Posts Tagged euphemism

How not to say what you want to

Why do we say “Excuse me” sometimes when we mean “Move” and/or “Listen up”? Two incidents in the last week prompted this question. 

1. A man stands between me and my favourite bookshelf in the library, absorbed in his finger-voyage up his nose.  “Excuse me,” I say (hoping I won’t have to touch any books that he  uh . . .  you know).  He turns around eagerly, “Yes? Tell me?” “Nothing,” I reply tartly. “You’re standing in my way.  Please move.”

“Why don’t you just say so?” he grumbles.

Excuse me? Didn’t I?

* * * *

2. A young woman is trying to silence a group of people.  “Excuse me,” she’s yelling again and again. I wince. Surely one doesn’t yell “Excuse me”!! Isn’t it a polite phrase, a request, an apology?   Shouldn’t she have been yelling “Be quiet ” or “Listen up”? 

Distraught,  I turn to the OED for solace. It lists the phrase “Excuse me” as “an apology for an impropriety in speech, a polite way of disputing a statement, a polite form in addressing a stranger, or in interrupting the speech of another.  It’s also used to excuse oneself, to ask permission or apologize before leaving a room.”

So when did the phrase come to mean “get out of my way”and “keep quiet”? Well, urban dictionary, that venerable source of current slang, does list these two meanings:

Given the undertones of politeness of “Excuse me”  it sure is ludicrous to see someone gritting their teeth and saying, with barely suppressed rage, “Excuse me?” when what they really want is to say “Get the hell out of my way!” or “Just shut up and listen will you?”

Euphemism. That’s probably what the phrase has now become.  And ‘euphemism’, as we all know, is a euphemism for lying.


This picture refuses to disappear from the mind:  Asma Jehangir breaking down while telling Barkha Dutt her most vivid memory of Bhutto. She recollects Bhutto saying, 8 years ago, that her children were too young for her to return to Pakistan.  A chilling reminder that Bhutto was not just a  ‘political figure assassinated’ (and therefore grist for the news channels) but a human being, a woman, a mother, whose loss is personal and emotionally traumatic for some. 

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