Nicola here with a X rated blog post about the use of euphemism in romance and other novels. Read no further if you are of a delicate disposition! The topic first arose in my mind because my dh returned from a visit to the tailor feeling a little perplexed. He had been asked "which way he dressed." This wasn't a phrase either of us had come across before so I looked it up and discovered it was a euphemism, designed to save both the tailor and the client embarrassment during a trouser fitting.
This got me thinking – and chatting to the other Wenches about euphemisms in books. Ah, I remember those days if the 1970s when I was in my early teens and had discovered the works of Barbara Cartland. Not only did her heroines have plenty of ellipses in their breathless speech, there were also lots of … in the vague description of the act of love itself. Sometimes it was so vague that I totally missed what was going on. In other cases I believed that making love literally involved floating up to heaven on a pink cloud.
Dame Barbara thought it vulgar to write about sex in lurid terms and many of her contemporaries wrote romances that closed the bedroom door. I still have a number of those traditional Regencies on my keeper shelf. For Dame Barbara it was all about the romance. "If you read newspapers today,” she said, “you see things that our mothers and grandmothers would have been shocked and ashamed to read. It is sex, sex, sex all the time, and it is not what we want."
I think of the time after Dame Barbara and before today’s explicit romances as “the age of the euphemism.” A euphemism is defined as: “A mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing.” Of course you can turn to a euphemism for just about any awkward situation in life -posh hotels still have "ladies' powder rooms." As far as writing romance is concerned, I wouldn’t call love scenes either unpleasant or embarrassing – or at least they shouldn’t be – but I do understand that in the past authors were searching around for language that was descriptive whilst not being offensive to some people. At some stages the euphemisms became so flowery and highly coloured that these days it’s difficult to look back on them without laughing. I’ve read about precious jewels – even crown jewels – manroots (there are some in the picture), aching buds and even a slow worm curling up in the palm of the hand.
This is not a new phenomenon. Here are some historical euphemisms for the male member. “Gentleman usher” dates from 1719 and the guy in the picture is ot only a gentleman usher but The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod. “Ambassador” was first used in print (as it were) in 1927 and “Master John Goodfellow” dates from the puritanical days of 1656. Confusingly “ladyware” also refers to the male rather than the female anatomy and dates from the 16th century. The phrase “lady garden” was supposedly invented by Heat Magazine a few years ago but is a variation of some good old-fashioned phrases such as “Cupid’s Warehouse” and “Venus’s cradle” first used in the 15th century.
The British magazine, The Literary Review, is well known for its Bad Sex in Fiction Award, given annually to the author who in the judges’ opinion produces the worst description of a sex scene in a literary novel. I won’t inflict too many of these terrible descriptions on you as this is an area in which many literary authors seem to flail badly, but here are a few examples of their purple prose.
“A near impenetrable forest adorned with the most tousled, tangled patch in which to forage.”
“Her breasts thrust their way through her hair like living creatures.”
“My beast was released from its cage and sprang out wildly.”
These days a lot of romance books can be very explicit and lot of readers like them that way. There’s an art to writing sex and I think that the best romance authors are way better than their literary colleagues at making it meaningful. Context is all when writing a love scene, as is emotion and dialogue as well as sensation and description. It took me a long time to get over reading the sex scene in a certain Booker prize-winning novel where the tender moment was interrupted by a dog savaging a penguin.
That’s about all I can cope with and I need to resort to a reviving cup of tea. If you are still with me at the end of this “deluge of deliciousness” what are your thoughts? ? Do you have a passion for purple prose and a favourite euphemism of your own, or do you think that the euphemism has had its day as far as romance novels are concerned?