A very interesting post from B.C. Stone at The Vagrant Mood has got me thinking about euphemisms. Oh, and before I go on, you’ll want to go pay a visit to The Vagrant Mood. It’s a fantastic resource for all sorts of thoughts on writing, classic novels, film and art. Trust me.
Now, back to euphemisms. There are a lot of topics people may feel uncomfortable talking about, and euphemisms can help people discuss them without feeling so awkward. We don’t want to be lied to, and most of us don’t like lying to others. At the same time, blunt terms can make it really difficult to discuss certain things. So it makes sense that people use euphemisms at times. They run through crime-fictional conversations just as they do any other conversation, so you see them a lot in the genre. Here are just a few examples.
In Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver has traveled to the village of Woodleigh Common to spend some time with her friend Judith Butler. While there, she assists at the preparations for the local school’s Hallowe’en party. At one point, she needs to excuse herself:
‘Mrs. Oliver…left the room in search of a particular apartment, the geography of which is usually fairly easily identified.’
It’s obvious of course where Mrs. Oliver is headed, but Christie chooses a euphemistic expression. During the preparations for the party, one of the young people there, Joyce Reynolds, boasts of having seen a murder. No-one believes her, but when she is murdered during the party later that day, it’s clear that she might have been telling the truth. So Mrs. Oliver asks her friend Hercule Poirot to investigate. He agrees and discovers that Joyce’s murder has everything to do with past events in the village.
Many, many crime novels use euphemisms for prostitution. Women who are employed that way are sometimes called ‘working girls’ and sometimes ‘sex workers.’ Here’s an interesting perspective on euphemisms from that profession from Jill Edmondson’s Dead Light District. In that novel, Toronto PI Sasha Jackson gets a new client Candace Curtis, who runs an exclusive bordello. Curtis is worried because one of her employees Mary Carmen Santamaria has gone missing. Jackson isn’t too sure about the case but she does accept it. It turns out that the search for the missing Mary Carmen leads into Toronto’s very shady underworld, as well as into the world of human trafficking. Here’s a bit of a conversation that Jackson and Curtis have early in the novel:
‘You have a database of hookers?’… [Jackson]
‘Please, don’t call them hookers. Most of the girls use the term intimacy consultant, though some call themselves relaxation therapists. I know they’re euphemisms, but they’re important to the girls’ self esteem.’
‘Consultants. Right. Got it.’
As the novel goes on, Jackson learns that she has some preconceived notions about the business, and it’s interesting to see her reaction as her assumptions go up against what she finds out.
In Mickey Spillane’s My Gun is Quick, PI Mike Hammer is at a coffee shop when he meets Nancy Sanford who sometimes uses the coffee shop as a ‘sales office.’ (See? I use euphemisms too at times.) She approaches Hammer, and when he demurs, she says,
‘Rest easy Mister, I won’t give you a sales talk. There are only certain types interested in what I have to sell.’
Hammer has some compassion for Nancy, and when she tells him how she got into the business, he gives her some money to make a new start for herself. Shortly after they meet, Nancy is run down in a not-so-accidental hit-and-run incident. When Hammer finds out, he determines to track down her murderer. In the process he uncovers a prostitution ring with some very high-level connections.
There are plenty of other euphemisms related to prostitution and sex of course, and we see them all throughout crime fiction. Here, for instance, is a bit of a conversation from Philip Kerr’s Prague Fatale, featuring his Berlin PI Bernie Gunther. At this point in the novel, Gunther is looking for a young woman Arianne Tauber. He thinks she works at a place called the Golden Horseshoe, but one of the hostesses there tells him that she doesn’t:
‘So where does she work?’ [Gunther]
‘Arianne? She runs the cloakroom at the Jockey Bar. Has for a while. For a girl like Arianne, there’s a lot of money to be made at the Jockey.
‘In the cloakroom?’
‘You can do a lot more in a cloakroom than just hang a coat, honey.’
Gunther knows without his informant having to use vulgar terms exactly what kind of girl Arianne Tauber probably is…
Of course, crime and mystery fiction often deals with murder. And a lot of people are uncomfortable with words such as ‘dead,’ ‘deceased,’ or ‘killed.’ Euphemisms can make conversations with witnesses and family members a little easier. There are dozens and dozens of examples of this sort of euphemism in crime fiction; here is just one. In Jane Casey’s The Burning, DC Maeve Kerrigan and her team at the Met are investing two cases that may be related. One is a series of murders committed by a killer dubbed ‘the Burning Man’ by the press, since he tries to destroy his victims’ bodies by fire. Another is the murder of Rebecca Haworth, who may or may not have been the Burning Man’s latest victim. At one point, Kerrigan is talking to Haworth’s parents, trying to get a sense of what she was like. The idea is that the more she knows about the victim, the closer she’ll get to the killer. When the conversation is over, Haworth’s father says,
‘She was happy. She had everything to live for. So please, Maeve, do find the person who did this to her, for our sake.’
Neither of Haworth’s parents is unwilling to face the fact that she is dead, although it is devastating. But the euphemism is still useful to them.
I could of course go on and on about euphemisms because they are so common in language. In part that’s because most of us do want to be told the truth, but we don’t always want it told in the most unvarnished terms. Which examples of euphemisms have you noticed in crime fiction?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Just the Way You Are.