The idea of a euphemism is to avoid calling a spade a spade. Why you would want to avoid mentioning a spade is unclear, as it’s not a particularly offensive or embarrassing object. In our crosswords, we might call a spade ‘garden digger’, or ‘playing card symbol’.
In Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance Of Being Earnest, the dialogue between country girl Cecily and the more polished city-bred Gwendolen involves a spade: Cecily: “This is no time for wearing the shallow mask of manners. When I see a spade I call it a spade.” Gwendolen: “I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade. It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different.”
Nowadays, even the most sophisticated among us wouldn’t get away with saying they don’t know what a spade looks like, but euphemisms abounded in the Victorian era. Even the word ‘leg’ was considered quite shocking, and tables were said to have four ‘limbs’, instead of legs.
To the delicate sensitivities of Victorian ladies and gentlemen, the word ‘pregnant’ was never mentioned in polite company. Some euphemisms used were ‘in a delicate condition’ or ‘in the family way’. The poor mother-to-be had to wear a maternity corset to avoid looking pregnant, until she could no longer hide it, by which time she had to go into ‘confinement’ – she didn’t go out in public until after the baby was born.
The word ‘toilet’ came from the French toile ‘cloth’ which was a cloth to wrap clothes in. Then it became a cloth cover for a dressing table. In Sheridan’s 18th century play The Rivals, Lydia Languish, hearing her aunt approach, says to her maid: “Here, my dear Lucy, hide these books.Quick, quick! Fling Peregrine Pickle under the toilet – throw Roger Random into the closet!”
Later, toilet came to be used as a dressing room, and then a privy (private place). Nowadays, the word is often avoided, and is instead called a rest room, loo, powder room, Ladies or Gents, and in the USA, quite often a bathroom, despite no bath.
These words will possibly be considered vulgar in the future and new words will have to be found. If you have heard of any interesting euphemisms or bizarre-sounding job titles, let us know!