurable neurological disease.

Of the many rhetorical skills available to humans, there is the nuanced ability to diminish the bluntness of harsh names. We are, after all, a nation of euphemism creators, desperately seeking genteel locutions to blur the painful outlines of some unappealing reality.

Consider, for example, toilets. While their functions have barely altered over the years, the names given to them have certainly shifted. A while back, they were called bathrooms although few users had bathing in mind when seeking them in public places. Marginally accurate descriptions such as washroom, restroom or even powder room were then employed; even the blunter term, latrine, is nothing more than a corruption of a Latin word meaning a place to wash; and now, finally, we call them comfort stations which, in a sense, is reasonably accurate.

The word, crippled, when describing a patient’s status, is discarded as being utterly insensitive; it has been displaced by the somewhat more compassionate word, disabled. This, too, has been viewed disparagingly and is sometimes now replaced by the still more ambiguous word, challenged.

Gravediggers have become morticians who, in turn, have evolved into grief specialists. The corner saloons, the erstwhile targets of the temperance movement, have transformed themselves into bars, which, in turn, have become cocktail lounges. Their ambience has changed but their dual missions – namely covert liaisons and inebriation – remain stubbornly unchanged.

Consider, further, the following euphemisms, from the public domain, as examples of rhetorical deceit: fiscal parallelism for covert-price fixing; or strategic misrepresentation for diplomatic lying.

Euphemisms eventually become threadbare through rote usage; and, ultimately, they became patently transparent, thus requiring either a new disguising word, or perhaps the truth itself. In Orwell’s words, euphemisms are creative words that “give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Euphemisms can be mere pretentious elegances created to deflect the harshness of some earthy phrase. The more direct words are uniformly recognized but by tacit consent, rarely employed. Yet these earthy words are certainly known to every five-year-old well before he learns the true obscenities of life such as genocide, racism or terrorism.

A story is told of Harry Truman’s early career. He was speaking to a group of Missouri farmers and repeatedly talked about the barnyard as a place congested with manure. A friend of Mrs. Truman whispered to her, “Why don’t you teach Harry to say fertilizer?” And Bess Truman responded, “Why Lord, Mathilda, it took me 30 years to train him to say manure!”

Stanley M. Aronson, M.D., may be reached at smamd@cox.net.