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.
I had enough fun with last week’s post to go a second week with food-related terms. Here’s hoping you’re having a good time with them, too.
The word giblets appears to have been constructed as a euphemism so people eating giblets wouldn’t be reminded they were eating the organs of a game bird, also known as offal (though we never see offal on the menu, do we?). Giblets comes from a French term that meant game stew, a word that has its roots in falcon-hunting.
And continuing in the world of euphemisms, who would sit down at an expensive restaurant and order swollen goose liver? There’s a reason restaurateurs embraced the French term pâté de foie gras.
Another food euphemism is sweetbread. This euphemism showed up in the 1560s. Isn’t it amazing diners are more likely to savor sweetbreads than the literal alternative – calf or lamb pancreas?
When something is sentimental or sappy, we might call it corny. This idiom made its debut in American English in 1932. It was preceded by the short-lived idiom corn-fed, which appears to have been – in part – a way for cityfolk to slander those who lived in the country.
In Britain in 1858 the word cheesy came to mean fine & showy, but forty years later in America the cheap or inferior meaning of cheesy was born. At the time, American university students were using the word cheese to label an ignorant person. Etymologists are pretty sure the American idiom cheesy was born of this put-down.
When our goose is cooked, our hopes are gone; we are finished. This idiom entered English in 1845. The story appears to be that any farmer scrabbling for a living would likely have a number of chickens, but only one goose. As times got harder & harder, the farmer might eat his chickens one by one. But it was a sure sign all hope was lost when he cooked his goose.
Any chance any of you want to add a food idiom or euphemism to the heap? If so, please do so in the comments section.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Etymonline, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster, Ralph Keyes’s Euphemania (2010 – Little Brown), & Webb Garrison’s Why You Say It (1992 - Thomas Nelson)
As noted in last week’s post, we employ euphemisms for myriad reasons, usually to make the topic of conversation less offensive to delicate ears. Though we tend to think of euphemisms as tools of the squeamish Victorians, modern. euphemisms abound.
During the Vietnam War, reporters discussed loss of life in terms of soldiers or men. Today, the less-human term troop is in usage.
What my grandmother called rubbish, my generation called trash or garbage. Today it has become waste. We hauled that historic rubbish & trash off to the dump. Today’s waste ends up in the landfill (& in some communities, the transfer station). How very sanitary.
Yesterday’s tombstone is today’s grave marker.
Yesterday’s life jacket has become a personal flotation device.
Yesterday’s looting & stealing can now be called self-provisioning.
But euphemisms started long before the modern day, or even the Victorian era. The word cemetery (which came to English from Greek in the late 1300s) is actually a euphemism for the more honest word graveyard. Cemetery means sleeping place – a Greek term first applied to graveyards sometime in the first century.
Euphemisms can also be tools for the advancement of capitalism.
Sales of what was once called Patagonian toothfish skyrocketed when it became Chilean sea bass. The same thing happened when muttonfish was re-named snapper and when the dolphin fish took on the moniker mahi mahi. And imagine the complete surprise of fish salespeople all over the world when the newly named orange roughy sold like crazy. Whyever were sales so low with its old name, slime head?
Good readers, go forth and euphemize (and if you have anything to say about all this, please leave a comment or two).
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: OED, Etymonline, English Word Information,Ralph Keyes’ Euphemania, & Wordnik
Years ago I worked with a student teacher who – upon having to use the restroom – would say, “Excuse me. I have to euphemize.” Though this post doesn’t look at all the gloriously creative euphemisms for using the restroom (this sentence contains one of the mildest ones available), big thanks to student teacher, Peter Sweeny.
The word euphemism first arrived in English in 1650. The original Greek form meant to speak with fair words, or good speech. It comes from the Greeks’ understanding that speaking some words brought poor fortune. For instance, it wasn’t considered wise to mention the Furies (known for their heartless punishments of unavenged crimes) by name. Instead, they might be referred to as the Gracious Ones. In modern tales, we see this same phenomenon in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, in which the stunningly evil antagonist is spoken of as he who must not be named.
Ah, the euphemism: humanity’s tendency to:
- say what we don’t mean in hopes of avoiding the possibility that we might be understood,
- communicate to an intended audience while keeping others “on the outs”, or
- avoid being offensive while saying something, well, offensive.
Some fine euphemisms for drinking include:
-to lift an elbow
-to have a snort
-to fall victim to barley fever
-to take one’s medicine
-to enjoy a wee drop
-to feed one’s kitty
-to get a snootful
-to enjoy a nip
-to eat the pudding bag
If a drinker over-imbibes & we intend to criticize, we might say s/he is:
-stewed to the gills
-under the table
Or when we’d like to be less critical, we might say s/he:
-is a little squiffy
-is in a difficulty
-is in a rosy glow
-is in a muddle
-is making a night of it
-is making a trip to Baltimore
-is a bit ruddy-faced
-is sotally tober
And the morning after a bit of liquid debauchery, we might say s/he:
-has flu-like symptoms
-is under the weather
-is suffering the wrath of grapes
-has a Dutch headache
-has a hair-ache
-has the brown bottle flu
-has an inexplicable headache
-has hamster mouth
-is wearing loud shoes
Do any of you have a favorite drinking euphemism to add to the pot? Please do so in the comments section.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: OED, Etymonline, Drunktionary, Wordnik, & Ralph Keyes’ Euphemania
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.