Know Your Words

Camus on the Death Penalty … and Euphemism

Les_Formes_acerbesFor many years, I’ve had Albert Camus’s Resistance, Rebellion and Death on my bookshelf. I meant to read it some time ago, as I’ve read most of his other work, but somewhere along the line I got sidetracked, my mind commandeered by other books and ideas.

I finally opened it last week and, in addition to it being a remarkably (and somewhat shockingly) timely book, it also introduced me to Camus’s stellar essay, “Reflections on the Guillotine,” which dismantles not only the arguments in favor of this horrid practice, but the euphemistic language that helps it continue in “civilized” countries like this one.

I won’t provide a recap of the essay here, but I encourage you to read it (which you can do here. Better yet, buy the book as there is tons of great stuff in it beyond this one essay). What I will do, though, is provide an excerpt of Camus’s thoughts on how proponents of state-sanctioned murder talk about it indirectly so as not to offend us with its reality.

Camus begins his essay on the death penalty by telling the story of his father reaction to witnessing a public execution.

“My mother relates merely that he came rushing home, his face distorted, refused to talk, lay down for a moment on the bed, and suddenly began to vomit.”

He then continues:

“Presumably that ritual act is horrible indeed if it manages to overcome the indignation of a simple straightforward man and if a punishment he considered richly deserved had no other effect in the end than to nauseate him. When the extreme penalty simply causes vomiting on the part of the respectable citizen it is supposed to protect, how can anyone maintain it is likely, as it ought to be, to bring more peace and order into the community? Rather, it is obviously no less repulsive than the crime, and this new murder, far from making amends for the harm done to the social body, adds a new blot to the first one. Indeed, no one dares speak directly to the ceremony. Officials and journalists who have to talk about it, as if they were aware of both its provocative and its shameful aspects, have made up a sort of ritual language, reduced to stereotyped phrases. Hence we read at breakfast time in a corner of the newspaper that the condemned “has paid his debt to society” or that he has “atoned” or that “at five a.m. justice was done.” The officials call the condemned man the “interested party” or “the patient” or refer to him by a number. People write of capital punishment as if they were whispering. In our well-policed society we recognize that an illness is serious from the fact that we don’t dare speak of it directly. For a long time, in middle-class families people said no more than that their elder daughter had a “suspicious cough” or that the father had a “growth” because tuberculosis and cancer were looked upon as somewhat shameful maladies. This is probably even truer of capital punishment since everyone strives to refer to it only through euphemisms. It is to the body politic what cancer is to the individual body, with this difference: no one has ever spoken of the necessity of cancer. There is no hesitation, on the other hand, about presenting capital punishment as a regrettable necessity, and let’s not talk about it because it is regrettable.

“But it is my intention to talk about it crudely. Not because I like scandal, nor, I believe, because of an unhealthy streak in my nature. As a writer, I have always loathed avoiding the issue; as a man, I believe that the repulsive aspects of our condition, if they are inevitable, must be merely faced in silence. But when silence or tricks of language contribute to maintaining an abuse that must be reformed or a suffering that can be relieved, then there is no other solution but to speak out and show the obscenity hidden under the verbal cloak…. The survival of such a primitive rite has been made possible among us only by the thoughtlessness or ignorance of the public, which reacts only with the ceremonial phrases that have been drilled into it. When the imagination sleeps, words are emptied of their meaning: a deaf population absent mindedly registers the condemnation of a man. But if people are shown the machine, made to touch the wood and steel and hear the sound of a head fallen, then public imagination, suddenly awakened, with repudiate both the vocabulary and the penalty.”

Damn.

EuphemisI’ve been thinking of writing a post on the word euphemism for some time. After all, with the Trump administration (somewhat shakily) at the helm, the euphemisms have been flying like frisbees at an Ultimate tournament. Yet, when I came across these words by Camus, I thought I’d let him do the honors of discussing how the mechanism of euphemism works to dull our sensitivities to everyday horrors in the here and now.

Camus, of course, doesn’t get in to the word’s etymology. I’ll remedy that now.

The word euphemism, says the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, comes from the Greek word euphemizein, meaning “use auspicious words” (from eu “well” and pherein “to hear”). The (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins agrees, but adds that the Greek term “originally denoted the avoidance of words of ill-omen at religious ceremonies.” It goes on to say the word, “was subsequently taken up by grammarians to signify the substitution of a less for a more offensive word.”

Put this way, euphemism sounds almost nice, like the user of euphemistic language is doing anyone who might be listening a favor. This is not the case, of course, as euphemisms are typically used to deceive rather than minimize offense. This is apparent not only in the except from Camus included above, but also by the very existence of euphemistic language dictionaries.

Here at the LRL, we have at least three dictionaries devoted to the subject of euphemism — Lambdin’s Doublespeak Dictionary, the Faber Dictionary of Euphemisms, and Rawson’s Dictionary of Euphemisms and other Doubletalk — as well as a few others, such as Ambrose Bierce’s famous Devil’s Dictionary, which gets a lot of mileage out of indirect speech. I’ve quoted from most of these texts in earlier posts (especially the more political entries), and if the past is any guide, I’ll be doing it again. As noted in the Dictionary of Euphemisms and other Doubletalk, “Euphemisms are in a constant state of flux. New ones are created almost daily.”

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