She Knows Just What to Say*

CrimeFictionalEuphemismsNot very long ago, I got an email from a publishing company I’d previously contacted. One of the things I wanted was my contact’s confirmation that any contract I signed with this publisher would not involve any cost to me. Writers, I’m sure you know what it’s like to ‘feel out’ a publisher. The response I got was that the contract would likely involve at least some ‘cost sharing.’

Another term I’ve heard is ‘author subsidy.’ I’m sure there are plenty of others. What it all really means is that authors who sign with such publishers end up paying at least some of the cost of publication. Opinions about such contracts aside, what interested me was my contact’s choice of words. And it all got me to thinking about word choice and euphemisms.

I can’t, of course, say for sure, but my guess would be that phrases such as ‘cost sharing’ are designed to make the prospect of paying a publisher more palatable for an author. There are lots of other examples of words and phrases like that (e.g. ‘purchase,’ or ‘invest,’ rather than ‘pay’). And there are some good reasons to use them.

In crime fiction, euphemisms are sometimes much more effective, both for authors and for characters, than too much bluntness. For example, one of the most common sets of euphemisms in crime fiction are related to death. Many people, especially the bereaved, are uncomfortable with the words ‘dead,’ or ‘died.’ So the police, funeral arrangers, mourners and so on often avoid the word. In Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back, for instance, Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant, Jacob Skarre, investigate the murder of fifteen-year-old Annie Holland. One of the sad tasks Annie’s stepfather has to do is arrange for her funeral. So he has a conversation with a funeral director. It’s a very powerful scene, during which the director uses the term, ‘the deceased.’ Many such professionals also use the term, ‘loved one.’

Don’t Look Back also has an example of another sort of euphemism. As it turns out, the victim in this novel was raped before she died. Understandably, her stepfather can’t bring himself to use that word, so he chooses, ‘assaulted.’ And for his character, given the circumstances, that makes sense.

Lots of crime fiction novels, especially police procedurals, also include phrases such as ‘helping the police with their enquiries,’ or its parallel. For example, in one plot thread of Stuart MacBride’s Dying Light, DS Logan MacRae and the rest of DI Roberta Steel’s squad are investigating a series of murders of prostitutes. In one scene, MacRae’s listening to the radio in his car:

‘…someone was ‘assisting the police with their enquiries’ into the murder of a number of prostitutes.’

Most people know that means a person is likely a suspect. But there’s a good reason for that particular way of putting it. The police have to follow specific procedures to arrest someone. And the police may have good reasons not to be public about their suspicions. What’s more, journalists have to be careful to avoid libel or misrepresentation. ‘Assisting the police,’ sends the message that the police are working on a case without giving away false or premature information. It also sends the message they’re following procedure. So does the term ‘person of interest.’

Sometimes the police use euphemisms to put witnesses and suspects at their ease. In Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me?, for example, Dublin DS Claire Boyle is investigating the murder of a victim whose body was found in an empty apartment. So, naturally, she wants to find out as much as she can about the person who owns it. For that, she interviews Cormac Berry, who works with the firm that originally sold the apartment. Berry is, not surprisingly, concerned about being implicated. So during their talk, he eventually asks to speak to his lawyer. Here’s what happens when the lawyer arrives:

‘‘Ella O’Mahoney. I’m a legal representative for O’Mahoney Thorpe. I believe you are holding one of our employees here?’
‘Well, I wouldn’t say holding…’’

In that case, O’Mahoney strategically avoids a euphemism, so as to put herself and her client in a better position. But Boyle picks that up, and tries to make it clear where Berry stands:

‘‘I’ll just leave you two alone then. I’ll just come back for a chat in a few minutes, yeah?’’

As it turns out, what Boyle learns from Berry is useful in solving the murder.

There are lots of other examples of this sort of language use. When it comes to the way people actually use words, there are times when euphemisms work better than would unvarnished words. And authentic crime fiction reflects that.

On the other hand, euphemisms can sometimes be seen as condescending, or even deceptive. Some people would prefer plain language, which they see as straightforward and honest. And sometimes, that direct approach can add to a crime novel, too. In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, for instance, Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp and the local police to investigate a series of murders. The only thing they seem to have in common is that Poirot receives a cryptic warning note before each one, and an ABC railway guide is discovered near each body. At one point, Poirot visits the family of the second victim, twenty-three-year-old Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Barnard. In order to find out who might have wanted her dead, he needs to know more about the victim. But, as is the custom, people are reticent to be blunt. In one scene, Poirot mentions this to Betty’s sister, Megan:

‘‘I should like to find someone who knew Elizabeth Barnard and who does not know she is dead. Then, perhaps, I should hear what is useful to me – the truth.’
Megan Barnard looked at him for a few minutes in silence whilst she smoked. Then, at last, she spoke…
‘Betty,’ she said, ‘was an unmitigated little ass!’’

And that’s exactly the sort of direct language that Poirot wants to get a sense of what this victim was like.

