Euphemisms, Proverbs, Allusions, and Cognition:
A Study of Two Poems by Antonio Machado
Pedro J. Chamizo-Domínguez / Carmen M. Bretones Callejas
Universidad de Málaga/ Universidad de Almería
pjchd at uma. es / cbretones at hotmail. com
EUFEMISMOS, PROVERBIOS, ALUSIONES Y COGNICIÓN: ESTUDIO DE DOS POEMAS DE ANTONIO MACHADO
Entre los diversos instrumentos que conforman el estilo de un escritor dado (Vg. sintácticos, semánticos, etc.), vamos a analizar en este trabajo dos de ellos: la alusión y el eufemismo. Y ello de cara a ilustrar cómo, por medio de estos instrumentos estilísticos, A. Machado consigue efectos cognitivos y critica dos sistemas filosóficos dados en dos cortísimos poemas. Eufemismos y alusiones no sólo tienen efectos estéticos y retóricos, sino que también tienen efectos cognitivos. Y esta función cognitiva está relacionada con las presuposiciones y los conocimientos previos de los hablantes. Debido a ello son posibles diferentes niveles de lectura de un texto en función de los diferentes niveles de presuposiciones que hayan hecho los hablantes.
Eufemismo, proverbio, alusión, Antonio Machado
Among the various devices that conform a given writer’s style (i.e. syntactic, semantic, and so on), we will ll analyse in this paper two of them, allusion and euphemism. And so, in order to illustrate how, by means of these stylistic devices, A. Machado gets cognitive effects and criticizes two given philosophical systems in two extremely short poems. Euphemisms and allusions do perform meanings in cognitive domains not merely aesthetic or rhetorical ones. And this function is related to previous knowledge and presuppositions of the speakers. For that reason several levels of readings are possible according to the different levels of presuppositions made by speakers.
euphemism, proverb, allusion, Antonio Machado
1. Allusion, euphemism, and knowledge
By comparing the plain style of the language of science and the one of literature and by using a word which alludes to theological jargon, the Spanish philosopher J. Ortega y Gasset agues that “en ciencia tiene valor precisamente lo que se puede repetir: mas el estilo (de un poeta/escritor) es siempre unigénito” (in science it is worth just what can be repeated: but the style (of a poet/writer) is always unigenit) (Ortega, 1983: VI 263. Our emphasis). This means both that a given author’s style can’t be repeated and that every writer uses a peculiar style which defines himself from the rest of the writers and, although it can be glossed, it can’t be “translated” into any other style. Accordingly, a special hermeneutic effort is required on the part of the reader in order to achieve a plausible understanding of what the literary author is trying to communicate. And although Ortega doesn’t mention it, what is asserted about literary language can be asserted about everyday language and communication. Among the various devices that can define a writer’s style we’ll mainly analyze two of them, allusion and euphemism; and so in both a theoretical example of everyday language and two actual short poems by A. Machado. Both allusion and euphemism are linguistic devices which we mainly use where we can’t or will not use the words that literally mean the objects or persons because we will get some particular stylistic and cognitive effects and/or because these words can be offensive, injurious, politically incorrect, or socially inconvenient, either about the denotatum or to the audience, or both (Allan & Burridge, 1991: 11). Now, in order to achieve their cognitive effects allusions and euphemisms should be necessarily ambiguous (Chamizo Domínguez, 2004: 45-46). This means that utterances in which allusions or euphemisms appear can be understood in at least two different ways. Namely literal and tropical ways. And, as a result of that semantic ambiguity becomes unavoidable when we allude to or speak euphemistically, while, when we use the words that literally mean the objects or persons, semantic ambiguity usually disappears or is minimised (Nerlich & Chamizo Domínguez, 1999; and Nerlich & Clarke, 2001).
