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The Golden Age of Euphemism

H.L. Mencken called the early nineteenth century a “Golden Age of Euphemism.”  A combination of religious fervor and fastidious concern about propriety among the upwardly mobile fueled a constant demand for evasive words at this time, not just in the usual areas of sex, secretions, and body parts, but when discussing many another newly-touchy topic.

This development did not go unnoticed.  Author Nathaniel Ames, who spent years at sea after being expelled from Harvard in 1814, was less dismayed by the guttural talk of his fellow seamen than by the flowery circumlocutions he encountered on shore.  There Ames heard squinting referred to as optical indecision, indigestion called dyspepsy, and a woman who shamelessly flirted with every man in sight described as very free in her manners.

Since so many women wore corsets at the time, there was always the troubling prospect that this word might enter men’s minds and emerge from their mouths.  While visiting Cincinnati in the early 1830s, a German tourist was reprimanded for saying “corset” in mixed company.  Foundation, he was informed, was the preferred synonym. (In England it was stays.)  During her own sojourn in Cincinnati a few years later, Frances Trollope found that “many words to which I had never heard an objectionable meaning attached, were totally interdicted, and the strangest paraphrastic sentences substituted.”

Like Mrs. Trollope, visitors from abroad routinely took note of the stilted language used by antebellum Americans.  Alexis de Tocqueville thought it might be due to the fact that men and women mingled freely in the United States, forcing both sexes to choose their words carefully.  In addition, the fact that Americans routinely saw themselves as on their way to affluence (if not affluent already) made them feel it was crucial to use the right words, refined words, ones they thought would help them get there.

Which terms needed to be avoided and which ones were appropriate wasn’t always clear, however, even to English-speaking visitors.  One summer day in 1837 the English naval Captain Frederick Marryat got in trouble by innocently asking a young American friend whether she’d hurt her leg after taking a tumble while they visited Niagara Falls.  The outraged woman informed Capt. Marryat that this word was not used in her country.  When the aristocratic Englishman begged her pardon and asked what word was used for that body part, she responded “limb.”

The need to avoid saying “leg”at this time led to remarkable euphemistic creativity.  In addition to the pedestrian limbs (a shortening of nether limbs), mid-nineteenth century synonyms for legincluded understandings and underpinners.  In his 1849 novella Kavanaugh, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow excerpted this advisory from the prospectus of a fashionable girls’ boarding school:  “Young ladies are not allowed to cross their benders in school.”  A few years later linguist Richard Meade Bache talked with an American woman who stammered about before averring that women in New England tended to have well-formed extremities (i.e. arms and legs).  After the Civil War, Bache, the son of Union Gen. George Meade, overheard another woman ask a hotel waiter to bring her a chicken’s trotter (i.e., a leg).  An English visitor to America at this time was puzzled when asked by a woman at a dinner table if he’d please give her “the first and second joint of a chicken” (leg again).  Polite guests at American tables knew that asking a poultry-serving hostess for white meat instead of “breast meat, dark meat instead of a “thigh,”and a drumstick in place of a “leg” saved embarrassment all around.

Poultry just presented all manner of verbal pitfalls.  Although still called “cocks” by Britons, in the United States male chickens became crowers, then roosters.  This was not without controversy.  “The word rooster is an Americanism,” noted Bache, “which, the sooner we forget, the better.  Does not the hen of the same species roost also?”  A compiler of Americanisms quoted an English critic who defined rooster as “a ladyism for cock.”  A British visitor to the U.S. professed to have heard a rooster and ox story (i.e., “a cock and bull tale”).  In a mid-nineteenth century spoof, Canadian humorist Thomas Haliburton portrayed a Massachusetts woman who described her brother as a “rooster swain” in the navy.  When pressed for the meaning of that rank by a man she knew, the young woman responded, “a rooster swain, if you must know, you wicked critter you, is a cockswain; a word you know'd well enough warn't fit for a lady to speak.”

What was the problem here?  On the one hand cock was merely short for cockerel, a male chicken.  But, because it was also a contraction of watercock, the spigot of a barrel, cock had become slang for penis.  Unfortunately that tainted word was embedded in many another.  In the U.S. especially, previously innocent terms such as “cock-eyed” and “cock-sure” could no longer be used in mixed company.  Under this regimen cockroaches became mere roaches and weathercocks were renamed weathervanes.  Haycocks became haystacks, and apricocks were re-dubbed apricots.  Those burdened with last names such as Hitchcock and Leacock felt the heat.  In response, an American family named Alcocke changed their name to Alcox.  Fearing that this might not be adequate, before siring a daughter named Louisa May in 1832, Bronson Alcox became Bronson Alcott.

Along with male chickens, bulls presented problems for proper speakers during the golden age of euphemism.  Here it was the mental images conjured by this snorting, raging, rapacious animal that aroused concern.  Presumably not referring to bulls directly would censor those images.  This wish led to a wide range of euphemisms, male cow being the most popular.  Other acceptable synonyms included cow-critter, cow-brute, cow man, seed ox, toro, and roarer.  Also permissible were he-cow and gentleman-cow.  Many of those reciting Longfellow’s 1841 poem “Wreck of the Hesperus” sacrificed rhyme for refinement when they revised the last three words of one line – “like the horns of an angry bull” – in this fashion:

She struck where the white and fleecy waves
Looked as soft as carded wool;
But the cruel rocks they gored her side,
Like the horns of a gentleman cow.