Boy, That's One Expensive Powder Room...
November 20, 2009 7:09 AM   Subscribe

What are some common euphemisms in older literature?

I'm reading Breakfast at Tiffany's right now and noticed how"money for the powder room" is used as a polite way to say that she is accepting money to be a man's companion for the evening. What other phrases like this have been used to dance around an unseemly topic?

Phrases like "lived together as man and wife", for example, or other such constructions that those reading it would know what was being implied. Are there any that are now so archaic that a modern reader wouldn't understand the reference? Not innuendo, per se, but a lighter version of the truth.
posted by amicamentis to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
In Jane Eyre, someone says of a character "Her vices sprang up fast and rank." This is generally understood today to mean that she had syphilis.
posted by infinitewindow at 7:25 AM on November 20, 2009

In Normal Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, soldiers said "fug" instead of "fuck."
posted by dfriedman at 7:27 AM on November 20, 2009

The Wikipedia article for the Naked and the Dead has more info on this euphemism.
posted by dfriedman at 7:28 AM on November 20, 2009

Sort of along those lines, but more about jargon, I was in a room full of 5th graders last year and used the phrase, "bite the bullet," which sent them into paroxyms of laughter. I also remember watching Bush give a speech after 9/11 and he used the phrase, "cough him up," which I thought would give trouble to the translators.
posted by chocolatetiara at 7:31 AM on November 20, 2009

When female characters in 19th-c. fiction get pregnant, they start looking more "womanly" (that is, if they aren't "ill").
posted by thomas j wise at 7:33 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm too lazy to find examples now, but if you look for examples of pregnancy out of wedlock, you'll find some creative ways to avoid using such distasteful words as, um, "pregnant."
posted by oinopaponton at 7:35 AM on November 20, 2009

(I mean from the 17th century straight up through maybe the 1940s-- people seem to have gotten over it by now)
posted by oinopaponton at 7:36 AM on November 20, 2009

"the old in-out" from Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange"
posted by bunny hugger at 7:51 AM on November 20, 2009

I was told that "conversation" was often a euphemism for sex in 18th century literature.
posted by dlugoczaj at 8:14 AM on November 20, 2009

I heard somewhere that Victorian women with 'the vapors' actually had gas.
posted by SLC Mom at 8:35 AM on November 20, 2009

Shakespeare is indeed a good starting, especially for taking the Lord's name in vain, which would've be a fine kettle of fish for him.
Zounds, 'sblood and similar were used in place of "God's wounds", "God's blood" and so on.

Although I suspect that since these are not positive phrasings (they still carry negative connotation), they are technically dysphemisms. If only we had a languagehat to chime in.
posted by plinth at 8:38 AM on November 20, 2009

* Little death or petit mort for orgasm in Elizabethan/Jacobean literature;
* wide open country can be used in context for female genitalia; "knew him" or "knew her" was used in some biblical translations for sex;
* "feet" is actually slang for scrotum/genitalia in the bible with particular reference to the story of Ruth and why she needed to get married after exposing someone's feet.

As an offside, I thought, when young, that it was weird that biblical people showing their feet was a big deal, afterall, Jesus wore sandals and no one was marrying him all the time.
posted by jadepearl at 8:49 AM on November 20, 2009

The gap between the two top front teeth in a woman (e.g., Chaucer's Wife of Bath in his Canterbury Tales) signifies that she is whore-y.

"Long in the tooth" signifies old, because the prevailing notion during the Middle Ages (I believe it was during this time) is that people's teeth grew longer as they aged.
posted by angiewriter at 9:27 AM on November 20, 2009

"Know", in the biblical sense.
posted by mhum at 11:41 AM on November 20, 2009

"Going to Reno" meant getting a divorce when Reno was the only town in America you could get a no-fault divorce. "Cab Money" had the same connotation as "Money for the powder room", but a bit cheekier.
posted by The Whelk at 11:48 AM on November 20, 2009

Playing chess in literature is sometimes a signifier of sex. The big example is Ferdinand and Miranda in The Tempest - when they're caught playing by Prospero, it's supposed to be quite scandalous.

TS Eliot also makes reference to this in The Waste Land.
posted by bookgirl18 at 12:36 PM on November 20, 2009

As you know, a problem with euphemisms is that as soon they're widely understood, they cease to be euphemistic and then you need a replacement euphemism. So any modern euphemism is most likely just the latest in a long chain of euphemisms descending down through the ages.

This means that there is another kind of euphemism that the modern reader might miss - references that sounds very blunt to us - not euphemisms at all, but which were suitably vague euphemisms at the time. I have a suspicion that "toilet" might be an example of this, but I'm not sure.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:51 PM on November 20, 2009

Highly recommend tracking down a copy of "Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable".
posted by smitt at 7:44 AM on November 21, 2009

well "Toilet" used to refer to the counter where a woman would put her makeup on, a vanity, not a "water-closet" or "dirt room" where one goes excretes wastes.
posted by The Whelk at 8:41 AM on November 21, 2009

Thomas Hardy references Tess of the Durberville's seduction, but by today's standards it would be rape. I believe this was pretty common in 18th and 19th century literature. Also, virtue often meant virginity/chastity--see Pamela, or, Virtue Rewarded.
posted by bibliophibianj at 5:01 PM on November 21, 2009

There's a lot of places in early English literature (say Chaucer through Oliver Goldsmith) where the word "country" was implied to mean "cunt" or "cunty." [i.e., "didst thou taste country pleasures in her house?"].
posted by mattbucher at 8:20 PM on November 22, 2009

Coleridge cuts away from a bedroom scene charged with sexual tension between two women by saying that the disrobing / seduction was "a sight to dream of, not to tell."
posted by woodway at 11:05 AM on November 23, 2009

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