If utterances in which allusions and euphemisms appear are necessarily ambiguous from a semantic point of view, their concrete meanings in a particular context are a matter of implicatures both conventional and conversational and their adequate interpretation and cognitive contents will depend on the number of suppositions and suggestions that the hearer is able or wants to do (Grice, 1989). When allusions and euphemisms are widely used by a given writer they define his/her style at least in the texts in which these figures of speech appear. And, what is more relevant yet, both work as a kind of knowing wink looking for a special kind of reader/hearer who is (supposedly) able to understand writer/speaker’s knowing winks. A result of that is the fact that the writer counts on an active, learned, and well-informed reader who is able to distinguish the different levels of reading that the author try to drive at. When the hearer is not able or does not want to be cooperative the cognitive effects of allusions and euphemisms disappear. The phenomenon involving a hearer who is not or does not want to be cooperative is usually exploited in jokes and/or humorous works, where the hearer usually gets a different implicature that the one the speaker wants to achieve.
Let us exemplify these thoughts by appealing to an example. Let’s us consider
 The actress from Athens (Georgia) did not take part in The Cheyenne Social Club.
In order to achieve an adequate understanding of  the hearer should identify who is the person alluded to and what means The Cheyenne Social Club. Now,  can receive at least two different levels of interpretations according to two different degrees of complexity of reading. The first one is the level which corresponds to the most elementary reading and which would give the obvious sense of  in agreement with the literal meanings of the words appearing in it. This reading can be made by any speaker who has an acceptable command in English, but who can’t or wants not going beyond what, prima facie,  says. Accordingly,  basically says three things:
1. That a certain actress was born or lives in Athens or is closely related to this town.
2. That she did not perform in a given performance.
3. That, since we are speaking of an actress, The Cheyenne Social Club might be the title of a movie or play.
4. That perhaps there is a movie entitled The Cheyenne Social Club.
This level of interpretation is not false at all, but it is, quite obviously, deficient. So, our reader –or a better informed reader– can try to get a further interpretation in which s/he goes beyond the literal meanings of the words of . Now our reader will attempt to identify the person alluded to as the actress from Athens and the actual meaning of the title The Cheyenne Social Club. To achieve it s/he will to make a series of prior assumptions and suppositions concerning both the subject and the predicate of .
Concerning the subject of  and for achieving these goals s/he could give the following (or similar) steps.
1. If the speaker uses the periphrasis the actress from Athens instead of the proper name of this person, it might be because s/he thinks I’m able to identify her.
2. Periphrases such as the actress from Athens are really cases of antonomasia and can be used when a given characteristic (to be a famous actress, in this case) can be predicated of a person or object without taking serious risks of confusion because the person alluded is the most relevant citizen of that town.
3. It should exist a famous actress who is born or is closely related to this town.
4. I know that well-known actress Kim Bassinger was born in Athens and I also know she did not take part in The Cheyenne Social Club.
5. So, the description the actress from Athens stands for the proper name Kim Bassinger.
As for the predicate of  the hearer should give the following (or similar) steps.
1. The Cheyenne Social Club (1970) is the title of a well-known classic western directed by Gene Kelly whose more relevant actors were James Stewart (the character of John O’Hanlan) and Henry Fonda (the character of Harley Sullivan).
2. This movie deals with a rude cowboy (the character of John O’Hanlan) who inherited The Cheyenne Social Club from his brother without knowing what it were.
3. That John O’Hanlan and his friend Harley Sullivan travelled to Cheyenne (Oklahoma) to take possession of John O’Hanlan brother’ legacy.
4. That they firstly thought that The Cheyenne Social Club was a kind of country club or something similar to it.
5. That they eventually realized that this supposed “country club” actually was a brothel or bordello.
6. That the movie’s plot plays on the literal and euphemistic meanings of The Cheyenne Social Club and its subsequent misunderstandings.
7. So, The Cheyenne Social Club is a euphemism and stands for ‘brother’, ‘bordello’, or ‘red-light house’.
Once these assumptions have been made, the hearer of  is able to understand all the hidden implicatures in this utterance. But this interpretative process is pretty complicate and, obviously, no any hearer is able to achieve it because of may not know that Kim Bassinger was born in Athens (Georgia), because of s/he may not know the film, because of s/he may not know the movie plot, or because of any other reason.
2. Philosophy inside literature
If the interpretation of utterances in daily life is already complicated, it will be more complicated when we encounter literary texts, and even more so when these are literary texts with philosophical pretensions.
