Blimey! The rude truth behind those euphemisms
We live in a world of euphemism. Are you ill, or just a little under the weather? Are you an oldie, or a pensioner, or a senior citizen?
Are you unemployed, or between jobs, or (like a couple of friends of mine) currently freelancing as a consultant?
Everywhere we go, everything we do, we find language moderated and smoothed over to spare someone’s blushes. Euphemism represents ‘a flight to comfort’, says U.S. word-hound Ralph Keyes.
It ‘softens the harsh, smoothes the rough, makes what’s negative sound positive.’ Politicians are fluent in it. As a father of small children, I’m not bad at it either.
There have, of course, been books on this subject before: I have one or two on my shelves. But Keyes is interested not just in the euphemisms, but in what they say about the people who use them.
Euphemisms, he believes, are an uncannily accurate barometer of changing attitudes. A history of euphemisms is therefore nothing less than a history of us. Centuries ago, for instance, when religion ruled, even to say the word ‘God’ was to take the Lord’s name in vain. So people said ‘blimey’ instead of ‘God blind me’, or ‘Gadzooks!’ instead of ‘God’s hooks’. In the U.S., people still say ‘darn’ or ‘dang’ instead of ‘damn’, and ‘gee’ instead of Jesus.
The ancient Greek root word for euphemism actually meant the opposite of blasphemy. If you can’t say something nice, best not to say anything at all.
Sex, though, has been the most fertile territory for euphemists down the ages. In the Decameron, in 1353, Boccaccio used ‘put the devil into hell’ as a metaphor for the sexual act. In Victorian England, young women would ‘shut their eyes and think of England’.
It’s remarkable how many terms start out as euphemisms and then become themselves offensive. ‘Whore’ was once a euphemism for some forgotten word; by the 16th century, it was being replaced in translations of the bible by ‘harlot’, which itself was being blue-pencilled by the 18th century. In the Philippines, prostitutes call themselves guest relations officers. Teenage girls in hong Kong paid to go on ‘dates’ with older men call it ‘compensated dating’.
The early 19th century was what H.L. Mencken called a ‘golden age of euphemism’. You couldn’t say ‘leg’ in the U.S. for fear of causing offence: ‘nether limb’ was the preferred term. Chicken legs became ‘drumsticks’, while trousers, presumably guilty by association, became ‘inexpressibles’ or ‘unmentionables’ – hence the book’s title.
In the Pickwick Papers, a servant named Trotter ‘gave four distinct slaps on the pocket of his mulberry indescribable’. Woe betide you if you even thought of mentioning ‘pants’.
Most famously, American polite society got into a terrible tangle with the traditional word for a male chicken – cock. Words such as ‘cocksure’ and ‘cock-eyed’ couldn’t be used when ladies were present. Haycocks were renamed haystacks; apricocks became apricots. Louisa M. Alcott’s father actually changed their name from Alcocke.
These are just a smattering of the delights to be had from this entertaining, informative and fantastically rude little book.
– Marcus Berkmann