Nicola here. I'm in my writing cave dealing with revisions to my latest manuscript, so today I have dusted down a Wench classic post from 7 years ago which provoked an interesting and fun discussion at the time and I hope will do the same now its been updated and expanded. The topic is "euphemisms" and the first line of this blog piece is of course a euphemism in itself. What I really mean is that I planned a new blog topic but ran out of time to write it. Euphemisms are "a mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing." And we use them all the time: "Downsizing" for job cuts, "certified pre-owned" for a used item (or "pre-loved" for clothes), "friends with benefits," "creative with the truth," ladies' powder room" to quote just a few. There are endless ways of softening something that sounds too direct and the word euphemism itself originates from the Ancient Greek meaning "good speaking."
There are many euphemisms for things that are considered too personal to express directly. This is where this blog post receives it's X rating as we plunge into topics that have been and may still be culturally taboo for some people. In both my mother's and grandmother's generation there were certain words that were simply not appropriate to use. My dearly-loved godmother, for example, completely confused me when she referred to her "sit upon." I thought she meant a piece of furniture rather than her bottom! But euphemisms enable people to speak about things they find uncomfortable. They are comfort words that help us broach difficult topics. It's worth bearing in mind though, that you can stumble into cultural quicksands with euphemisms very easily. The "fanny pack" is one example, and did you know that in Scotland a "peenie" is an apron so "get your peenie out" could be misconstrued? And whilst on that subject, the question "which way do you dress?" from a tailor to a client during a trouser fitting is a euphemism designed to save both from embarrassment but which could easily cause confusion.
In the 1970s, historical romances could be a riot of euphemism. When I was in my early teens and first 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 descriptions 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. For her 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."
Well, times may have changed in romantic fiction with books becoming ever more graphic and explicit, but there are still a lot of readers who agree that less description and more imagination is preferable. Indeed the struggle to find euphemistic language in romance sometimes ends up being comical rather than sexy. I imagine we've all read about precious jewels – even crown jewels – yards (wishful thinking?), manroots (there are some in the picture), and aching buds! I may even be guilty of writing some classic euphemisms myself.
This is not a new phenomenon. Here are some historical euphemisms for the male member. “Gentleman usher” dates from 1719, perhaps prompted by the role of the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, who is principally responsible for controlling access to and maintaining order within the House of Lords. These days there's actually a female Black Rod in post. “Ambassador” is another one with governmental connections. “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. In fact as far back as Roman times, people were using euphemisms – Men in the Roman world were referred to as possessing "tails" and if that isn't confusing I don't know what is. Giblets, kicky-wickies, tuzzy-muzzy, doodle, kitty and gingling Johnnie have all been used down the centuries.
The British magazine, The Literary Review, has since 1993 awarded a Bad Sex in Fiction Award for “the year’s most outstandingly awful scene of sexual description”. It is intended to draw attention to “the poorly written, redundant, or downright cringeworthy passages of sexual description in modern (literary) fiction”. 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.
“My beast was released from its cage and sprang out wildly.”
“She felt as though she was manipulating a small monkey that was curling up its paws.”
There are many more but I need to revive myself with a cup of tea now (not a euphemism).
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.
If you are still with me at the end of this “deluge of deliciousness” what are your thoughts? Do you think euphemisms are a good thing, smoothing over the more difficult areas of communication? Do you have a favourite euphemism or one you really hate? Do euphemisms have a place in romance novels or should we just be upfront in our language?