The Victorian age is infamous for its euphemisms. The mere suggestion that people had body parts or employed these body parts was considered beyond rude. Add Victorianism to the prudism of 1800s America (& beyond), & the euphemisms get curiouser & curiouser.
A significant euphemism-creation challenge revolved around the discussion of pregnancy, which - one might say - gave birth to euphemistic brilliance.
Here’s a short list of ways people once avoided the apparent indecency of the state of pregnancy.
enceinte (late 1700s)
in the family way (1796)
poisoned (early 1800s)
having a blessed event
in a delicate condition (1780s)
in an interesting condition (1748)
eating for two
And in a nod to our prudish roots, we modern Americans have come up with some of our own:
back trouble (Women’s Army Corps during WWII)
having a bun in the oven (1951)
in the pudding club
buying sardine & pickle futures
Nothing like making a lot of effort toward obfuscation, eh?
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Ralph Keyes’s Euphemania (Little Brown, 2010), Phrases.org, Etymonline, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster, & The OED.
“First loke, then aftirward lepe.”
This proverb was embraced by cautious folk of the British Isles during the 1400s.Though we spell things differently these days, many of us still appreciate the proverb, look before you leap. It doesn’t suggest we avoid risk altogether, just that we employ caution before doing so.
The word risk came to English in the 1660s, from Italian through French, though nobody’s figured out where the Italians got their form, riscare, which meant run into danger.
A near-synonym of risk is gamble. It seems to have jumped into Modern English sometime around the 1720s from Middle English, where it was the word gamenen, to play, jest, or be merry. Before that, back in Old English, it was gamenian, to play, joke, or pun. Gamble is related to the words game & backgammon & was initially considered slang, though nobody’s sure whether the distinction was made due to linguistic reasons or in condemnation of the act of gambling.
Another near-synonym of risk & gamble is the word chance. The noun chance appeared in English in the 1300s, meaning an occurrence, something that takes place. It came from Proto-Indo-European through Vulgar Latin & Old French from a word that also gave us cadence, cascade, cadaver, & accident. Chance didn’t take on a verb’s meaning, to risk, until 1859.
And when we look before leaping, we take a leap of faith, an idiom introduced in the 1800s by Kierkegaard. Leap came to English as early as the 1200s, from an Old English word meaning to jump, run, do, or dance. We can’t seem to trace it back any further, though it’s noteworthy that forms of this word occur only in Germanic languages. And the faith bit of leap of faith came from Proto-Indo-European through Latin & Old French. Its linguistic brethren include bid, bide, fiance, fiancee, federal, & affidavit.
Thanks for taking the leap of faith & reading this Wordmonger post. If you’ve got something to say about it, please leave it in the comment section.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: AnswerStand, Etymonline, Wordnik, LibraryOfTheology, & The OED.
Change is in the air. Okay, so change is always in the air, but what with this ever-morphing airborne virus, change is truly, really in the air. Here's hoping whatever variant comes next, it's more a good change than a bad change.
To that end, here are some wise women’s thoughts about change:
I never wanted what I thought I wanted
But always something else
Which changed again as soon as I had found it.
-Mary Carolyn Davies
Fluidity and discontinuity are central to the reality in which we live.
-Mary Catherine Bateson
Better never means better for everyone…it always means worse for some.
You must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on that act.
-Ursula K. Leguin
Once an old woman at my church said the secret is that God loves us exactly the way we are and that he loves us too much to let us stay like this, and I’m just trying to trust that.
All birth is unwilling.
-Pearl S. Buck
May the next few changes in your life be good ones..
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Rosalie Maggio’'s The New Beacon Book of Quotations by Women,thinkexist.com, Women’s Press, & PennStateSustainability
Locked in poorly-lit word-dungeons, etymologists studying countless languages have done their best to construct the mother language for Indo-European languages. This hypothetical language is called Proto-Indo European.
One of the many proposed word-parts in this academically constructed language is ei-, meaning to go. Following is a very abbreviated list of some of the modern progeny of that ancient, imagined root, ei-.
exit — to go out — appeared in English from ei- in the 1530s through Latin.
Mahayana — a branch of Buddhism — appeared in English from ei- in the 1700s from a Sanskrit word meaning the great vehicle.
itinerary — route of travel — appeared in English from ei- in the 1400s from Greek through Latin.
Janus -- Roman god of portals & doors — came to English about 1500 through Latin, most likely from ei-.
sedition — revolt, uprising — came to English from ei- in the 1300s through Old French.
circuit — a going around — appeared in the 1400s from ei- through Old French & Latin.
errant — misplaced, originally traveling or roving — came to English from ei- in the the 1300s through Latin & Anglo-French.
sudden — unexpected — arrived in English in the 1300s through Anglo-French & Vulgar Latin from ei- through a verb meaning to come or go stealthily.
itinerant — traveling — appeared in English from ei- in the 1560s through Late Latin.
yew — evergreen tree that symbolizes death & mortality — showed up in Old Englishfrom ei- through Proto-Germanic.
obituary - registry of deaths - appeared in English from ei- in the 1700s through a Latin word meaning departure.
Look at all the places we’ve been taken by two little letters meaning to go. Bravo & brava to the etymologists who have put ei- into the mouths of people who couldn’t even have written those letters, since they had no alphabet to begin with.
Now that it's 2022, imagine all the fabulous places to go.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, etymonline.com, the OED, clipartbest.com & wordnik.com.
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.