The British & Euphemism
After that quick dip into slang the other day I got to thinking about an even more peculiar habit than that of using slang. We evolve language, we play with it – anyone who has seen the wholesome-yet-highly-peculiar ‘Pitch Perfect’ films will be familiar with the oddball spin you can put on teen talk – but the British have always used euphemism and understatement, from the deliberate underselling of one’s achievements to even dying.
On Captain Scott’s expedition to the South Pole, ‘Titus’ Oates, afflicted with gangrene and frostbite, walked from his tent into a blizzard and certain death, uttering the words ‘I am just going outside and may be some time’, at least according to Scott’s diary.
Behind this lies the British distaste for the braggart, something that the media and successive series of reality TV shows have attempted to undermine, without huge success. Euphemism peppers literary and theatrical exchanges, like this, from Noel Coward’s ‘Private Lives’:
Elyot: I met her on a house party in Norfolk.
Amanda: Very flat, Norfolk.
Elyot: There’s no need to be unpleasant.
Euphemism also came to involve sex and reached an apogee (or nadir) in the 31 ‘Carry On’ films, as here in ‘Carry On Doctor’.
Biddle: Nurse I dreamt about you last night.
Nurse Clarke: Did You?
Biddle: No, you wouldn’t let me.
British prudery combined with ribaldry to produce endless euphemistic meanings to the word ‘it’, and there are seemingly hundreds of websites teaching you odd English euphemisms, from ‘Going to see a man about a dog’ to ‘John Thomas’.
Is euphemism dying out? Unlike much slang, I don’t think it is. There’s a natural tendency in the British psyche to draw back, to withhold or reduce. In the 1950’s there was an entire sub-lexicon of phraseology to cover this, some of which I mentioned in my memoir ‘Paperboy’.
‘It was the age of euphemism. Nobody died of pneumonia, diphtheria or tuberculosis, they were peaky, then poorly, then passed over. Some adults had to be watched because they could turn funny. The bloke around the corner had become less of a man after the war. The boy in the next street had been interfered with behind Greenwich Park playground. I could have done with an Enigma machine to decode our family conversations.
‘Delicate’ meant pregnant or queer, depending on its use.
‘Funny’ meant queer or mentally ill.
‘Fallen’ meant that a girl slept around or had become pregnant.
‘Simple’ meant Down’s Syndrome.
‘Fast’ meant sleeping around.
‘More than her fair share of trouble’ meant her husband had run off with the girl from the laundrette.
‘On edge’ meant suffering with nerves.
‘Suffers with her nerves’ meant hysterical.
‘Difficulties’ meant their oldest boy had been inside.
‘Doings’ or ‘Bits and bobs’ meant having a hysterectomy.
‘Poor love’ was used after a neighbour had lost a breast.
‘A bit niggly’ meant PMT.
‘Trouble downstairs’ could mean anything from your womb drying up to Siamese twins.’
Any unusual ones you’d recommend?