Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemismsby Ralph Keyes
How did die become kick the bucket, underwear become unmentionables, and having an affair become hiking the Appalachian trail? Originally used to avoid blasphemy, honor taboos, and make nice, euphemisms have become embedded in the fabric of our language. EUPHEMANIA traces the origins of euphemisms from a tool of the church to a form of gentility to today's
How did die become kick the bucket, underwear become unmentionables, and having an affair become hiking the Appalachian trail? Originally used to avoid blasphemy, honor taboos, and make nice, euphemisms have become embedded in the fabric of our language. EUPHEMANIA traces the origins of euphemisms from a tool of the church to a form of gentility to today's instrument of commercial, political, and postmodern doublespeak.
As much social commentary as a book for word lovers, EUPHEMANIA is a lively and thought-provoking look at the power of words and our power over them.
Whether you're looking for information or just browsing, Euphemania is a classic. It is beautifully written, uniformly delightful, and a pleasure to read. Keyes has spread a broad net and offers the tastiest morsels to his readers. I love this book!"Rosalie Maggio, author of How to Say It and The Art of Talking to Anyone"
Fascinating! If you think you already know how we human beings shape language to create the kind of relationships we want, wait until you read Euphemania. Ralph Keyes opens the reader to a new world of thoughtfulness, embarrassment, manipulation, and even criminality through euphemisms. While much of the book is just plain funny, one cannot help but develop a new respect for the complexity of our language and for our amazing inventiveness as we cope with every imaginable situation by avoiding the truth. An engrossing, amusing and highly informative read."Richard Farson, author of Management of the Absurd"
Keyes' treatment of our everyday attempts to ameliorate through language the unpleasantries of life is brilliant-and a great read."Tom Dalzell, author of The Slang of Sin and Flappers 2 Rappers"
The title of this smart new book, Euphemania, is no euphemism. Author Ralph Keyes is right: We are crazy about euphemisms. For good reasons and bad, euphemisms help us speak the unspeakable, describe what cannot, in decent society (if only we lived in one!), be described. Those are not rings of fat around my waist; that's my spare tire. Or, should you want to know me better, just grab my love handles. Hang on tight and we'll ride through the wise and witty work of a writer who handles his love for the language on every page."Roy Peter Clark, author of Writing Tools and The Glamour of Grammar
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Read an Excerpt
Speaking of Sex
In 1638, my ancestor Robert Keyes had to spend an hour in the Cambridge, Massachusetts stocks because he’d engaged in “unseemly behavior” with Goody Newell of Lynn. She and Robert then sat side by side for an hour in Lynn’s stocks. Why were these two punished this way? Did they kiss? Fondle each other? Make love? Talk dirty? Any of these acts might have qualified for such a vague charge. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, “unseemly behavior” was a catchall description for activities considered too scandalous to mention aloud.
Several years after Robert and Goody paid their debt to society, a Boston sea captain named Thomas Kemble spent two hours in the stocks for “lewd and unseemly behavior.” It seems that Captain Kemble had kissed his wife on their doorstep after returning from three years at sea. The charge was, in other words, a euphemism for what was considered inappropriate physical contact between members of the opposite sex – even when they were married.
There were many other such euphemisms. A few years before Robert and Goody served their sentence, a Massachusetts clergyman condemned marital sex engaged in for reasons other than procreation as “mutual dalliances for pleasure’s sake.” In 1672, Sarah Roe and Joseph Leigh of Ipswich, Massachusetts were brought up on charges for “unlawful familiarity.” Their crime? Conducting an adulterous affair while Sarah’s husband was off at sea. Joseph was whipped for his offense, and Sarah jailed for a month. After that she was ordered to appear before congregants in the Ipswich meetinghouse wearing a sign that read FOR MY BAUDISH CARRIAGE.….
Sexual activity could be the all-time most popular inspiration for euphemisms, many of which are remarkably creative. Much ingenuity and wit are employed when we wish to talk about sex without saying what it is that we’re talking about. From courtship to consummation, euphemistic talk abounds.
During the past several decades personal ads have become a common mating tool. Making sense of them requires an ability to navigate their euphemistic rapids. “Eligible,” for example, is a word commonly used by women to describe the type of man they’re looking for (“eligible bachelor”). After studying personal ads, psychologist David Buss concluded that this vague word refers less to a man’s eligibility for marriage and more to his status and wealth. As Buss puts it, eligible is “a euphemism for the highest-status, most resource-laden man around.”
“Professional” is in a league with “eligible,” a word that women in particular use to indicate that they’re only interested in well-educated, white collar, and, presumably, well-paid men. Older man can also be a euphemism for “financially secure.” Financially secure itself is euphemistic for “wealthy,” as is financially independent. Solvent suggests if not wealthy then at least not in debt. In transition probably means “unemployed.” Unencumbered is short for “not married or in a relationship” (and perhaps not even paying alimony). It can also refer to not having children to support. Reliable is euphemistic for, among other things, “emotionally stable,” a sought-after trait mentioned most often by men. Experienced could mean any number of things but alludes to sex.
