Quirks of the lexicon-not all euphemisms are like underwear
- Published: 13 September 2016 13 September 2016
Taboo areas of the lexicon perpetuate instability. We saw it in the last Lingofile blog on terms for ageing and aged care facilities — a life cycle of narrowing and deterioration of meaning. American linguist John McWhorter recently put it rather nicely, “we’ll change our terms just like we change our underwear” (https://aeon.co/essays/euphemisms-are-like-underwear-best-changed-frequently
Or perhaps he should have said — just like we change our dessous (after all, it wasn’t so long ago that terms for underwear themselves were constantly being changed, and French has long been a source of deodorizing language for English).
So euphemisms are not long for this world. At a time when people worried greatly about clothing worn below the waist (even on the outside), a camouflage word like nether garments, or better still nether integuments, soon took on unacceptable erotic connotations and was replaced. To quote McWhorter again: “Thought will always catch up with the word”. This promotes an ever-changing chain of vocabulary replacements for expressions denoting taboo topics— napery > small clothes > nether garments > drawers > body linen > underwear > smalls > and so on.
The durable euphemism
Well, normally this is the case. The trouble is every now and again I encounter an extraordinarily long-lasting euphemism. No one thinks of changing their underwear.
Language and ageing
- Published: 01 August 2016 01 August 2016
Euphemisms: the building blocks of aged care homes
There are certain things in life we’d rather not conjure up too vividly and growing old has become one of these — probably not surprisingly, given the end of the ageing process is death (even those of us with strong religious beliefs aren’t usually in a hurry to meet our maker). And those who are lucky enough to linger a little longer often have to face some unpleasant consequences of reaching a ripe old age.
So how do we talk about the business of “growing old” if it’s such a sensitive subject?
Scales and squishes in grammar
- Published: 26 April 2016 26 April 2016
Recently I’ve had some interesting email correspondence over the grammatical labeling of certain English words that seem to be hybrids — these are the ones that (for various reasons) don’t fall nicely into any of the major categories of speech. Two examples were
A newly learned language
A recently escaped prisoner
Old definitions die hard
Even those who haven’t had much grammar in their lives probably recall definitions such as:
- a noun is the name of a person, place or thing
- a verb is a doing word
- an adjective is a describing word
Somehow these descriptions never leave us — even though it doesn’t take long to realize that huge numbers of nouns don’t in fact “refer to persons, places or things”, a good many verbs aren’t “doing words” either, and all sorts of different words describe things. So semantics isn’t a lot of help here.
Old expressions in a new world
- Published: 15 March 2016 15 March 2016
Some time back I received the following email query from ten-year-old Darcy — clearly a budding etymologist:
I want to know that if oct means 8 like octopus, why is October not the eighth month.
It’s an excellent question. The name of the month October (as well as September, November and December) would appear to be wrongly labelled. But their names are a hangover from the ancient Roman calendar, which had only ten months — the beginning of the year was March and this then made October the eighth month. As Darcy figured out, October is based on the classical Latin word for ‘eight’ octo. But when January and February were added (some time during the 8th century B.C), the name persisted despite this new arrangement.
Languages are full of fossilsand digging beneath the surface of expressions in this way can sometimes reveal fascinating fossil traces of outmoded practices and also technologies. And people get very excited by these, if the ongoing flourishing of articles on the internet is any indication. Arika Okrent’s piece, for example, “15 Common Expressions Younger Generations Won't Understand” (http://mentalfloss.com/article/64669/15-common-expressions-younger-generations-wont-understand) lists vintage tech terms that appear to have outlived their meanings, and yet they don’t become obsolete — they hang around. Phones and alarm clocks continue to ring even though they’ve lost their bells; we no longer think of luggage as something that is lugged about (little wheels and convenient handles have changed all that).
I myself personally speaking
- Published: 29 February 2016 29 February 2016
"Help! I'm going crazy with the seeming loss in recent years of the word "ME". It seems to have been replaced by I and myself - incorrectly. Are we still using "ME" in general conversation, Kate? It seems to have happened in the past ten or fifteen years when widespread complaints were heard of people thinking too much about themselves - "Oh, it's all about ME, ME, ME." Maybe I'm just a grouchy old thing, but it's a daily wish of mine that we'd again hear these words, and that they are used appropriately."
So began an email query I received not long ago. It’s one of many lately on the topic of pronouns — and in particular the first person pronouns I, me and myself. Many books could be written on what’s been happening to this group of words generally over the last few hundred years; so let me simply focus here on the reflexive pronoun myself.
Reflexive pronouns make up a special category within anaphora — the relationships between words and other things that have already been said in the interaction (or written in the text). Think of these pronouns as reflecting (or being “reflexes” of) noun phrases that occur elsewhere in the same clause.
I bumped into Jo and knocked myself out.