The Linguistics of Euphemism: A Diachronic Study of Sexual Euphemism Formation in Literature For our Emma: My dearest Emma, for dearest you will always be […] my dearest most beloved Emma… Jane Austen, Emma (1816:325)
“In the beginning was the word. There followed, at an undetermined but one assumes decent interval, private, harsh, and dirty words. Invention here being the mother of necessity, the need for euphemism arose. Nowhere could this need have been greater, or more evident, than in the realm of sex.” Epstein, J. (1985) “Sex and euphemism,” in Enright, D. J. (Ed.) Fair of Speech: the uses of euphemism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.85.
compounding derivation i) Word formation devices blends acronyms onomatopoeia back slang Formal innovation rhyming slang ii) Phonemic phonemic modification replacement abbreviation Euphemisms iii) Loan words particularisation implication (iv) Semantic innovation metaphor metonym reversal understatement overstatement Figure 1: Classification of the main devices for constructing euphemisms (Warren, 1992a:133)
Word Formation Devices 1) Compounding: ‘hand job’ [masturbation] 2) Derivation: ‘fellatio’ [oral sex] 3) Blends: Warren gives no examples of what she means by this term, or of how a blend is formed. 4) Acronyms: SNAFU [‘Situation Normal All Fucked Up’] 5) Onomatopoeia: ‘bonk’ [sexual intercourse]
Phonemic Modification • 1) Back slang: ‘enob’ [bone/erect penis], Rawson (1981:88) and ‘epar’ [rape] (Warren, 1992:133). • 2) Rhyming slang: ‘Bristols’ [breasts], a shortened, and further euphemised, version of ‘Bristol cities’ [titties] • 3) Phonemic replacement: ‘shoot’ [shit] 4) Abbreviation: ‘eff’ (as in “eff off!”) [fuck (off)].
Loan Words • 1) French: ‘mot’ [cunt]; ‘affair(e)’ [extramarital engagement]; ‘lingerie’ [underwear] • 2) Latin: ‘faeces’ [excrement]; ‘anus’ [asshole]. 3) Other languages: Spanish: ‘cojones’ [testicles]; Yiddish ‘schmuck’ [penis] in Yiddish literally means ‘pendant’
Semantic Innovation 1) Particularisation: ‘satisfaction’ [orgasm]; ‘innocent’ [virginal] 2) Implication: ‘loose’, which implies ‘unattached’, which leads to the interpretation [sexually easy/available] 3) Metaphor: colourful metaphorical euphemisms surround menstruation: ‘the cavalry has come’- a reference to the red coats of the British cavalry; ‘red letter day’ and ‘flying the red flag’ 4) Metonym: maximally general ‘it’ [sex]; contextually dependent ‘thing’ [male/female sexual organs, etc.]
Semantic Innovation, continued… 5) Reversal: or ‘irony’: ‘blessed’ [damned]; ‘enviable disease’ [syphilis] 6) Understatement: or ‘litotes’: ‘sleep’ [die]; ‘deed’ [act of murder/rape]; ‘not very bright’ [thick/stupid] 7) Overstatement: or ‘hyperbole’: ‘fight to glory’ [death], and those falling under Rawson’s (1981:11) “basic rule of bureaucracies: the longer the title, the lower the rank”, e.g., ‘visual engineer’ [window cleaner] and ‘Personal Assistant to the Secretary (Special Activities)’ [cook] (Rawson, ibid.).
The Novels • Austen, J. (1816) Emma. London: Penguin Group. • Lawrence, D. H. (1928) Lady Chatterly's Lover. London: Penguin Group. • Walker, F. (1996) Well Groomed. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen’s novels are about courtship and marriage. But it is a truth almost as universally ignored that they are also very much about sex.” Chandler, A. (1975) “A pair of fine eyes: Jane Austen’s treatment of sex”. Studies in the novel, vol. 7/1, p. 88-103.
“What did she say? - Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.” Austen (1816:326) Table 1: The euphemisms of Emma
“I want men and women to be able to think sex, fully, completely, honestly and cleanly […] if I use the taboo words, there is a reason. We shall never free the phallic reality from the “uplift” taint until we give it its own phallic language, and use the obscene words.” D. H. Lawrence, quoted in McMaster, J. (1987) “Love: surface and subsurface,” in Bloom, H. (Ed.) (1987) Modern Critical Interpretations: Emma. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, p. 52.
“[Lawrence] sets on a pedestal promiscuous intercourse, commends sensuality almost as a virtue, and encourages and even advocates coarseness and vulgarity of thought and language.” Lloyd Jones, L. and Aynsley, J. (1985) Fifty Penguin Years. Harmondsworth: Penguin, p. 65. Table 2: The euphemisms of Lady Chatterly's Lover
“In the second half of the present century [the twentieth] attitudes towards sexual behaviour have changed considerably. The generative organs and their conjunctions have been stripped of immodesty.” Burchfield, R. (1985) “An outline history of euphemisms in English,” in Enright, D. J. (Ed.) Fair of Speech: the uses of euphemism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 14.
“Sexual matters are less hedged about with ‘fair-spoken’ words than they once were.” Burchfield, R. (1985) “An outline history of euphemisms in English,” in Enright, D. J. (Ed.) Fair of Speech: the uses of euphemism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 29. Table 3: The euphemisms of Well Groomed
…euphemisms are society’s basic lingua non franca […] By tracing them, it is possible to see what has been (and is) going on in our language, our minds, and our culture. Rawson, H. (1981) A Dictionary of Euphemisms & Other Doubletalk. New York: Crown Publishers, p. 1. Table 4: The total number of different euphemisms from the three novels
compounding derivation i) Word formation devices blends acronyms onomatopoeia back slang Formal innovation rhyming slang ii) Phonemic phonemic modification replacement abbreviation deletion Euphemisms iii) Loan words particularisation implication (iv) Semantic innovation metaphor metonym reversal understatement overstatement proper nouns Naming geographic adjectives Figure 2: Preliminary modified version of Warren’s original model (1992a:133)
compounding derivation i) Word formation devices acronyms onomatopoeia back slang Formal innovation rhyming slang ii) Phonemic phonemic modification replacement abbreviation deletion Euphemisms iii) Loan words particularisation implication (iv) Semantic innovation metaphor metonym reversal understatement overstatement proper nouns Naming geographic adjectives Figure 3: Final modified version of Warren’s (1992a:133) classification model
If Bob Haldeman or John Ehrlichman or even Richard Nixon had said to me, “John, I want you to do a little crime for me. I want you to obstruct justice,” I would have told him he was crazy and disappeared from sight. No one thought about the Watergate cover-up in those terms - at first, anyway. Rather it was “containing” Watergate or keeping the defendants “on the reservation” or coming up with the right public relations “scenario” and the like. John W. Dean III, a participant in the Watergate affair, New York Times (April 6th, 1975).