Sometimes we use language to talk about something without referring to it directly – for fear of flouting social or moral convention, for fear of the thing itself, to conceal and deceive, and so on. In everyday discourse much of this falls under politeness and pragmatics: certain domains are taboo to whatever degree, so we employ euphemisms to avoid crossing a line of what is considered appropriate in the context.
The last time I wrote about euphemisms on Sentence first, it was to share commentary in Molly Keane’s novel Good Behaviour on the many ways to refer to the toilet without mentioning the toilet or even the bathroom.
In Loving and Giving, another bittersweet comic gem by Keane, the area of taboo avoidance is the middle anatomy. The novel follows an Irish girl, Nicandra (named by her father after a beloved horse), who is eight years old when we first meet her. Her Aunt Tossie lives in the big house with them, and Nicandra goes to her room one morning:
Her nightdress was nothing like as pretty as Maman’s, no lace, only broderie anglaise the same as edged Nicandra’s drawers (“knickers” was a common word, not to be used. For the same reason, if you had a pain it was in “your little inside”, not in your stomach – and there were no words beyond “down there” to describe any itch or ailment in the lower parts of your body).
A little later we see the same phrase not mentioned but used – and not of a person but an animal. Nicandra is running an errand for Aunt Tossie and passes by the open pantry door, where she can see Twomey, the butler, shaving:
She watched the rhythmic strokes of the razor for a moment, then turned her attention to Twomey’s own cat which was miaowing and writhing uncomfortably in the wooden wine case which was her quiet bed.
“What’s wrong with Patsy-Pudding, Twomey?” she asked. “I think she has a nasty pain in her little inside.” She peered closer. “Oh, Twomey, Twomey, she has a kitten in her box.”
The final excerpt has both use and mention, and discussion besides. Nicandra is having tea with Nannie (‘not really Nannie … more Maman’s maid, and mender of everything in the house’):
Nannie was a tiny little woman. When she sat in a chair her feet didn’t meet the ground; they swung about, kicking under her long grey skirt. Tonight her eyes were red as two fire holes in her face.
“Have you got a headache like Twomey?” Nicandra asked, hopeful that Nannie would observe her kindly anxiety.
“I have nothing like Mr Twomey, I’m glad to say.” There was an acid note in Nannie’s reply. “Only my stomach is cramped up under my arms with pain. Run along now and don’t ask questions – and don’t worry your father with silly questions either.”
For Nannie to use the word “stomach” instead of “little inside” was an infringement of the rules for polite talk. If she told Dada about Nannie’s complaints, she herself would certainly say “inside”, perhaps “little inside”, as Nannie was smaller than any grown-up person she knew.
Before reading Molly Keane, I’d never heard the Victorian-flavoured little inside. I was familiar with stomach, tummy, tum, tum-tum, belly, middle, gut (and, in jocular use, breadbasket). Growing up, I normally used tummy – originally a nursery form – and had stomach on standby for more formal or grown-up contexts. Belly, I learned, was considered a bit vulgar, though I still used it every now and then.
The OED offers inner man and inner woman as humorous, mid-19C phrases for the stomach (‘With my inner man well refreshed with auk-livers, I was soon asleep’ – Elisha Kent Kane, Arctic Explorations, 1856), extended from the same phrase used for a millennium to refer to one’s ‘inner or spiritual part; the soul or mind’.
A whole litany of substitutes for stomach are listed in The Book of Euphemisms by Judith Neaman and Carole Silver. They say Mary or Little Mary is a ‘British personification of the stomach’ used in expressions like I’m willing, but Mary isn’t ‘to indicate the stomach’s rejection of an eater’s urge’, and propose an origin in James Barrie’s 1903 play Little Mary. They continue:
The tummy is most often euphemistically compared to parts of a house; thus it is called the balcony, the bay window, the basement, the false front, the front exposure, the frontage, the front porch, and the kitchen. Creating analogies between the stomach’s shape and function and household items, people refer to it as the bag, the basket, the bread basket, the dinner basket, the dinner pail, the pot, the feedbox, the feedbag, the grublocker (or locker), the furnace tank, and, more generally, the cavity and the midsection.
Keane’s Loving and Giving, which I featured in a bookmash last year, contains a couple of other linguistic items of passing interest. The line ‘Come on till we see did it come’ demonstrates a characteristically Irish English use of till, while the following exchange has a popular Irish idiom of exaggeration:
“You must be cold,” Nicandra insisted. She had found someone to pity. “Don’t you want a cup of tea?”
“I’m only killed from tea.” Nicandra recognized a raffish, twinkling suggestion that something stronger might be acceptable.
This thread on Twitter, which begins with a Guardian article by the great editor Diana Athill on her friendship with Molly Keane, has more lines and excerpts from Loving and Giving and also Time After Time (‘Her voice salvaged the wreckage of her beauty’).
Addendum: The book I’ve just begun reading, Dangerous Fictions by Ita Daly, addresses euphemism in its first few pages. Louisa (aged 19) is complaining to her mother, Martina, about her grandmother, whose drinking affects her bladder control:
‘Get her to change her knickers, why can’t you,’ was Louisa’s final remark this morning. ‘I mean, the way you go on about my friends and they only smell of sex, not piss.’
This was meant to shock and it did. It was the brutality of the language rather than the thoughts expressed. ‘Knickers’, ‘sex’, ‘piss’, were all words which made Martina flinch. She would find euphemisms for them even as she laughed shamefacedly at her own squeamishness. She found the expression ‘making love’ particularly silly, and yet she would use it as the only acceptable way of describing the act of copulation.
‘Middle-class mealy-mouthedness,’ her husband and daughter would shout derisively – and they would be right. She was stuck with it , though …
What words have you used, or heard used, to refer to the stomach?