What’s your feeling about euphemisms? When you read crime fiction, do you prefer them? Or do you prefer really direct, blunt language? If you’re a writer, how do you choose how direct your characters will be?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Seger’s Good For Me.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Karin Fossum, Sinéad Crowley, Stuart MacBride

35 responses to “She Knows Just What to Say*

  1. Excellent theme, Margot. Frankly, I don’t notice euphemisms in fiction as much as I do in newspapers unless it’s striking enough to catch my attention. For instance, Indian papers frequently use “sexually molested” for what could well be outright rape. They use the latter, too, but often one is a substitute for the other. It’s likely papers don’t have a uniform style.

    • I would suspect you’re right about the papers, Prashant. I don’t always see a uniform style, either. And you have a well-taken point about the way papers use euphemisms. They may do that for reasons of taste, or for reasons of being careful to be strictly truthful. Or there may be other reasons. Either way, though, they certainly do use them.

      Thanks for the kind words.

  2. I enjoy reading romances, but I prefer the old-fashioned use of euphemisms during the racy parts. Modern day romances can become kind of crude and, to me, that detracts from the mood.

    • You’re not alone, CSBR. Certainly there’ve been erotic romances around for a long time. But a lot of romance readers would rather focus on the emotional relationship than on what happens in bed. Besides, we’ve all got imaginations. There’s something about leaving things to the imagination that can make a story stronger.

  3. Hi Margot, glad to find your blog. I think that euphemisms are an absorbing subject. On the one hand they can be used out of kindness to soften a blow (as in a loved one’s passing) but I deplore their use when the motive is to manipulate other people in thinking a certain way.

    This is especially true when people try to justify something immoral.

    • I couldn’t have put that better myself, Sharon, and thanks for your visit. You’re welcome any time. There’s something about euphemisms that smacks of exploitation and of lack of trustworthiness when they’re used for the sort of manipulation and justification that you mention. On the other hand, there are times when euphemisms are kind. I think that’s especially true when the topic is someone’s passing, or some other difficult situation (‘no longer with that company,’ as opposed to ‘got laid off.’)

  4. kathyd

    I like euphemisms in crime fiction writing. In fact, especially in British writers’ works, they can be quite witty. In trying to avoid being direct, the dialogue can be smooth, but also very funny.
    I often write (non-fiction) using euphemisms. A friend who tends to be quite direct gets annoyed and says why didn’t you just say it this way? It’s because I want to soften something awful, as you point out above.
    Also, the point about death is so true. In my city and in some cultures, people say someone “passed” or “passed away.” It’s to soften the blow.
    And it is cultural.
    I recently read my first Anne Cleeves Vera Stanhope book. Lots of euphemisms, but underneath them are very strong meanings. In fact, if Vera calls someone “pet,” the reader knows he/she is in big trouble.
    And as for “cost-sharing,” I, too, would be leery. This from the experience of friends having books published.

    • Using euphemisms can be very helpful, Kathy, in softening a blow. That’s one important reason for using them. And you’re right; many euphemisms are cultural. So is the choice of whether to use them in a certain situation or not. I’m glad you’re enjoying the Vera Stanhope series; I think it’s terrific. And no, I have no intention of ‘cost-sharing…’

  5. Col

    I don’t think I mind either way as long as the scene presented is credible. I laugh every time I hear “helping the police with their enquiries!” I can remember hearing it as a child and asking my dad if it meant someone had had a really good idea and gone to the police to suggest it!

    • Oh, that’s funny, Col! And it’s just the sort of thing a child would think of. I’m with you about credibility, too; that’s the most important thing, euphemism or not.

  6. Margot: For civil court applications dealing with people suffering severe mental health problems in Saskatchewan there has been an evolution in the governing act. When I started as a lawyer it was The Lunacy Act. Later it became The Mentally Disordered Persons Act. Then it became the Dependent Adults Act. Now it is the Adult Guardianship and Co-decision-making Act. I am not sure the efforts to soften the name of the act have had an impact on those affected by the Act. It is clear the name of the act keeps getting longer.

    • Oh, that’s really interesting, Bill, how the name has changed and been adapted as social attitudes have. And on the one hand, one can see the reason for that. But on the other, you raise a well-taken point that the name of the Act is getting longer and more complicated. I’ve actually had a similar experience. I’ve taught courses in education of students with disabilities; those names have changed quite a lot over the years, and sometimes gotten complicated.

  7. I was immediately reminded of a popular hashtag on Twitter #WordsMatter. And it’s so true. Excellent examples as always, Margot.

  8. I like straight talk, both as reader and as writer. Polite language seems silly when dealing with killers and the police.

    • There’s a lot to be said for straight talk, Pat. On the one hand, until a person is convicted of a murder, s/he is an ‘alleged killer,’ or a ‘suspect.’ But at the same time, a lot of people prefer terms such as ‘fired at,’ or ‘shot,’ to ‘discharged a weapon.’ There may be legal reasons to use the latter term, but it can get a little awkward.

