H.L. Mencken (18801956). The American Language. 1921.
was substituted for wife. Stomach, under the ban in England, was transformed, by some unfathomable magic, into a euphemism denoting the whole region from the nipples to the pelvic arch. It was during this time that the newspapers invented such locutions as interesting (or delicate) condition, criminal operation, house of ill (or questionable) repute, disorderly-house, sporting-house, statutory offense, fallen woman and criminal assault. Servant girls ceased to be seduced, and began to be betrayed. Syphilis became transformed into blood-poison, specific blood-poison and secret disease, and it and gonorrhea into social diseases. Various French terms, enceinte and accouchement among them, were imported to conceal the fact that careless wives occasionally became pregnant and had lyings-in.
White, between 1867 and 1870, launched several attacks upon these ludicrous gossamers of speech, and particularly upon enceinte, limb and female, but only female succumbed. The passage of the Comstock Postal Act, in 1873, greatly stimulated the search for euphemisms. Once that amazing law was upon the statute-book and Comstock himself was given the inquisitorial powers of a post-office inspector, it became positively dangerous to print certain ancient and essentially decent English words. To this day the effects of that old reign of terror are still visible. We yet use toilet, retiring-room and public comfort station in place of better terms,53 and such idiotic forms as red-light district, disorderly-house, social disease and white slave ostensibly conceal what every flapper is talking about. The word cadet, having a foreign smack and an innocent native meaning, is preferred to the more accurate procurer; even prostitutes shrink from the forthright pimp, and employ a characteristic American abbreviation, P. I.a curious brother to S. O. B. and 2 oclock. Nevertheless, a movement toward honesty is getting on its legs. The vice crusaders, if they have accomplished nothing else, have at least forced many of the newspapers to use the honest terms, syphilis, prostitute and venereal disease, albeit somewhat gingerly. It is, perhaps, significant
Note 53. The French pissoir, for instance, is still regarded as indecent in America, and is seldom used in England, but it has gone into most of the Continental language, though the French themselves avoid it in print, and use the inane Vespasien in place of it. But all the Continental languages have their euphemisms. Most of them, for example, use W. C., an abbreviation of the English water-closet, as a euphemism. The whole subject of national pruderies, in both act and speech, remains to be investigated. [back]