Euphemisms for the stomach

July 31, 2017

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.

Book cover of 'Loving and Giving' by Molly Keane, publisher AbacusThe 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).

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The place for toilet euphemisms

August 27, 2015

Molly Keane’s exceptional and darkly comic novel Good Behaviour (1981) has a telling passage on euphemisms for toilet in upper-class Anglo-Irish society a century or so ago. The first paragraph below is not of immediate linguistic interest but supplies context for what follows and no little amusement in its own right.

The narrator, a memorably antisocial creation, reports on her brother’s visit to the hospital when they were both children:

molly keane - good behaviour - abacus book coverThey took Hubert off to Cork that same night, and he had an appendix and tubes and nearly died. I prayed night and day for his recovery and that he might get a reprieve from pain. Constantly with me was the thought of his black hair, peaked on his forehead, smooth on his head as if painted on an egg. As I cleaned out his budgies and his mice his eyes haunted my work – his eyes that never lit and sparkled as blue eyes should, as I knew mine would, if only they were big and blue.

When at last he came home he was a very great disappointment to me. The nuns in the nursing home had spoiled him so that he was really unbearably demanding, sending me in all directions and inventing tasks for me while he lay on a chaise longue under the cedar tree with lemonade constantly at his elbow. In those days thrombosis had not been heard of, and invalids, young and old, were allowed a comfortable rest after their operations. Hubert even had a po in the bushes “in case.” Another thing these kind nuns had done was to teach him to say “the toilet” when he meant the po or the lavatory, which was a vulgarity no one seemed able to straighten out. If circumstances forced Mrs. Brock to mention it she called it the Place. “Have you been to the Place, dear?” or “Have you been?” Or else “Hubert, shouldn’t you run along the passage?” when Hubert was fidgeting frighteningly from foot to foot.

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Transporting the dear departed euphemisms

July 2, 2014

[Trigger warning if you’re grieving, or sensitive about death.]

Death is often called the great leveller; it’s also the great euphemised. I have a book on euphemisms with a full chapter devoted to it, and I’m sure that’s not unusual in the niche. The idea of death also recurs in slang and metaphor, as Jonathon Green shows here, at least some of the time for similar reasons of delicacy and evasiveness.

I was leafing through George Carlin’s book Brain Droppings the other day and found a vivid comparison of direct vs. euphemistic language in the specific area of funerals and burial (bold text in the original):

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Language rules of the Third Reich

April 8, 2014

Last week I read Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt, and thought the following passage would be of interest to readers of Sentence first since it deals specifically with the euphemisms and language rules (Sprachregelungen) used by the Third Reich.

In Arendt’s text the following comprises a single paragraph, but I’ve introduced a few breaks to make it easier to read here:

All correspondence referring to the matter [Final Solution] was subject to rigid “language rules,” and, except in the reports from the Einsatzgruppen, it is rare to find documents in which such bald words as “extermination,” “liquidation,” or “killing” occur. The prescribed code names for killing were “final solution,” “evacuation” (Aussiedlung), and “special treatment” (Sonderbehandlung); deportation – unless it involved Jews directed to Theresienstadt, the “old people’s ghetto” for privileged Jews, in which case it was called “change of residence” – received the names of “resettlement” (Umsiedlung) and “labor in the East” (Arbeitseinsatz im Osten), the point of these latter names being that Jews were indeed often temporarily resettled in ghettos and that a certain percentage of them were temporarily used for labor.

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The meanings and origins of ‘feck’

September 12, 2012

Look away now if curse words bother you.

Feck is a popular minced oath in Ireland, occupying ground between the ultra-mild expletive flip and the often taboo (but also popular) fuck. It’s strongly associated with Irish speech, and serves a broad range of linguistic purposes that I’ll address briefly in this post.

The most familiar modern use of feck is as a euphemistic substitute for fuck, as in the phrases Feck!, Feck off!feck it, feck-all, fecker, feck(ed) up, fair fecks (kudos), (for) feck(‘s) sake, fecked (exhausted, ruined, in a bad situation), and the intensifier feckin’ or fecking, which often collocates with eejithell, gobshite or some such insult.

Here are a few literary examples: Read the rest of this entry »


Preloved euphemisms

June 24, 2011

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This ad in the local freesheet Galway Advertiser caught my eye. I was interested not in the reconditioned washing machine but in the reconditioned adjective that begins the ad. Preloved (or pre-loved) is apparently a very popular euphemism for pre-owned or second-hand, but I don’t remember remarking on it before. How old is it, I wonder?