Let us analyse the cases of two short poems of Proverbios y cantares by the Spanish poet A. Machado, which have these philosophical pretensions and which, surprisingly, are neither quoted nor alluded (and, obviously, not commented) by Cerezo Galán (1975) in his monographic book on A. Machado’s philosophy. In each one of these poems there is a totally complex criticism made by a philosopher, contained in only three lines.
In these literary texts, in which a philosophical thesis is criticised and/or exposed, a more active participation is usually required on behalf of the reader for it to be completely understood than that required for a written text according to the ways which are normally considered as canonical to philosophise. In effect, in a philosophical text, written both according to the usual norms and according to other more usual genera dicendi and styles in philosophy (i.e. essays, manuals, treatises, dialogues, etc.), it seems quite convenient that the number of suppositions which the reader is obliged to make may be reduced to a minimum; and that the expounded or criticised thesis may be demonstrated with as much detail as possible, either by the rational process, or the documentary process, or by both at the same time. On the contrary, when a philosophical thesis is to be expounded in a literary text or by means of an aphoristic style (i.e. some works by F. Bacon or F. Nietzsche), the number of suppositions which the reader is called upon to make can be multiplied. This, along with the aphoristic character these texts usually have, allows the reader to ignore the long and bothersome demonstrative process. However, all that implies that the possibility of establishing diverse levels of reading in a literary text with philosophical pretensions is greater than in the case of a philosophical text of the same duration, written according the literary and canonical norms which are usual in philosophical disciplines. And it should be stressed that aphoristic style has been used not only by literary writers but also by thinkers who usually are considered as “philosophers”, such as Democritus, Sir F. Bacon, or F. Nietzsche as well.
2.1. Machado as a critic of Descartes’ philosophy
Let us consider the following verses by Machado:
 “En mi soledad
he visto cosas muy claras
que no son verdad.” (Machado, 1988: 629).
[2.1] “In my loneliness
I have seen very clear things
which are not true” (Our translation).
[2.3] “In my solitude
I’ve seen very clearly
things that aren’t so” (Machado, 1982: 181).
In this text we can find some verses in which at least two levels of interpretation are possible, levels in which different degrees of complexity are being gradually acquired, according to the higher or lower complexity of the reader’s suppositions.
The first level is the one which corresponds to the most elementary reading, and which would give the obvious sense of the text in agreement with the literal meanings of the words appearing in it. Here the only supposition that must be done consists in accepting that what is seen clearly must be true. Accordingly, these verses say four things, at first sight:
1. That the poet has been alone.
2. That, in a first moment, he saw something in a clear way.
3. That later, that which he saw in a clear way proved to be deceptive.
4. That the poet has been the object of an illusion.
This interpretative level is not false at all but it is, quite obviously, insufficient. A second interpretative level would correspond with an attempt to go beyond what the text, prima facie, says and to try to identify the interlocutor of the text. At this second level, some type of non-literal interpretation of some of the terms used in the poem should be tried, as well as making more complex suppositions than in the previous case. Accordingly, the suppositions that could be made should be the following ones:
1. That with in my loneliness Machado is referring, without citing it by name, to some character in which loneliness could be an essential element in the starting point and development of its thoughts.
this is perfectly verified in the case of the French philosopher R. Descartes.
The texts by Descartes in which he insists on his loneliness –either physical
or intellectual–, and which he will synthesize in his motto solus
procedo are abundant throughout his literary
work. Nevertheless, the most famous text
is possibly the Discours
3. That I have seen can mean metaphorically I have met or I have known, according to the well-known metaphor which refers to mental sphere in terms of physical vision (Chamizo Domínguez, 1998: 115-125; and Sweetser, 1990: 23-48).
