Straight talking

<strong>A Man About a Dog: euphemisms and other examples of verbal squeamishness</strong>

Nigel Re

The English language is - how shall I put this? - somewhat unreliable when it comes to getting to the point. Indeed, the art of not saying what you mean is either a national pastime or a national vice, depending on whether you've "discussed Ugandan affairs" or been a victim of "collateral damage".

Until now, however, no one has created a one-stop guide to the verbal tics and quirks we use to worm our way out of tricky situations. Cue Nigel Rees, star of Countdown's dictionary corner. He has compiled a glossary of 2,467 examples of so-called "verbal perfume": commonly used words and phrases that disguise meaning to soften the blow of an unpleasant truth.

Rees not only tells us the meaning of these words and phrases, but sheds light on their origins by way of literary and historical quotation. So it is we learn that the age-old excuse for not wanting sex, "I've got a headache", originated in the 18th century, while entries such as "extraordinary rendition" show how today's political conflicts are played out in the linguistic realm. To put it simply, A Man About a Dog is an amusing, meticulously researched catalogue of the social forces that shape the way we speak.

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