When it comes to personal traits, good listener might mean what it says, or it could be a euphemism for “catatonically shy.” Outgoing, on the other hand, may refer to someone who can’t stop talking. As for physical attributes, curvy, full-figured, and classically proportioned are, of course, synonymous with “overweight woman,” one with a mature figure. Short men, in turn, can describe themselves as compact, or built for speed. (One bold man did begin his ad “Life is short and so am I.”) Short women can be petite without penalty.
One study of online ads pointed out the ambiguity in some modifiers. Does self-educated mean “worldly and well read” or “high-school dropout”? Should still believes the best things in life are free be interpreted as “has great spiritual vision and lives in delight of the moment” or “has no money; don’t expect gifts”? Only the ad writer knows for sure.
Gay ads historically have had a nomenclature all their own. This was particularly true during more closeted times. In personal ads after World War II, discreet gay men advertised for “roommates,” “bachelors,” “servicemen,” and men interested in “adventure.” Some simply sought “male friendship.” Houseboys was one euphemism for those on offer, chauffeurs another.
Once face-to-face (f2f) contact is made, today’s minefield of courting nomenclature grows particularly explosive. At one time, the euphemistic question, “Would you like to come up and see my etchings?” reflected a Playboy approach to seduction in which a suave man lured a naive woman into his sexual lair under false pretenses (or so he assumed). See my etchings lingers as a euphemism for seduction under false pretenses. An ironic variation on this theme among postwar teenagers was submarine watching, or heavy sex play in parked cars involving a gullible girl who was invited by a wily boy to “watch the submarines race” in some isolated setting. (She may not have been so gullible.) While watching submarines race, they engaged in necking, petting, or even boodling.
Although there’s some debate about what kind of activity merits which label, in general necking is the milder version of petting. Based on her experience, a veteran of the 1950s sex wars had a bit more nuanced explanation: “necking was above the neck, boodling was between the neck and waist, and petting was below the waist.” Much was left to the imagination. Spooning was an older euphemism for non-specific foreplay. So were billing and cooing, or simply fooling around. Getting fresh involved what the Victorians called unwanted attentions. So did making a pass at. Then, as now, men who made passes were thought to be horny, a concept that dates back to Biblical times when animal horns represented virility and, metaphorically, an erect penis.
[In the late nineteenth century,] American word compilers John Farmer and William Henley published a massive compilation of slang that recorded hundreds of words referring euphemistically to sexual activity. These ranged from the coarse (ballocking, belly bumping, under-petticoating) to the vulgar (take in cream, feed one’s pussy, suck the sugar stick), the banal (have connection, be intimate, be familiar), and the inventive (go star-gazing on one’s back, get a handle for the broom, dance the mattress jig, and do a four-legged frolic).
Women who were captured and raped by Indians used elliptical words to describe this experience once they were rescued. One Coloradoan who survived such an ordeal in 1878 told a military hearing that she was “insulted” several times by her Ute captors. Under questioning, the young woman elaborated a bit by saying that she’d been subjected to “outrageous treatment.” When the presiding officer asked, “Am I to understand that they outraged you several times at night?” she responded “Yes, sir.”
Sexual euphemisms no less than any other kind tell us something about their times. In the Decameron (1353), Boccaccio used “Put the devil into hell” as a metaphor for sex. Five centuries later, the common expression “forced his attentions on” suggested euphemistically that when it came to sex, dominant men imposed themselves on passive women. Such men took advantage. They had their way. Women, in turn, submitted. They surrendered. They sacrificed their honor. Or so it was assumed in Victorian times. By contrast what would Queen Victoria make of today’s euphemism friendship with benefits?
Late in her era “think of England” became a euphemistic way to allude to a certain kind of dutiful sex. It was based on a popular assumption that brides at this time were advised to “Close your eyes and think of England” when letting their husband have his way. This advice was so Victorian that it was widely assumed to come from Queen Victoria herself. (It didn’t. Among other things, the queen was hardly dutiful.) Wherever this recommendation originated, the image of a compliant young bride lying limply on her honeymoon bed with eyes shut and a head filled with thoughts of Trafalgar Square, the Union Jack, and a nice hot cup of tea, was so evocative that close your eyes and think of England is still a euphemism for submissive sex.
As sexual euphemisms illustrate better than any others, the hotter the activity, the cooler the language we use to describe it in polite company. Such euphemisms put a placid verbal veneer on the fevered goings-on they describe. In one translation of Herodotus’s writing about the Nasamoni of northern Africa, the Greek historian reported, “When a Nasamonian man takes his first wife, it is the custom that on the first night the bride should be visited by each of the guests in turn.” According to another translation the guests “lie” with the bride. Old Testament figures would often lie with their wives too, the better to know them.