Preloved doesn’t appear in many dictionaries, with or without a hyphen. Collins English Dictionary, quoted at Dictionary.com, says it’s informal Australian, while Wiktionary has a few examples of its appearance in the wild – well, books and newspapers – modifying cars, homes, tuxedos, and tables.

Browsing Google Books, and ignoring poetical and philosophical contexts, I came across the phrase preloved clothes in Women, Sex, and Pornography (1980) by Beatrice Faust. Looking further, I saw it mentioned in a collection of William Safire’s On Language articles: by advertising “pre-loved Oriental carpets”, a dealer in Philadelphia came second place in Safire’s 1979 Language Prettification and Avoidance of Ugly Reality Awards. (First place went to “experienced cars”.)

Safire’s award suggests that preloved in the second-hand sense might have been fairly new in the late 1970s, at least in U.S. English. (I found no hits in the British National Corpus.) Continuing my casual dig, I soon found an example from 1976, in volume 25 of Chicago from WFMT radio station: “We have several pre-loved Mercedes-Benz automobiles for sale.” It appears to be an ad or blurb, and it assures us that

owning a Mercedes-Benz is somewhat akin to being in love. You shun automatic car washes in favor of doing it yourself. The right way.

I see. Then, in an old Mayville telephone directory, there appeared this ad for “new & pre-loved homes”:

That’s from 1975. Lexicographer Kory Stamper was kind enough to take a quick look in Merriam-Webster’s files, and dated it to 1975 too (pending a closer look). Let me know if you find an older example.

For what it’s worth, I don’t much like the term. Loving something doesn’t mean it’s in good condition, and total neglect might leave something as good as new. What’s wrong with second-hand?


Words on a wire

August 30, 2010

We think of balance as a good thing, associating it with poise, equilibrium, evenness and harmony, as stability in unpredictable circumstances or as a healthy mix of disparate elements. It’s a versatile metaphor. We try to balance our lives by living a balanced lifestyle, holding balanced views and following, on balance, a balanced diet. We balance work and play, overtime and downtime, business and pleasure. Mostly business: we balance our books, accounts, loans, budgets and balance sheets.

If you lose your balance, you can always find it again (or claim to). This is rebalancing. It might seem like something you couldn’t do too much of, but apparently you can. The word itself has become very popular recently, at least according to the crude graph below and the subjective evidence of my eyes and ears.

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Balancing and rebalancing are common in economic policy at corporate and national levels. There is constant rebalancing of growth, power, trade, budgets, assets, and priorities. Most of all, there’s rebalancing of economies and investment portfolios. Wikipedia says the latter means “bringing a portfolio of investments that has deviated away from one’s target asset allocation back into line”. There’s a more straightforward definition here. As far as I can tell, it reflects a desire to make as much money as possible.

On a large scale, such activity can require a rebalancing of the workforce. This might be an ordeal for affected workers and their families, but rebalancing makes it sound like something no well-balanced person would resist or condemn. No surprise then that the word is also popular in the context of rights and the law. A quick newspaper search showed recent hits for rebalancing rights, rebalancing the statute book, rebalancing the Human Rights Act, and rebalancing the relationship between citizen and state.

The happy connotations of balance and rebalance make them attractive as euphemisms. In Now That’s What I Call Jargon, RTE broadcaster John Murray writes that rebalancing “tends to be trotted out when a company is selling a loss-making business in order to halt the drain on its finances”. He notes that it “can also be used by companies that are laying off hundreds of employees but cannot bring themselves to say it in so many words”. Tim Llewellyn, a writer and broadcaster formerly with the BBC, described balance as “the BBC’s crudely applied device for avoiding trouble”.

Web of synonyms from VisualThesaurus.com

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Balance as a metaphor is grounded in our experience: human functioning depends on balance in physical and physiological ways. The first meaning of balance I learned as a child was the ability to not fall over as I stood up (or tried something more elaborate); this ability is vital to many sports. As kids we spin in circles for the fun of losing our balance. Inside us, balance is just as critical — without it we might become unbalanced. Our biochemical and psychological equilibriums are dynamic, complex and finely tuned; they depend on appropriate ratios between different hormones, habits, signals, systems, organs and unconscious strategies that can support or hinder one another.

We know that our bodies perform great balancing acts, but sometimes we need to be reminded, or encouraged to help. Many health and lifestyle companies, especially alternative health providers, promise to balance or rebalance certain connections they consider primary, such as those between mind, body and spirit, between the brain’s hemispheres, the body’s energies, yin and yang, and so on. One massage training centre describes rebalancing as “a unique psychosomatic body mind treatment system incorporating technical precision with an artistic meditative approach”. Which is all very well, but whether it translates into a good massage is anyone’s guess.