November 29, 2011

Words of the Month - Unmentionables

        Cultures around the world invest their languages with taboos so that some words are considered "bad."  Most commonly, "bad words" are those that refer to bodily functions, sex, and religious subjects too holy or too evil to be spoken of.  There's nothing surprising about this - culture is all about defining acceptable behavior.  And as a good little girl with Prude Pride I don't use "bad words" in my own speech, believing that use of lots of cusswords is not only potentially obnoxious, but also betrays a certain laziness and lack of creativity.  However, while I don't find "bad words" themselves particularly interesting, there is a linguistic phenomenon that I do find fascinating: when speakers are so anxious not to be vulgar that they start to avoid or modify perfectly "good" words that happen to sound just a little too similar to something unacceptable.
        The Victorians, according to the legend, were so shy of referring to people's legs that they couldn't refer to the legs of tables or chairs, either.  I don't know whether this is true, but it isn't implausible.  Languages adopt silly conventions like this all the time.
        Take the example of the word cock.
        It begins all the way back in Old English as the male of the domestic fowl.  By the end of the fifteenth century it was being used to mean a pipe and valve for liquids (as well as referring to a number of other more specialized or uncommon items).  So far so good.  By the mid eighteenth century, however, it had also come to be a vulgar term for penis (possibly by extension from the water spout definition…)  Well, as soon as that sort of slang gained currency, how could any respectable person mention domestic fowl in polite company?  A decent substitute is rooster, which gained currency (chiefly in the US) in the early nineteenth century, around the time we were going all Victorian.  And if you're going to be truly polite you have to start using the word faucet, too.  Less likely to be misconstrued, you know.  It was around 1840 that B.D. Walsh noted: "Cock-roaches in the United States… are always called 'roaches' by the fair sex, for the sake of euphony."  (He didn't mean euphony, of course.  He meant euphemism.)  The mere sound cock apparently couldn't pass the lips of a lady no matter what its actual meaning.
        But don't think this sort of behavior was confined to those uptight Victorians.  Do you say the name of one of our fair planets cautiously so as to avoid the sound of "your anus?"  It's my hypothesis that the pronunciation of Uranus was shifted some time in the 1970's or 80's by people every bit as over-genteel as the Victorians.  I admit that I have little evidence to confirm this hypothesis, however, because information about historical pronunciation is not easy to come by.  It would be interesting to study newsreels and television through time for evidence of if and when a shift took place.
        I suspect that the pronunciation of harassment in the US has also shifted due to squeamishness about the syllable ass.  The pronunciation harris-ment has been the British version right from the start, but in the US har-ass-ment was standard until about the time of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill controversy in 1991, when newscasters found themselves having to say the uncomfortable word with unwonted frequency.  But just use the British version and - hey presto - you're completely inoffensive.  (Really annoying, perhaps, but inoffensive.)
        One of the coolest things about the human capacity for language is that we're never just saying what we're saying.  With every word we're communicating a vast wealth of information about ourselves and our relationships with the society around us.  When I speak (or write) I'm happy to be perceived as genteel, polite, and inoffensive… but really, let's just let the poor rooster be a cock!

[Picture: Chanticleer, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009.]


Pax said...

How clever to side-step the entire issue by calling the print "Chanticleer'! Whatever this print is called, I do like it.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Heh - I didn't even think of that! I will admit that I'd have called this image a rooster, though, that being the basic term in my dialect, except in phrases such as "cock-crow." (And I'd never call a tap a "cock" - I never heard anybody call it that in my childhood.)

Pax said...

However, there is "petcock", if I remember correctly from chemistry class. I look forward to the Words of the Month each month. Thanks!