  9. kathyd

    I often use suspect or perpetrator rather than murderer. And horrific rather than explicit descriptions of gruesome, bloody acts. (In fact, I just read a book with brutal domestic violence. I could have lived with some euphemisms or off-page violence.)
    After the horrible shootings in Orlando in a LGBTQ club, some friends in the gay community didn’t want to say “massacre.” It upset them too much and created horrific mental images. So they said “shootings.” Others want to use “massacre” as that’s what it was. Words matter.

    • Thanks, Kathy, for sharing your experiences choosing words. As you say, they do matter. And I can well understand the debate between ‘shooting’ and ‘massacre.’

  10. I personally prefer straight talk but I do use euphemisms as other’s tend to find them more palatable – the news here especially surrounding terrorist activities are full of euphemisms and as you say are used to alert the reader to a certain scenario even when the act is recent and it’s not quite certain what has happened.

    • I know exactly what you mean, Cleo. The same sorts of euphemisms are used here. And you’re right; there are people who prefer euphemisms instead of bluntness. They simply find them more palatable.

  11. I quite enjoy euphemisms in fiction if they’re done cleverly, and don’t mind them in certain circumstances – bereavement etc – in real life. But they do get used by politicians and the media to obscure the truth too often, and they do get terribly overused as part of our politically correct culture to avoid giving offence. The problem is every newly created euphemism soon becomes another reason to take offence by those who enjoy being offended! Trying to keep up with what each minority group likes to call itself this week is too much for both my tired brain and my short patience…

    • You have a well-taken point, FictionFan. On the one hand, euphemisms are really helpful (not to mention, kind) when discussing bereavement, job loss, serious illness, that sort of thing. Most people prefer them, both in real life and in crime fiction, to the unvarnished truth. On the other hand, euphemisms can also be used to sugarcoat manipulation, among other things. Certainly that’s true when people want to influence our decisions. And there is the issue of ‘what should I say so as to avoid offending?’ It’s not always an easy terrain to negotiate, is it?

  12. kathyd

    I disagree on this. Political correctness as it’s called means respecting peoples, communities, nationalities, religions, cultures, people of all ages, appearances, abilities or disabilities, genders and sexual and gender identities.
    I was brought up to respect all people. No disparaging language was used in my family’s home about anyone. That set the right tone.
    As far as what groupings of people want to be called, it’s their right to do so.
    For example, Roma people want to be referred to that way, not as “gypsies.” People in the LGBTQ community refine their terminology and identities and it’s great to keep up with them and it’s important.
    Respect is very important, especially in these times of anti-immigrant bias abroad and in the States, as well as racism and misogyny.

    • It’s quite true, Kathy, that words have a lot of power. And they carry a lot of meaning. So it’s important to remember the messages that words can convey. There is arguably a difference between manipulation-by-euphemism and speaking respectfully.

  13. SteveHL

    In Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time , the fifteen year-old autistic narrator writes about euphemisms:

    All the other children at my school are stupid. Except I’m not meant to call them stupid, even though that is what they are. I’m meant to say that they have learning disabilities or that they have special needs…

    But Siobhan said we have to use those words because people used to call children like the children at school spaz and crip and mong, which were nasty words. But that is stupid too because sometimes the children from the school down the road see us in the street when we’re getting off the bus and they should, “Special Needs! Special Needs!”

    Off topic, The New Yorker magazine had a cartoon a while back of a mother introducing her child to a teacher or official at a school, saying, “He has special wants.”

    • That’s a really interesting quote, SteveHL. And it certainly gets to the heart of why people use euphemisms, and from an interesting perspective. Euphemisms really are part of the ‘social glue,’ and people with autism don’t have that sense of subtlety.

  14. SteveHL

    Sorry. “They should” was meant to be “they shout.”

  15. Close to being a euphemism: I’ve just been refreshing my memory of the Australian author Liane Moriarty – talking about very competitive mothers, comparing their very gifted children, she has one mother say of some twins ‘their gift was shouting’. I thought it was a very funny line, and one that might have been useful in defusing the rivalry when I had children that age!

    • Oh, that is clever, Moira! And I’m glad you mentioned Moriarty, as I really do like her work; I think she’s talented. And that description could fit lots of kids, I think…

  16. kathyd

    Very funny line from Moriarty.
    By the way, the New York Times Book Review’s column, “By the Book,” features Moriarty today. A fun interview in which she mentions her favorite contemporary authors, among other things.

  17. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…8/1/16 – Where Worlds Collide

  18. Really an interesting discussion here, Margot. I prefer straight talk myself, but I am sure there are times when euphemisms are most appropriate.

    • Thanks, Tracy. I think a lot of people agree with you about straight talk. Euphemisms may have their place, but I do think a lot of people want others to get to the point, if I can put it that way.

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