Metonymy and Euphemisms

In the previous chapter I presented the default cases of metonymy and how cognitive and communicative principles govern the selection of a preferred metonymic vehicle. These principles enable us to understand why we choose certain entities to access a target and why some vehicle-to-target routes have been conventionalized in the language. However, it sometimes occurs that cognitive and communicative principles are overridden because of the speaker’s expressive needs or a particular social situation.
The violation of the principles in question may result in the use of metonymy – based euphemisms which I will try to explore in the following discussion. As it was mentioned before, there are certain cognitive and communicative principles which account for the choice of preferred metonymic vehicles. Among cognitive principles we distinguish for example, the HUMAN OVER NON-HUMAN, the CONCRETE OVER ABSTRACT, the GOOD GESTALT OVER POOR GESTALT or the SPECIFIC OVER GENERIC principle. Kovecses and Radden (1998: 45-50) notice that cognitive principles mainly contribute to human experience, perceptual selectivity and cultural preference.
Most of the people’s conceptualizations is affected by our human experiences and perceptions. Thus, we attach greater importance to things that we can easily perceive and interact with. Cultural preferences are also significant factors in determining our choice of certain vehicles in metonymy. Therefore, we often select the stereotypical, ideal or typical members of a category to stand for that category. In the example He has a great heart the cognitive principle CONCRETE OVER ABSTRACT is applied.

