Show of hands: how many know why the British used to refer to bedbugs as Norfolk-Howards? Just as I thought. Or why a one-o’clock meant a fart in Australia? You can find out in: Euphemania: Our Love Affair With Euphemisms, by Ralph Keyes.
- In Victorian England, “bug” was a vulgar word, so a certain Mr. Joshua Bug changed his name to Norfolk-Howard. It didn’t quite work out as he expected.
- Until World War II, a cannon was fired every day at 1:00pm from Fort Denison, in Sidney Harbor.
According to Keyes, such “situational euphemisms” are relatively short lived, though he notes that some persist for a while: everyone who watched Super Bowl XXXVIII understands, wardrobe malfunction.
Other euphemisms are much more persistent, none more so than the words we use to avoid mentioning death: passing away, kicking the bucket, buying the farm, and pushing up daisies (or as the French say, eating dandelions by the root). Not all of these euphemisms are funny. Keyes notes that in the military, an event is usually an occasion where someone died, often by friendly fire. Unlike our more agrarian ancestors who slaughtered animals, we process or harvest them.
Sexual euphemisms are explored too. Doing one’s duty originated in Rome, in reference to the responsibility of freed slaves to continue to have sex with their former masters. Hiking the Appalachian Trail came to mean “having an affair,” thanks to a certain philandering governor. Think of England, y’all!
Those who enjoy pondering words and their meanings will enjoy this article and interview with Keyes on NPR: http://www.npr.org/2010/12/14/132056878/-euphemania-our-passion-for-not-saying-it