Euphemisms? We learn them in the most peculiar ways. I recall as a child that my mother was very upset with me when I used the word “poppycock.” You see, I thought myself quite sophisticated to learn a new word from “Peter Pan.”
GEORGE DARLING: Pan! Pirate! Poppycock!
WENDY: Oh, no, Father.
MICHAEL: Father, have you…
GEORGE DARLING: Oh, you don’t understand. Absolute poppycock! And let me tell you, this ridiculous.
It was much later when I learned the word meant more than “nonsense,” which is what I assumed from the context in which I learned it. The word comes to us from the Dutch pappekak, which translates to “soft dung.”
One of my favorite euphemisms when I am writing a story is the situation where I must describe a male’s or a female’s undergarments. “Unmentionables” is generally the word of choice. It was an early 19th Century word for breeches or trousers. In our current times, the word can be used equally as well for women and children. A woman may wear “upper unmentionables” or “lower unmentionables” or both or none. Children might get their “unmentionables” wet when playing in the sprinkler. Such garments can also be inexpressibles (ca.1790), unexplicables, innominables, indescribables, nether garments, netherlings (trousers), small clothes (breeches), sit-upons (trousers), unthinkables, indispensables, ineffables, unspeakables, unutterables, unwhisperables, and subtrousers (underdrawers).
I also often speak of the characters using a chamber pot or a chamber utensil. In Jonathan Swift’s “Strephon and Chloe” (1731) we find…
The nymph/Steals out her hand, by nature led/And brings a vessel into bed;/Fair utensil, as smooth and white/As Chloe’s skin, almost as bright.
Recently, I was attempting to describe a book that a gentlewoman found in a library. The book was what we might call pornographic in nature. It took me awhile to come up with facetiae. Although the word originally meant a witty, facetious sayings, in the 19th Century it came to mean erotica. I may still need to change it because it was the mid 1800s before the word appeared in print to indicate sexual matter.
Likewise, from the 16th to the 19th Century, the word congress would indicate sexual intercourse. I have even seen it presented as sexual congress (so more readers understand the usage) or amorous congress.
I often find my writing is peppered with euphemisms such as character line instead of wrinkle, caught out for becoming pregnant, deuce for Devil, enceinte for pregnancy, libation for a fancy drink, nether parts for the area below the waist, monthlies for menstrual cycle, greens for sexual intercourse, and incursion for invasion. [Is it not ironic that many of these terms have something to do with “sex”? I find that very telling of the Regency period.}
As I have turned seventy-four [a definite senior citizen], I recently purchase grave sites and soon I will contract for a grave marker. I hope not to use either for some time to come, but I am of a practical nature. What struck me in the brochures from the cemetery was the phrase “perpetual care.” Essentially this is impossible. According to the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association, “The term “perpetual care” in cemeteries has come to mean the providing of funds, to be held in perpetual trust, the income of which is to be expended in keeping up forever the necessary care of the individual lots and graves, and the maintenance, repair and future renewal of the borders, drives, water and sewer systems, enclosures and necessary buildings.” In the film The Next Best Thing, the quote reads, “Doesn’t perpetual care include a sprinkler service,” while the TV comedy “Lou Grant” says, “Perpetual care, in the cemetery business, means they mow the lawn.”
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