I’m a word nerd, but I don’t often read books about language. I’m not sure if this is because I get enough of grammar at work, or because as a hopeless smartypants I prefer to feel like I know it all already, or because I’m afraid that once I get started I won’t be able to stop—after all, there are a lot of them out there. But when I heard Ralph Keyes talking about his new book, Euphemania: Our Love Affair With Euphemisms, on NPR recently, I found myself putting it on hold at the library. I’d never given a lot of conscious thought to euphemisms before, but it turns out they’re a perfect combination of two of my great loves, word origins and wordplay (especially, let’s face it, saucy wordplay), and Keyes covers them with thoughtfulness and obvious delight. The book is such a treasure trove of fun factoids that I can scarcely summarize it, so I’ll just share this info-packed tidbit (which follows a paragraph about how “white meat,” “dark meat,” and “drumstick” became preferred terms for chicken parts so that polite diners could avoid saying the dreaded “breast,” “thigh,” and “leg”; after being reprimanded by a woman for asking for chicken breast at a dinner party, Winston Churchill retaliated the next day by sending her a brooch with a note saying, “Pin this on your white meat”):
Poultry presented all manner of verbal pitfalls at this time. “Cock” in particular posed serious problems. This word was short for “cockerel,” a male chicken. But “cock” was also short for “watercock,” the spigot of a barrel, leading it to become slang for “penis.” Unfortunately, that tainted term was embedded in many others. In the United States especially, previously innocent terms such as “cockeyed” and “cocksure” could no longer be used when both sexes were present. Under this regimen, “weathercocks” became weathervanes; “haycocks,” haystacks; and “apricocks,” apricots. Those burdened with last names such as “Hitchcock” and “Leacock” began to feel under siege. In response, an American family named “Alcocke” changed their name to Alcox. Fearing that this might not be adequate, before siring a daughter named Louisa May in 1832, Bronson Alcox became Bronson Alcott.