Saturday, October 14, 2017

`The Most Jocular Euphemisms'

David Crystal’s many books make for addictive reading, though one seldom reads them systematically, first word to last. Most resemble reference works, though seldom shelved in the reference sections of libraries. Like dictionaries and collections of quotations, they are both tools and toys, useful and browseable. Take Words in Time and Place (Oxford University Press, 2014).  The volume’s subtitle makes its purpose explicit: Exploring Language through the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary. Crystal arranges the book by subject, within which he includes a chronological timeline of synonyms as they entered the language.

I’ve written before about the bounteous supply of synonyms for intoxication found in English. Crystal gathers 151 of them, beginning with two from Old English, fordrunken and drunken. The first in English proper is cupshotten (c. 1330), of which Crystal writes: “There’s a link here with the noun, as in a shot of brandy.”  Here are some highlights: whip-cat (1582, “Presumably the drunkard comes home in a bad mood and takes it out on the cat.”), reeling ripe (c. 1611, used to describe Trinculo in The Tempest), muckibus (1756), blootered (1805), elephant trunk (1858, Cockney rhyming slang), spiflicated (1906), poggled (1923), liquefied (1928, “The basic meaning of liquefied is `transformed into a liquid state.’ No more to say, really.”), plotzed (1962, all-purpose Yiddish). My favorite dates to 1981, and it amounts to a novella in three words: “tired and emotional.” Here is Crystal’s gloss:

“One of the most jocular euphemisms for `drunk,’ with early citations showing its use in satirical and comedy settings. The first OED citation is from the British TV series Yes Minister: `Hacker tired and emotional after embassy reception.’”

The existence of words like blootered and poggled is yet another argument for writing poetry in rhyme. Some readers will recall the epical duel of words between two prostitutes in John Barth’s 1960 novel The Sot-Weed Factor. One whore throws a synonym for whore at the other in English and the other replies in French – 114 words heaved like rocks in each direction. The one I remember is mattressback. Crystal, perhaps in hommage to Barth, collects 114 from the OED, omitting mattressback. Nice to see prostisciutto (1930) on the list:

“A piece of wordplay from Samuel Beckett, who in Whoroscope blends prostitute and prosciutto to represent a woman regarded as an item on a menu.”

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