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?

10 comments on “The British & Euphemism”

  1. akikana says:

    “I’m just going to check the lights on my bicycle” in lieu of going for a pee.

  2. Alan says:

    From ‘Carry on Camping’ (1969)

    Miss Haggerd (Hattie Jaques): “Don’t rush me. I think you’ll find it’s worth waiting for”.

    Dr. Kenneth Soaper (Kenneth Williams): So’s Christmas but you won’t find me stuffing your turkey!

  3. Roger says:

    It’s said one of the disasters of the Korean War came about when an American general asked a British commander how things were on his section of the front. “We’re on a bit of a sticky wicket.” said the Briton, meaning “We’re absolutely fucked.” The American thought there was nothing to worry about…

  4. Maggie B says:

    -No better than she ought to be-
    I’ve never been sure what that meant exactly…..

  5. Helen Martin says:

    So much of this was used right here in British Columbia in the forties and into the fifties! I’ve even said “no better than she ought to be” which usually refers to someone living wildly under a false sedate front. That sounds like a Western movie town but you know what I mean .

  6. Vivienne says:

    My gran said ‘no better than she ought to be’ about Cliff Richard’s sister – they lived round the corner from her when young. Meant went off with the boys and was in danger of ‘getting into trouble’.
    Sorry I missed Forbidden Planet and the pub- too late at work.

  7. Gareth says:

    “Using language” is one of my favourites. Also like the London Sorry – meaning anything from “get out of my way” to “you are an idiot”.

  8. curmudgeon says:

    My grandmother, from southern Missouri, used some English expressions, many going back a long way, like having Hobson’s Choice and drunk as a lord. Other expressions I heard in my childhood came from horse and buggy days. If someone ran wild, they “kicked over the traces.” If something occurred so catastrophic you didn’t know how to break the news, it was a “Mornin’ John, I brought your saddle home” event. When I first heard West Country speech, I noticed some similarity between it and the Ozarks accent.

  9. ceci says:

    Regarding Hobson’s Choice, I was thrilled to find a dry cleaners in San Francisco with that name…..”Hobson’s Choice Dry Cleaning” (in the Richmond neighborhood as I recall). Unfortunate or sly?


  10. Wayne Mook says:

    On local radio there was a long running line about the Bolton striker John Thomas and slipping it in the old onion bag, and many variations on euphemist ways of scoring. Such as, ‘even thought the keeper got a big hand on it, John Thomas still managed to poke in his finish.’

    About not playing the field, there is the comment, ‘He knows what side his bread is buttered on.’


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