4. That Descartes has maintained that what is seen with clarity is a criterion of certainty and truth. The places in which Descartes refers to clarity as a criterion of certainty and truth are abundant throughout his work. As an example, let’s see the following text: “Ac proinde jam videor pro regula generali posse statuere, illud omne esse verum, quod valde clare et distincte percipio”. (Descartes, 1973b : VII, 35). The French translation (Descartes, 1973c: IX-1, 27) presents some differences and it says as follow: “Et partant il me semble que des-ja je puis establir pour regle generale, que toutes les choses que nous concevons fort clairement et fort distinctement, sont toutes vrayes”. On the notion of clarity in Descartes’ work, see, (Curley, 1986: 153-176, and Mattern, 1986: 473-490),
5. That when Machado testifies that, in his loneliness, he has seen clear things that were not true, he is depriving Descartes of authority by means of a contrary example.
And that is because, for Machado, the truth cannot be shown in the loneliness of a suspicious reflection of solipsist, but in the common search, as the following verses show:
y ven conmigo a buscarla,
la tuya, guárdatela” (Machado, 1988: 629).
[3.1] “Your truth? No, the Truth,
and come with me to look for it,
yours, keep it for you” (Our translation).
[3.2] “Your truth? No, Truth;
come seek it with me.
As for yours, you can keep it” (Machado (1982: 199).
According to this second level of interpretation Machado’s allusion to Descartes becomes pretty clear as well as Machado’s poem becomes a criticism and a disqualification of Descartes’ philosophical starting point. In other words, on the contrary of Descartes’ philosophical methodology, Machado basically argues that searching for truth is the task of a searching in dialogue and collaboration with other people and thinkers. And Machado’s allusions to Cartesian philosophy can be demonstrated by appealing to other texts from Proverbios y cantares, even though it is not a criticism of Cartesian philosophy:
[3.4] “Ya hubo quien pensó:
cogito ergo non sum.
¡Qué exageración!” (Machado, 1988: 637. Original italics).
[3.5] “Someone already/even thought:
cogito ergo sum.
What an exaggeration!” (Our translation).
[3.6] “Now they’ve thought of this:
Cogito ergo non sum.
What an overstatement!” (Machado, 1982: 191. Original italics)
2.2. Machado as a critic of Kant’s philosophy
Let us analyse a rather more complex example. There cannot be too many among the readers of Antonio Machado who, because of their lack of prior contextual knowledge and given the many assumptions that it is necessary to make, have access to the implications of the following lines:
 “¡Tartarín en Koenigsberg!
Con el puño en la mejilla,
todo lo llegó a saber” (Machado, 1988: 641).
[4.1] “Tartarin in Koenigsberg!
With his fist against his cheek,
He came to know everything” (Our translation).
[4.2] “Tartarin in Koenigsberg!
Propping cheek on fist,
he learned all there was to know” (Machado, 1982: 197).
This eight syllable tercet has a wide range of implications, which will vary considerably according to the level of education of the different readers. So, we might imagine at least four successive levels of reading depending on the prior information that each of the four readers may bring to the poem. And these levels do not cancel each other out, but rather complement each other so that the higher levels subsume the truth discovered lower down in the scale of interpretation.
The first level that we might imagine, the most elementary one, might be the level of that reader who has a perfect knowledge of Spanish (or English when translated) but does not have any special geographical, literary or philosophical knowledge. This could well be the case of schoolchildren whose literature teacher has set Machado’s text for them to gloss. For this type of reader, for whom we assume an elementary prior knowledge, Machado’s lines would not say much more than what they say prima facie. That is:
1. That somebody called Tartarin must have existed (indicated by the use of the past of the verb llegó a saber [came to know]).
2. That he must have lived in (indicated by the preposition en [in]) or usually visited a place called Koenigsberg.
3. That he placed his fist against his cheek.
4. That, with this gesture, he came to know all that there was to know.
The interpretation corresponding to this level of information is not false, but it is, quite obviously, incomplete. So a second interpretative level is needed according to further suppositions. This second level of information would be that of the reader who has some sort of background knowledge which leads him to postulate that the literal interpretation is probably not complete, which makes him look for another interpretation which, without denying what is true in the earlier one, is more complex than the obvious and elementary gloss of the first reader. Now, the interpreter will attempt to identify the character alluded to by Machado as Tartarin, his connection with Koenigsberg and his profession. To achieve these identifications he will have to make a series of prior assumptions. The basic assumptions that he will have to make will be, at least, the following:
1. That Koenigsberg is a city –and not, as its literal translation appears to suggest, a royal mountain– specifically, a city situated in East Prussia that was later renamed Kaliningrad.
