Nineteenth Century Euphemisms
Howeev****WARNING! THIS BLOG CONTAINS CURSE WORDS. I CAN’T HELP IT. ELI CUSSES!****
I have a friend who, when she wants a toilet break, says, “I need to go to the euphemism.” She’s joking, but most of us cannot bring ourselves to say, “I need to urinate” or “I need to have a bowel movement.” We generally say everything from “Excuse me” to “I need to go to the bathroom, go to the restroom, drain the lizard, take a leak, make a deuce…” We have a gazillion euphemisms for excretory functions.
But we’re not the only ones who do this. The nineteenth century was replete with euphemisms. Upper-and-middle class people were nothing if not polite and discreet, and sought to set the tone. Bodies and bodily functions were verboten in casual conversation and language policing became so extreme that sometimes the word “leg” was even too descriptive, and people would say “limb” instead.
Since I write about people living in 1860s America, I am accumulating a pile of euphemisms, especially since Maggie Beatty Blaine was raised in a well-to-do household. She is, though, married to Eli Smith, who is no stranger to cuss words and crude language. And so Maggie frequently tries to break him of this habit - to no avail, might I add.
One of the Big Cuss Words and Its Substitutes
The big nineteenth century swear word was “damn." It was much more powerful than it is now. Naturally, Eli uses it a great deal, to which Maggie almost always says, "Elijah, language." And It starts very early in Saint Maggie when the couple is newly courting.
Eli’s eyes flashed behind his wire spectacles. “Damn him, anyway!”
Maggie gasped. “Elijah Smith! And on a Sunday!”
To get their frustration across without offending delicate ears, people in the 1800s turned to euphemisms like dang, dern, blamed, gol, gol-derned, bell-fired, all-fired, and a multitude of others. Even Eli does it sometimes.
In a conversation with Carson about God, Eli uses one of the synonyms to explain how the Civil War is having a negative impact on what little faith he has.
Carson asks: “To what do you attribute your theological shift?”
Eli blinked his eyes to make sure he kept the tears at bay. “Ah, you know. Everything we’ve seen. I mean, what kind of a loving God permits this bell-fired mess?”
Eli is so distraught at this point, that he doesn't have the energy to cuss.
Maggie knows that Eli has his flaws, and cussing is one. And, as we can see from this exchange between the two in Seeing the Elephant, Maggie knows her husband will never change. But that doesn't stop her from reminding him when he goes astray.
“Elijah, must you use such language?”
“Darned?” he teased. “Blasted? Danged?”
She rolled her eyes. “You’re hopeless. Still, I consider myself fortunate.” Maggie kissed the tip of his nose. “There is nothing else I would change about you.”
Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby
Nineteenth century people also used euphemisms for sex and sexual activity. As I've said before, contrary to nineteenth century stereotypes, Maggie clearly enjoys her sexual relationship with Eli. However, propriety demands that she refrain from being too graphic when she speaks about it or when she writes in her journal. In A Time to Heal she uses an alternate term, "free," when writing about sexual activity in her journal, and yet it's clear what she is referring to.
I was taught the value of modesty, Journal. But having been married twice, I also learned the value of being free with one’s husband. Today Eli and I were free by the little pond on our property.
In the same journal entry, she also uses the word "pleasant" and the phrase "enjoy each other" to indicate sexual activity.
While it would not be prudent to give details of our afternoon, allow me to say that it was quite pleasant. The sun was warm, and we dried quickly after our swim. Then we enjoyed each other’s company while the birds called sweetly, and the cicadas whirred in the trees.
Later in A Time to Heal, Eli learns that Patrick and Frankie have spent a night together. Doing his step-fatherly duty, he has a manly chat with Patrick. One that has four synonyms for sex in it.
Eli fastened his dark brown eyes on the young man before him. “So … you and Frankie decided to spend some time in the hay.”
“It’s not what it seems –”
Eli’s eyebrows shot up. “That so? Well, it seems to me that you were answering the call to go forth and multiply. So, did you, Patrick? Did you partake in a little amorous congress with my stepdaughter? Some hogmagundy?”
The term “hogmagundy” is a very rude term and seems to have Gaelic roots in the Lowland Scots word "houghmagandie." The word was in usage in the United States during the Civil War by American soldiers and men like Eli to describe sexual activity. There is, however, some evidence that the term originally meant the birth of a child. Meanings can and do change over time.
With regard to reproduction, whenever Maggie or other women are speaking about pregnancy in the series, they usually choose alternate terms, such as “expecting,” "having a baby," or “in the family way.”
