281: Circumlocutory Language

Circumlocutory and euphemistic language are both often very important within the context of certain folk traditions. It’s the idea that a certain “thing” can’t be called by its actual name, whether out of fear or respect, so instead another word or phrase, often descriptive, is employed. One theory links the use of this language back to our ancient animistic belief systems, where seemingly everything in nature could have a personality, life, spirit, and therefore a name. Names are often considered to be sources of great power in many folk traditions, which is why you see the “true name” of something often being employed in verbal charms for healing and magical means. Knowing the true name for something can mean power or destruction for the speaker, depending on what exactly is being invoked. The use of circumlocutions, it seems, is often to placate or “soften” a spirit or force of nature to be more receptive to the requests of the speaker. In these cases using somethings “real name” is often only employed in times of great desperation or when a “thing” needs to be unmade or undone, as in the use of origin stories in the Finnish tradition.

You can see this use of language around the world in many different traditions. A great many can be found in the Finnish folk tradition of the Kalevala. John Abercromby has an excellent list of figurative expressions, metaphors, and epithets in his Magic Songs of the West Finns:

Bear—’broad forehead’ (otso), ‘flat nose,’ ‘honey paws,’ ‘lover of honey,’ ‘broad paws,’ ‘big foot,’ ‘claw-footed,’ ‘blue socks,’ ‘blue stumpy tail,’ ‘homespun breeks,’ ‘tiny eyes,’ ‘forest king,’ ‘forest beauty,’ ‘lovely shaggy coat of hair,’ ‘forest gold,’ ‘grey one of the forest,’ ‘backwood’s wonder,’ ‘hulking fellow,’ ‘black bullock of the forest,’ ‘reindeer cow,’ ‘cow,’ ‘badger,’ ‘Juumi’s dog,’ ‘hound of Mielikki,’ ‘hay-cock,’ ‘little hay-stack,’ ‘little apple,’ ‘little bundle,’ ‘horror of the land.’

Wolf—’forest cur,’ ‘Esthonian cur,’ ‘woolly tail,’ ‘bushy tail,’ ‘windy tail,’ ‘windy throat,’ ‘hairy snout,’ ‘hairy foot,’ ‘projecting eyes,’ ‘everlasting gadabout,’ ‘fat dog.’

Dog—’the barker,’ ‘son of Penitar,’ ‘woolly tail,’ ‘money-seeker.’

Lynx—’forest ewe.’

Fox—’bushy tail.’

Marten—’money pelt,’ ‘wee bird.’

Ermine—’furred beauty of winter,’ ‘dear little hen of abandoned fields,’ ‘flower at the root of a fir,’ ‘whitish tube.’

Squirrel—’the fir-branch bird,’ ‘biter of cones,’ ‘golden apple of the fir,’ ‘blossom of the knoll, furious forest-cat,’ blue-wool.’

Hare—’ragged jaws,’ ‘crooked neck,’ ‘cross-shaped mouth,’ ‘squinting eyes,’ ‘ball-eyes,’ ‘swivel eyes,’ ‘bandy legs,’ ‘Hiisi’s bandy legs,’ ‘slender paws,’ ‘mad-cap,’ ‘sheep,’ ‘distaff bound with wool.’

This traditional use of language can also be found here in the Ozarks. One example was recorded by Vance Randolph in his Ozark Magic and Folklore and pertains to the belief that the word “thunder” should never itself be used, especially during a lightning storm:

I have met hillmen who think that it is bad luck to use the word thunder, particularly during an electrical storm. They feel that people who keep talking about thunder are likely to get struck by lightning. Instead of saying thunder, they use some familiar circumlocution, such as “the ‘tater wagon is a-rollin’,” or “they’re crossin’ the old bridge now.”

Along these same lines, in Cherokee folk tradition thunder is often referred to as “Red Man” (asgaya gigagei ᎠᏍᎦᏯ ᎩᎦᎨᎢ) and his sons as the “Thunder Boys” or the “Little Men” (anisgaya tsusdi ᎠᏂᏍᎦᏯ ᏧᏍᏗ) so as to prevent the wrath of the sky befalling the speaker or his household.

There’s also a great deal of respect surrounding snakes which can so often mean the death of a hillman traveling through the woods. Vance Randolph mentions a few snake epithets here:

Some families have secret spells or “charms” which are sup- posed to protect them against snake bite, but the nature of these has not been revealed to me. I do know, however, that some hillfolk are very careful to avoid the use of the word “snake.” Instead of warning their children to beware of snakes in the path, they say “look out for our friends down that way,” or “there’s a lot of them old things between here and the river.”

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