Following on from my conversations with Paula of sanseilife, I wanted to explore some of the aspects of British humour that make it so……well, British.
Calling a Spade, “that thing we keep in the shed for digging with.”
A euphemism is a word or phrase which is substituted in place of a less desirable word or phrase, usually in an effort to avoid crudity or offence.
The classic example is the word, “loo,” which we English continue to substitute for the word “lavatory,” or “toilet.” The story goes that amongst the English upper and middle classes, to mention the lavatory or use of such was rather a delicate subject. Rather than loudly announcing, “I’m going for a dump,” gentlemen and ladies of the day would coyly suggest that they were to visit room one hundred, the number 100 looking remarkably like the word “loo”
Bodily functions were similarly considered an unsuitable subject matter for drawing- room conversation, but inevitably there would sometimes arise an occasion when it would become unavoidable to introduce such matters. In such circumstances, a polite euphemism would need to be employed.
Euphemism and The Running Gag.
I love running gags. They make us feel privy to something that a new viewer/listener/reader is not, and we feel part of the gang. For each one of Sheldon’s ‘Bazinga’s, or Cartman’s ‘Authoritah’s we are rewarded for our perseverance.
In the original Sherlock Holmes stories, Dr John Watson is portrayed as a bit of a lech. Whenever Holmes receives a young female visitor, the good Doctor is wont to fawn over them, and ruminate upon them after their departure. In the Urban-Smith series of books, I wanted to exaggerate this feature by making Dr Harker a promiscuous womaniser with a penchant for bondage and pornography.
One of my running gags was to have Dr Harker regularly perusing pornographic magazines, but attempting to dignify the fact with flowery euphemism. Here are some examples……
“I was sat on the sofa in the living room, reading a gentlemen’s periodical, when he burst in, obviously in a state of some arousal. “
“I was supine upon the sofa, perusing the British Amateur Journal of Female Anatomy, when Urban-Smith entered, clutching his mobile phone.”
“I spent the remainder of the afternoon in quiet contemplation, examining my collection of journals purporting to demonstrate highlights from various symposia of applied reproductive physiology. Although the text was in German, the illustrations were most stimulating and informative.”
Carry on up the Khyber
The art of the English euphemism truly came into its own in the mid-nineteenth century with the advent of rhyming slang. It is maintained that rhyming slang was a form of collusion to enable East End London residents to talk amongst themselves without “outsiders” being able to understand the conversation, but as London itself expanded, so too did the popularity of rhyming slang, with many expressions now in common use throughout the country.
And some of them are quite marvellous. The principle of rhyming slang is that one substitutes a word with a phrase or expression that rhymes with it, and then shortens that phrase. For example, the word “feet”, is substituted for the phrase “plates of meat,” which is in turn shortened to “plates.” Hence “feet” becomes “plates.”
Other notable examples are;
“Ruby” for curry (Ruby Murray – curry)
“Frog” for road (frog and toad – road)
“Barnet” for hair (Barnet Fair – hair)
and the rather cryptic “‘arris” for arse (Aristotle – bottle – bottle and glass – arse).
You get the idea. The beauty of rhyming slang is that it is constantly refreshed and updated.
The rather quaint term, “piddle” has been an English euphemism for passing urine for several hundred years. At the turn of the last century, this became Jimmy Riddle, or Tom Tiddle, but thanks to J K Rowling, it is now possible for the English gentleman to proudly announce, “I’m off for a Tom Riddle.”
Other more recent examples are;
“Britneys” for beer (Britney Spears – beers)
“Gregory” for neck (Gregory Peck – neck)
“Jacksons” for testicles (Jackson Pollocks – bollocks)
Crashing the Yoghurt Truck.
For my money, the best form of euphemism is the descriptive euphemism; here is an example from The Werewolf of Wottenham Wood.
Urban-Smith and I shook Mr de Wolfmann senior’s hand and seated ourselves at the table. No sooner had we done so, but the doors at the far end of the room opened to admit the butler, a tall greying gentleman with his hair plastered down upon his scalp and parted in the centre. He was most expanded around the waist, but held himself with a dignity and bearing that was unmistakeable.
“Ah, Bricker,” cried the Professor. “There you are.”
“Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am sorry that I was unable to meet you at the door. It is most unfortuitous that as you rang, one was summoning a fudge dragon.”
So there one has it; a potted history of the euphemism in British comedy. Now if you will excuse me, one has to go and deliver a parcel to Atlantis.