Susie Dent gives us her top ten euphemisms. She doesn’t suffer fools and likely visits the Spice Islands once a day.
If ever there was a time for softening the blow of existence it’s probably now. This might explain why the euphemism seems to be back in fashion – the art of perfuming our language as a way of avoiding offence, distaste, or reality. To quote the flamboyant actor and writer Quentin Blake, euphemisms are ‘like secret agents on a delicate mission’, that ‘must airily pass by a stinking mess with barely so much as a nod of the head’.
The dictionary is of course packed full of deodorising expressions and verbal sidesteps, which tend to collect around a society’s prevailing taboos and so give us a telling snapshot of the subjects we feel most squeamish about. Below is a sprinkling of my favourite or most revealing euphemisms, past and present.
visiting the Spice Islands
The slang lexicographer Jonathon Green has created an entire timeline for the ‘toilet acts’. In the 1800s, those caught short would ‘play arse music’, use the ‘thunder-jug’, or even ‘strain the potatoes’. In the last 100 years, we’ve turned to ‘releasing a hostage’, ‘emptying the anaconda’, or ‘draining the lizard’. For the Victorians, a trip to the ‘powder room’ was known confusingly (and charmingly) as ‘visiting the Spice Islands’.
The best of the best, though, must surely be ‘visiting the doughnut in granny’s greenhouse’, taken from a sketch by Michael Palin featuring an embarrassed man in dire need, but who can’t bring himself to say ‘toilet’. The payoff was a phrase so good it even became a song title.
gnawing the wing
This modern metaphor, which seems to be the invention of Esquire magazine, embraces the act of devoting yourself to an entirely mundane activity with abnormal enthusiasm, and far beyond the point when everyone else has given up.
Euphemisms have long delivered a sanitised (and often cruel) take on mental health and the lack of it. One laughing byword for ‘having a screw loose’ is ‘East Ham’, so called because, on the District Line of the London Underground, East Ham is the station immediately west of Barking,
Believed to have been caused by moral depravity, ‘syphilis’ was given a host of euphemistic names, including ‘Cupid’s measles’, ‘French marbles’, and ‘Neapolitan bone-ache’ (because each nation liked to blame it on another). ‘Venereal’ disease itself is a euphemism of sorts, inspired as it was by Venus, goddess of love.
pining for the fjords
We never used to tiptoe around death – in the Middle Ages, nursery rhymes were full of it, and there were even manuals on how to die gracefully. Today, euphemisms abound, as heard in the joyously-crafted ‘Dead Parrot Sketch’ from Monty Python, in which the bird in question is ‘off the twig! ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!!’. The ex-parrot’s motionlessness is also attributed by the pet-shop owner to ‘pining for the fjords’ – an idea we can all relate to when entirely out of whack.
The Dutch have long had a tricky ride in English, thanks to the enmity between the British and the Netherlands in the 17th and 18th centuries. We consequently came out with such snide digs as ‘Double Dutch’ for gibberish, and ‘going Dutch’ for sharing the cost of a meal: the original implication being that one party was too mean to pay for the other. Surely best of all though is the ‘Dutch feast’, defined pithily in a 19th-century glossary as ‘an entertainment where the host gets drunk before the guests’
gingmabobs; nicknacks; twiddle-diddles; whirligigs, jellybags, tallywags: English slang has never been short of words for testicles.
The penis has equally attracted swarms of names, from titles of respect (‘The Judge’) to warriors (‘The Purple Avenger’), animals (The Anaconda; the Hairy Hound) to weapons (The Pink Destroyer). Curiously, personal names have also proved popular, from John Thomas to Dick and – of course – ‘johnson’. It is said by some lexicographers to refer to Dr Johnson and the fact that ‘there was no one he was not prepared to stand up to’.
‘doesn’t suffer fools’
Much as ‘economical with the truth’ is a transparent euphemism for lying, to say that an individual ‘doesn’t suffer fools’ is tantamount to calling them a huff-snuff: rude, and impatient with it.
gazelles in the garden
If you happen to spy a horned African antelope in your back garden you know something is up. ‘Gazelles in the garden’ is one of the more obscure euphemisms available for saying that things aren’t what they should be. A highly useful one for today, if you think about it.
Want to hear more from Susie about the infinitely bizarre and fascinating world of language? She’s speaking to the top brass of British comedy and entertainment about just that, and it’s all free to listen to here on whynow.