Terms of Avoidance

Yes, she is, uh… in the family way. (1972)

There was a lot of controversy when Lucille Ball got pregnant in 1952, because in those early days of television, actors weren’t allowed to say the word “pregnant”.  Now some channels carry programs that not only use the word pregnant, but have actors graphically depicting procedures that can lead to pregnancy.

The compromise that was reached with CBS executives back then was that Lucy could be referred to in dialogue as “expecting”.  Perhaps the reason that term was deemed acceptable was that it was then left to the viewers’ imaginations about what it was she was expecting.

That’s nonsense, of course — even in those ancient times, people knew the basics of human reproduction.  They just weren’t very comfortable talking about it in polite company, so euphemisms like “expecting” or “in the family way” were used.

Euphemisms are expressions that substitute milder words for harsh or socially unacceptable ones.  On the other hand, synonyms for standard terms that often are intended to shock or offend are called slang.  For instance, let’s use pregnant as the standard term.  Something like “a bun in the oven” is a euphemism for it, while “knocked up” is slang.

As Richard A. Spears wrote in his book Slang and Euphemism, “Slang originally referred to the patter of criminals,” and was unwelcome in the company of ladies and gentlemen.  The book includes many frank examples, dozens of which are alternatives to pregnant, and hundreds are colorful synonyms for the body parts involved in the production of babies.

Similarly, there are abundant slang terms and euphemisms that convey the concept of drunkenness and its aftereffects.  I’m not sure why we need so many, but just to name a few that begin with the letter S, there’s sloshed, smashed, snockered, soused, stewed to the gills, swacked, and seeing double.

The origin of some of the terms for intoxication are fairly obvious (“irrigated”), but the meaning of others can be obscure.  Did you ever hear someone — not you, of course — described as being “three sheets to the wind”?

That expression is derived from nautical terminology.  If you haven’t spent time on a sailboat, you might logically assume that the sails are called sheets, since they look like bed coverings.  Sorry, that makes too much sense.  In Boatspeak, sheets are actually ropes that are attached to the sails, and are used to position the sails, thereby controlling the course.

On a sloop — a boat with one mast — there are typically three sheets:  two for the jib (foresail) and one for the main.  If the sheets are released “to the wind”, the sails are then flapping in the breeze and the boat is not able to hold a steady course — not unlike a drunk person.

A man in that condition might stagger off mumbling about needing to “kill a tree”.  You can probably guess what that means, but it’s not something we discuss in polite company.

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