Quirks of the lexicon-not all euphemisms are like underwear
- Published: Tuesday, 13 September 2016 20:57
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.