2. That there must be a historical character who is automatically identified with this city.
3. That Koenigsberg’s most famous citizen is the philosopher I. Kant. The identification of Kantian philosophy with Prussian Geist and even with extreme Prussian militarism is demonstrated in the following text: “On osait ajouter que l’impératif catégorique n’était que du ‘caporalisme prussien’. Au début d’août 1914, un jeune séminariste du Séminaire français de Rome, Yves de Joannis, mobilisé dans l’artillerie, écrivait au Supérieur la joie qu’il éprouvait à ‘dresser son canon contre la fausse philosophie de Kant’.” (Lacroix, 1973: 5). So, Koenigsberg’s philosopher, Tartarin in Koenigsberg, or any other similar periphrasis is a clear allusion to Kant and they work as a description instead of the proper name Kant in accordance with the classical philosophical terminology of B. Russell (1905).
4. That Kant never left Koenigsberg in his life and, in spite of this lack of world direct knowledge, he became a famous philosopher: “Kant blieb auf dem Boden stehen, auf den ihn Geburt und äußere Lebensumstände gestellt hatten; aber er hat mit der Kraft zur Selbstbeschränkung, die eine spezifische Eigentümlichkeit seines intellektuellen und sittlichen Genies ausmacht, diesem Boden alles abgewonnen, was er an geistigem Ertrag enthielt. Wie er schon als Knabe und Jüngling gelernt hatte, die Pflicht des Mannes zu erfüllen, so blieb er ihr bis zu Ende treu: und aus der Energie dieses sittlichen Willens ist die neue theoretische Welt- und Lebensansicht der kritischen Philosophie erwachsen.” (Cassirer, 1994: 37).
5. That the typical image of a philosopher in the act of philosophising is precisely the one where he is holding his fist against his cheek or forehead, as in Rodin’s masterpiece Le Penseur.
6. That I. Kant had a philosophical system, or at least so Machado believed, that claimed to explain “everything”.
Once all these assumptions have been made, we have reached an acceptable level of understanding of Machado’s text. In fact we have explained everything except the reference to Tartarin. But, at this level of interpretation, we are still not in a position to decide, with the assumptions we have made and the data available so far, whether the text is one in which the philosophical work of Kant is being praised or whether, on the contrary, it is the butt of criticism and irony.
The third level will be that in which the reader will have to go a step further and make up his mind if Machado’s little poem is a text criticising Kant’s philosophy or praising it. To decide upon this, the reader will have to make the necessary assumptions enabling him to explain the reason why the poet has replaced the name Kant with the name Tartarin. To explain this substitution an elementary and obvious reason could be adduced in the context of a poem, namely that the poet needs to produce an eight syllable line. And Tartarín has three syllables whereas Kant has only one. But this explanation does not appear to suffice given that Machado could have replaced Tartarín with filósofo (philosopher) and would still have the necessary three syllables to complete his eight syllable line, if one allows for an elision between filósofo and en (in). And these assumptions would basically have to be as follows:
1. That Tartarin is the name of the main character in the novels of the French writer, A. Daudet, Tartarin de Tarascon and Tartarin sur les Alpes.
2. That the character of Tartarin is the prototypical braggart.
3. That, by means of both an antonomasia and a personification, the noun tartarín has become a euphemism for ‘braggart’, ‘boaster’, or ‘pompous jerk’ in several languages, even in English. In fact, the OED defines it as “Name of a bombastic character; ‘Tartarin of Tarascon’; created by A. Daudet; used allusively as sb. or adj.”.
4. That the word tartarín is scarcely used. In fact, it is not included in the official dictionary of Spanish (DRAE) and the OED qualifies it as “rare”. Therefore Machado has preferred to use a euphemism, which not everybody understands, to refer and allude to Kant as a kind of knowing wink to those of his readers who are familiar with French literature.