For such a spicy endeavor, the euphemisms we use for sexual activity can be remarkably bland (which is the whole point, of course). In a mid-sixteenth-century book, French physician Ambroise Paré referred to wives being “strongly encountered by their husbands.” Pioneering sexologist Ivan Bloch described the case of a late-nineteenth-century British junior officer who visited a superior officer, then “enjoyed his wife on the sofa.” This resulted in a criminal conversation charge being filed against the younger man, a common euphemism for adultery in England between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Crim. Con. trials – in which a husband brought charges against his wife’s lover – excited much public interest. Reading about them in the press was as close as many respectable Britons could get to consuming pornography.
Of course, it was possible to have a conversation without its being criminal. This is just one of many ordinary words that have been pressed into service as allusions to sex. Consider a sampling of ones that begin with c: commerce, communion, congress, connect, consort, convene, correspondence, couple, cover. Coital activity is more specific, as are coition, carnal knowledge, and conjugal relations. A 1940 study of “Morbid Sex Craving” among women converted cohabit, a euphemism for unmarried couples living together, into a much more active concept when discussing a 25-year-old subject who “journeyed to a distant city and cohabited with at least ten of the football squad on the night before the game.”
Countless numbers of ordinary words may, or may not, refer to sexual activity depending on the arch of one’s eyebrow. “See” is not an inherently erotic word, unless in the mouth of Mae West inviting Cary Grant to come up sometime and see her. Practically any verb can refer to sexual activity in context. Among the many meanings of the word “be” is “fuck.” (“I’d like to be with you tonight.”) “Know” is a perfectly innocent word until used, as it once was, to refer to sexual intercourse. (“She has known man”; “Adam knew his wife … and she conceived.”) At one time, this synonym for sex was embellished a bit to know biblically. (“They knew each other biblically.”) More recently, when a man on the make says “I’d like to get to know you better,” a woman at the alert takes precautions.
Even an innocuous word like “it” has erotic overtones when coupled with “do,” which is why the song “Let’s Do It” was at one time banned from the airwaves. From this perspective, a couple on a bed who are thrashing about, moaning, and shouting ecstatically, “Oh, my God. Yes! Yes! Yes!” are, you know, doing it. Sometimes “it” itself is dropped, leaving do as the operative euphemism, as in the woman’s magazine article “Six Guys to Do Before You Say ‘I Do.’” Based on such usage a Miami Herald columnist once suggested that this two-letter word should only appear as “d-“ in family newspapers.
In the recurring contamination process, though, over time even such innocuous euphemisms can take on the erotic charge of the act they allude to. “Copulate” evolved from a Latin term meaning “join together.” (Students in the 1970s, ridiculing the euphemisms of their parents’ generation, would ask “Cop you late? What’s that supposed to mean?”) Intercourse itself originally referred to interaction between two or more people in the broad sense. At one time, to say “they had intercourse” meant simply “they communicated” or “they interacted” (though that, too, could have sexual connotations nowadays). Today it would be suggestive in the extreme to say “Jason had some intercourse with Amy.”
“Making love” used to refer to little more than some ardent kissy face. In the early twentieth century, it escalated into something more, abetted by D. H. Lawrence’s frequent use of this phrase as a euphemism for sex in his fiction. By now, of course, making love and its close cousin lovemaking are the most genteel of euphemisms for this least genteel of activities. Sleep with is perhaps the most venerable euphemism of all, well known to the ancient Greeks and Romans, and featured in a legendary courtroom exchange several centuries later:
“Did you sleep with this woman?”
“Not a wink, your honor.”
Go to bed with is a related euphemism, referring to an act that can take place not just on a bed but on the floor, in a car, or even inside a phone booth. Yet what is one to do? As C.S. Lewis pointed out, when dealing with sex, “you are forced to choose between the language of the nursery, the gutter, and the anatomy class.” When discussing this topic in polite company, our options are limited. Slang is out. Childish terms are, well, childish. (“They played doctor.”) Clinical words sanitize. One can foreignize, of course, referring to couples who have a liaison or a rendezvous, which, perhaps due to their Gallic origins, sound somewhat more reputable than their having an affair or an assignation. In general, though, we are left with all the it’s, do’s, and be’s, trusting context and knowing looks to convey our meaning.
Meet the Author
Ralph Keyes is the author of 15 books, including The Courage to Write and I Love It When You Talk Retro. He has written for Esquire, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, GQ, Newsweek, and Harper's. Keyes lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he writes, lectures, and is a Trustee of the Antioch Writers' Workshop.
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