The hearer encounters no difficulty in understanding the metonymy since we tend to refer to concrete physical object which are more salient than abstract entities. Thus the hearer knows that the speaker is talking about a person who is very kind and not about one whose heart has a large size. The default selection of a metonymic vehicle is also determined by two communicative principles, namely the principle of clarity and the principle of relevance. Entities that are clear and relevant are more preferred to those that are less clear and relevant.
Therefore, in a sentence  people achieve the intended target effortlessly since the principle CLEAR OVER OBSCURE governs the understanding of the metonymy. Yet, as Radden and Kovecses (1998: 53) state, cognitive and communicative principles account for the choice of default routes, they are unable to explain the selection of non-default cases of metonymy. One of the examples of non-default routes are metonymic euphemisms. Radden and Kovecses (1998: 53) suggest that what may account for the non-default selection is social considerations.
It means that the speaker refrains from uttering a clear, literal expression because he does not want to sound vulgar or indiscrete. The authors (1998: 52) also propose that rhetorical effects may be another reason for choosing a non-default route. The examples of these strategies will be presented later in the discussion. First, however, the term euphemism has to be explained and reasons for its occurrence in language explored. The word ‘euphemism’ is of a Greek origin and it means ‘good sounding’, ‘good auguring’, ‘mild’. In dictionaries it is defined as a rhetorical device.
Since Polish and English examples of metonymy-based euphemisms will be presented in the paper, I will give some explanations of the term in question coming from Polish and English linguistic sources. Dictionary of Contemporary English (1990: 346) gives the following definition: ‘the use of a pleasanter, less direct name for something thought to be unpleasant’. Allan and Burridge (1991: 14) propose that euphemisms are ‘alternatives to dispreferred expressions’ and are used to ‘avoid possible loss of face: either one’s own or, by giving offense, that of the audience, or of some third party’.
Another explanation comes from Polish. All in all, as Dabrowska (1993: 51) summarizes euphemisms are all those words or phrases that bring positive or neutral connotations. They are used to avoid or soothe a name of dispreferred expression and the reasons for the occurrence of euphemisms are paralinguistic (psychological, social, ideological or political). That is to say, euphemisms are widely employed in language in response to taboos. Generally speaking, a taboo is prohibition of certain behaviours (including language ones) that can bring harm or embarrassment to the hearer.
As there is a wide spectrum of areas where the term ’taboo’ operates, different definitions of this phenomenon exist. Nevertheless, as Dabrowska (1993: 17) points out, almost all the explanations which appear in dictionaries, encyclopaedias and linguistic papers define ‘taboo’ as a prohibition of a certain type, a phenomenon which should be avoided or treated carefully because of the possession of harmful, dangerous powers. A taboo guards certain human values and social norms.
Since a taboo is a ban of certain behaviours it also refers to the linguistic behaviour. It means that some words are forbidden to be communicated or preferred to be avoided. The reasons for the avoidance are mainly connected with religious beliefs, superstitions, death, sex or politics. Thus, what the speaker can do is either not to use a prohibited expression or to substitute it for another one – euphemism. In other words, a euphemism is a linguistic response to a ban of uttering certain words.
Let us now discuss the reasons that stand behind the appearance of a linguistic taboo and therefore, the occurrence of euphemisms. In the past, people were afraid of referring directly to the names of certain supernatural beings and to the names of certain animals. They believed that those creatures possessed some magical and supernatural powers. Thus, people felt fear and anxiety for them and did not mention directly the names of God or such animals as a bear or a lion. It resulted in expressions the Lord or the All-Mighty.
Ullmann (1967: 205-6) calls this phenomenon ‘taboo of fear’. Dabrowska (1993: 27-8) observes that this kind of motivation was stronger in the past but it cannot be stated that it is not present currently. Nowadays, euphemistic expressions motivated by fear are those associated with the devil. Holders (1987: ) gives such instances as Lord of the flies, black gentleman, Old Scratch and Ullmann (1967: 205) lists Nick and Hangie. Many scholars notice that the use of euphemisms is determined by courtesy, kindness and delicacy.
The speaker avoids expressions that can offend or distress the hearer. Ullmann and Kany (1967: 206-7) call this phenomenon ‘taboo of delicacy’. Due to the existence of ‘taboo of delicacy’ we do not talk explicitly about death, diseases, physical and mental defects or criminal actions, especially when they directly involve our interlocutors. For example, instead of adopting very explicit verb ‘to die’ we may substitute it for a euphemistic phrase ‘to pass away’ which seems to be a milder and more appropriate form in many cases.
In other situations the use of euphemisms is motivated by ‘taboo of propriety’ (Ullmann, 1967: 207-8). Norms of decency make people avoid a direct reference to such topics as sex, swearing or certain body parts and their functions. The speaker’s decency, modesty and sometimes his embarrassment refrain him from mentioning troublesome subjects directly. Therefore, one can talk about having sex using a euphemistic expression to sleep with. It is also very common that people ask about the location of a place where they can wash their hands or powder their nose, meaning a toilet.
Leszczynski (1988: 22) observes that avoiding certain expressions is caused also by the speaker’s disapproval of some words or phrases. Thus, the speaker does not use these words or tries to communicate them in a milder and more pleasant way. Leszczynski (1988: 22) emphasizes that a very significant factor which motivates the use of euphemisms is on the one hand, the protection of hearer’s feelings and sensitivity and on the other, the protection of the speaker himself. The former situation results from the speaker’s real care about his interlocutor or his false concern which only aims at avoiding people’s disapproval.
With respect to the protection of the speaker, he either believes in what he is saying or wants to meet with the acceptance of society. As Dabrowska (1993: 26-7) points out, the speaker’s use of euphemisms in response to the ‘taboo of propriety’ may be an effect of hypocrisy. The author (1993: 26-7) claims that people sometimes do not make a direct reference to certain body parts and bodily functions not because of their real need but because of being prudish. Dabrowska (1993: 27) also observes that the speaker’s cunning and his self-interest is a highly common factor for euphemizing.
In order to induce the hearer’s positive attitude, that is necessary to attain certain goal, the speaker emphasizes the value of certain things. He presents himself and his actions in the most favourable light and raises their prestige. This kind of behaviour aims at bewitching hearers and making them, for instance, to buy certain advertised products or, in politics, to believe in politician’s good intentions. Motivation based on cunning and the speaker’s self-interest is characteristic for euphemisms present in the language of advertising, politics, propaganda and diplomacy.
For example, it is politically correct to use an expression excess of labour force instead of unemployment. In the language of politics we frequently hear about price regulation which is a gentler phrase for rise in prices. As it was presented, there are numerous factors that condition the use of euphemistic expressions. Similarly, a wide spectrum of linguistic ways for euphemizing exist. One of them is metonymy which is commonly used to employ euphemisms in language.
Just to remind, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary ( ) defines metonymy as a substitution of the name of one entity for the name of another entity on the condition that these entities are related to each other. Radden and Kovecses (1999: 18) add that the substitution of entities is not enough. What is essential is that metonymy interrelates these entities to “form a new, complex meaning”. Langacker (1993: 30) perceives metonymy as a reference-point phenomenon in which a reference point – an entity evoked by a metonymic expression – makes possible accessing the desired target.

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