5. That, if Machado has used a euphemism, he must have done so for a reason.
Once these assumptions have been made, we will be in a position to postulate reasonably whether Machado’s poem is a criticism or a eulogy of Kant’s philosophy. And the key which enables us to consider it likely that we are in the presence of a critical text is precisely the use of the euphemism tartarín because speakers do not usually use euphemisms to replace insulting terms, as in this case, when it is a question of praising others, but precisely when it is a question of insulting them. In complimentary utterances the figures of speech that are most frequently used are metaphor and hyperbole, but not euphemism. And since it has been established that tartarín is a euphemism for ‘braggart’, ‘boaster’, or ‘pompous jerk’, we may assume that the assertion con el puño en la mejilla, todo lo llegó a saber (with his fist against his cheek, he came to know everything) is not to be understood in its literal sense, but since it is a critical text, the most reasonable interpretation of todo lo llegó a saber (he came to know everything) is that it is an example of Machado’s irony and what the poet intended the line to mean was quite the opposite, that is that “he came to know nothing” or “he discovered nothing”.
Finally, the fourth hermeneutic level will be that where the reader tries to establish the reasons for Machado’s irony and euphemism and the antagonism towards Kant’s philosophy which they imply. Basically, Machado’s criticism of Kant’s philosophy lies (and is caused by) in the fact that Machado rejected philosophical idealism since idealism entails that reality is not considered as being in itself but as long as it is established by a cognoscent subject. By contrast, Machado thinks that reality is independent with regards to any congnoscent subject at it can be demonstrated in other places from Proverbios y cantares itself. Machado’s antiidealist position can be documented in other places. In this sense the first poem of Proverbs and Songs can be cited:
 “El ojo que ves no es
ojo porque tú lo veas;
es ojo porque te ve” (Machado, 1988: 626).
[5.1] “The eye you see is not
an eye because you see it;
it is an eye because it sees you” (Our translation).
[5.2] “The eye you see is an eye
not because you see it;
it’s an eye because it sees you” (Machado, 1982: 177).
According to , the object eye (or any other object) pre-exists and has its ontological entity irrespective of it is represented and constituted by any cognoscent being. And, what is more, the eye I see and my eye are mutually and reciprocally constituted as objects. These reasons are to be found, first of all, in the philosophical influence of the vitalism of the French philosopher H. Bergson, whose classes Machado attended at the Collège de France during his stay in Paris in 1910. Secondly, the influence of the perspectivism and ratiovitalism of the Spanish philosopher J. Ortega y Gasset, to whom Proverbios y cantares happens to be dedicated. The hackneyed theses of Bergsonian vitalism and the perspectivism and ratiovitalism of Ortega’s philosophy, then, will, in the last analysis, provide the sources of the final reasons for Machado’s text and a reasonable explanation for the ironic attack on Kant’s philosophy made by Machado in his poem.
1 Allusion and euphemism are two linguistic devices in everyday language that allow us to refer to without mention the names of the objects we don’t (or we cannot) mention by using the names that literally mean them.
2 Their correct understanding requires a particular interpretative process on the part of the reader/hearer. This interpretative process can be made according to different levels of reading/comprehension which depend on previous knowledge, assumptions, cultural background, and so on.
3 In literary texts these different levels of reading/comprehension can be multiplied since literary texts are the case of open works.
4 These two short philosophical poems by A. Machado are a paradigmatic case of his peculiar style (at least in his book Proverbios y cantares) where allusions, metaphors, ironies, and euphemism are the clues to interpret Machado’s verses. Given this peculiar style, assumptions, previous contextual knowledge, and cultural background of Machado’s readers/hearers become unavoidable in order to get a reasonable interpretation.
5 The interpretation of tartarín as a euphemism for ‘boaster’ or ‘pompous jerk’ becomes the key in order to interpret whether Machado’s poem is a criticism or a praise of Kant’s philosophy, while en Koenigsberg becomes the key for identifying Kant himself.
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© Pedro J. Chamizo-Domínguez / Carmen M. Bretones Callejas. Círculo de lingüística aplicada a la comunicación/ Circle of linguistics applied to communication/ (clac) 22, mayo 2005. ISSN 1576-4737.