As a reminder to those of us who are older and perhaps new information for some younger folks, the word "pregnant" was taboo on American TV in the 1950s. In a famous episode of the classic TV comedy, "I Love Lucy," Lucy tells Ricky that she is pregnant. They too use the word "expecting" or the phrase, "having a baby." The episode's title was discreet. "Lucy is Enceinte" substituted an old term for the word "pregnant." The episode's original air date was 8 December 1952. (https://tv.avclub.com/more-than-60-years-ago-a-pregnant-lucille-ball-couldn-1798239435) My point is we're not that far removed from using alternate words to describe reproduction.
We still use euphemisms for these and so does Maggie. Predictably, though, Eli has no filter.
In A Time to Heal, Chester Carson comes to visit shortly after the Smith's daughter Faith is born. He asks Eli how things are going now that the baby has arrived.
Eli yawned. “Well, so far I’ve been pissed on and today the baby shat on me. It was her inaugural shit too. Guess I should be honored. But it was completely disgusting.”
When Carson has a similar experience with the baby (in Seeing the Elephant), he is disgusted and outraged. But being a gentleman, he chooses to load his objection with euphemisms, rather than taboo terminology. So the baby's bottom becomes her "derriere" and a bowel movement is "the mess."
“I have done far too many favors for you, Elijah, including babysitting your youngest child and changing the cloths on her derriere. You would not believe the mess she made today. I, sir, am no nursemaid!”
In an unpublished section from Seeing the Elephant, I found this scene in which Maggie once again tries to school Eli in polite terminology.
As Eli drew the diaper back he grimaced. “Egad! I thought I smelled something. Well, at least you’ll be clean for the night – or part of it, anyway. Maggie, would you please bring some soap, water, and a washing cloth, too? She just shat.”
Maggie sighed. “Eli, do try not to use that word.”
“What am I supposed to say?”
She set everything on the bed beside the baby. “Say she messed herself.”
Of course, Eli is of another opinion and explains why to their infant daughter, who is the one person on earth who doesn't care what he says.
Once Maggie left, Eli whispered to Faith, “Your mother is so proper! She’ll be wanting me to call your chubby little legs ‘limbs’ next. Can you imagine me adopting such dandyish talk? It’s blasted unmanly, if you ask me. I refuse to comply.”
Well, at least he used “blasted” instead of a full-blown curse. Not that it would have made any difference to Faith.
And so, the unrepentant Eli persists in his “manly” talk. But he makes a major goof in A Good Community after they and most of the town have been engaged in a long night fighting a fire in which Maggie has been away from Faith for many hours. Both husband and wife are sooty and smell of smoke, among other things.
With a little grin [Eli] added, “And you smell kind of milky. You must be leaking. You need to go home and let Faith milk you.”
She called up a tired smile. “I’m not a cow, Eli. Babies nurse. They don’t milk.”
He kissed the tip of her nose. “It’s just words.”
“Words are important, Mr. Editor-in-Chief.”
“So I’ve heard.”
Maggie sniffed and teasingly wrinkled her nose. “You smell of smoke, too, you know. And of exertion.”
He chuckled. “It’s called sweat.”
“Don’t be rude, Eli. Horses sweat, men perspire, and ladies glow.”
“Oh, words again, ‘ey? Well, it all means the same thing and it’s sweat. Horses sweat. Men sweat. And so do women. How is it we never say what we mean?”
“Oh, you’re just terrible.” But she laughed.
While "breast-feeding" would not be an acceptable term for Maggie, "milking" borders on the offensive. However, by her weary smile, you can tell she's almost giving up on correcting Eli. In other places in the series, female characters sometimes refer to "nursing" as "caring" as in "Let's go into the parlor, so you might care for the baby."
As for "sweat," that word was a no-no, too. "Horses sweat, men perspire, and ladies glow" probably arose during the nineteenth century. Sweating was a bodily function and one could not, in polite company, mention such things directly.
But, as we see in my series, not everyone adhered to the norms. In real life, nineteenth century people used different types of language and so they do the same in my novels. Therefore, be warned! The novels contain cussing - as well as violence and some semi-descriptive sex. Just thought you ought to know.
Interested in Reading More About Nineteenth Century Slang and Euphemisms?
These are two sources that I have found helpful!
Hadley, Craig, compiler and editor. “A Nineteenth Century Slang Dictionary.”
McKay, Brett. “Manly Slang from the Nineteenth Century.”10 March 2010. Last updated 17 November 2017]
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