This is a hilarious examination of the squeamishness around words that emerged in the USA in the last 1o0 years, or so, especially their fondness for euphemisms. A friend of a friend visited me in California while researching for a PhD (or post-doc) in Austin Texas (now don’t be telling me how hipsterish they are there). She said that she was told very soon after arriving that she must not say “toilet” as it was rude, tantamount to asking where the “shithouse” is, she came to understand. I was already laughing about “restroom” where you cannot rest, “bathroom” with no bath etc. It makes “freshening up” (Joan on Mad Men) sound positively direct. And the fact that toilet paper is labeled “bathroom tissue” or people say “TP” is positively perverse IMHO.
I read somewhere that in the US they started saying light and dark meat as they were too squeamish to say breast or leg. I had no idea how rude the word leg had become by the turn of the last century. I just posted Mark Bittman’s 45 minute roast turkey recipe and wanted to reference that and found this article by Ralph Keyes, who wrote Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms (Little, Brown).
Read this whole article for excellent details:
Here is an excerpt relating to poultry:
Like Mrs. Trollope, visitors from abroad routinely took note of the stilted language used by antebellum Americans. Alexis de Tocqueville thought it might be due to the fact that men and women mingled freely in the United States, forcing both sexes to choose their words carefully. In addition, the fact that Americans routinely saw themselves as on their way to affluence (if not affluent already) made them feel it was crucial to use the right words, refined words, ones they thought would help them get there.
Which terms needed to be avoided and which ones were appropriate wasn’t always clear, however, even to English-speaking visitors. One summer day in 1837 the English naval Captain Frederick Marryat got in trouble by innocently asking a young American friend whether she’d hurt her leg after taking a tumble while they visited Niagara Falls. The outraged woman informed Capt. Marryat that this word was not used in her country. When the aristocratic Englishman begged her pardon and asked what word was used for that body part, she responded “limb.”
The need to avoid saying “leg”at this time led to remarkable euphemistic creativity. In addition to the pedestrian limbs (a shortening of nether limbs), mid-nineteenth century synonyms for legincluded understandings and underpinners. In his 1849 novella Kavanaugh, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow excerpted this advisory from the prospectus of a fashionable girls’ boarding school: “Young ladies are not allowed to cross their benders in school.” A few years later linguist Richard Meade Bache talked with an American woman who stammered about before averring that women in New England tended to have well-formed extremities (i.e. arms and legs). After the Civil War, Bache, the son of Union Gen. George Meade, overheard another woman ask a hotel waiter to bring her a chicken’s trotter (i.e., a leg). An English visitor to America at this time was puzzled when asked by a woman at a dinner table if he’d please give her “the first and second joint of a chicken” (leg again). Polite guests at American tables knew that asking a poultry-serving hostess for white meat instead of “breast meat,” dark meat instead of a “thigh,”and a drumstick in place of a “leg” saved embarrassment all around.
Poultry just presented all manner of verbal pitfalls. Although still called “cocks” by Britons, in the United States male chickens became crowers, then roosters. This was not without controversy. “The word rooster is an Americanism,” noted Bache, “which, the sooner we forget, the better. Does not the hen of the same species roost also?” A compiler of Americanisms quoted an English critic who defined rooster as “a ladyism for cock.” A British visitor to the U.S. professed to have heard a rooster and ox story (i.e., “a cock and bull tale”). In a mid-nineteenth century spoof, Canadian humorist Thomas Haliburton portrayed a Massachusetts woman who described her brother as a “rooster swain” in the navy. When pressed for the meaning of that rank by a man she knew, the young woman responded, “a rooster swain, if you must know, you wicked critter you, is a cockswain; a word you know’d well enough warn’t fit for a lady to speak.”
What was the problem here? On the one hand cock was merely short for cockerel, a male chicken. But, because it was also a contraction of watercock, the spigot of a barrel, cock had become slang for penis. Unfortunately that tainted word was embedded in many another. In the U.S. especially, previously innocent terms such as “cock-eyed” and “cock-sure” could no longer be used in mixed company. Under this regimen cockroaches became mere roaches and weathercocks were renamed weathervanes. Haycocks became haystacks, and apricocks were re-dubbed apricots. Those burdened with last names such as Hitchcock and Leacock felt the heat. In response, an American family named Alcocke changed their name to Alcox. Fearing that this might not be adequate, before siring a daughter named Louisa May in 1832, Bronson Alcox became Bronson Alcott.