By Hugh Rawson
“Would you like a drumstick?”
The key words in this snatch of dinner-table conversation – white meat, dark meat, and drumstick – are used so often when carving up a turkey at Thanksgiving that people tend to forget they are euphemisms: agreeable, round-about words employed in place of ones that are regarded as coarse or offensive. In this case, the “offensive” words are breast, thigh, and leg, words that people in polite society once avoided using, especially when women were present.
The avoidance of plain terms for bodily parts commonly is associated with the prudery of our Victorian ancestors though many of the evasions predate Her ascension to the throne in 1837. To cite just a few examples from this euphemistically fertile period: people started saying darn instead of damn, to employ dashes (d – – –) when writing the harsher word, to perspire instead of sweat, to wear unmentionables instead of trousers and breeches, to have stomachaches instead of bellyaches, to use nude rather than naked when referring to human figures in painting and sculpture, and to be laid to rest, not buried, in a cemetery (from the Greek word for “dormitory” or “sleeping place”) rather than in a graveyard.
The drumstick for eating rather than for banging on a drum is one of the pre-Victorian euphemisms, dated to 1764 in the historically organized Oxford English Dictionary. The example is from a play, The Mayor of Garrett, by Samuel Foote: “She always helps me herself to the tough drumsticks of turkies.” By the end of the eighteenth century, drumstick was being used by the authors of cookbooks, and it eventually was lumped in with other dinner-table euphemisms, as in Thomas Starr King’s The Laws of Disorder (1881): “There are so many that love white meat, so many that can eat nothing but dark meat, two that prefer a wing, two that lie in wait for drumsticks …”
Other popular dinner-table evasions of the period included bosom, joint, and limb. The flavor of the time was captured by Capt. Frederick Marryat (he had a distinguished career in the British navy before turning to writing and editing) in Peter Simple (1834) when recounting a conversation between the novel’s hero and a young woman on the island of Barbados:
It was my fate to sit opposite a fine turkey, and I asked my partner if I should have the pleasure of helping her to a piece of breast. She looked at me very indignantly, and said “Curse your impudence, sar, I wonder where you larn your manners. Sar, I take a lily turkey bosom, if you please. Talk of breast to a lady, sar! – really quite horrid.”
Naturally, women as well as turkeys developed bosoms. Thus, the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson shied away from breast in 1749 when explaining to his friend the actor David Garrick why he had stopped visiting the green room (then as now the name of the room where performers wait before going on stage) at Drury Lane Theater: “I’ll come no more behind your scenes, David; for the silk stockings and white bosoms of your actresses excite my amorous propensities” (from Boswell’s Life of Johnson, 1791).
The taboo on breast was so strong that it was replaced by bosom in many contexts in the following century. Decorative breast knots on dresses became bosom knots, breast pins became bosom pins, and even otherwise earthy English farmers were known to refer to the breast, or forward part of the moldboard of a plow, as its bosom. Most likely, the reluctance to say breast also explains why William Congreve’s line in The Mourning Bride, “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast,” is often misquoted as “Music has charms to soothe a savage beast.”
The ban on leg – practically as strong as that on breast – seems to have begun in the United States. Thus, Capt. Marryat told in his Diary in America (1839) how he startled a young woman who had just taken a fall by asking “Did you hurt your leg much?” She turned away from the captain, apparently quite shocked or offended. The captain apologized for his “want of refinement,” which he attributed to his “having been accustomed only to English society,” then asked how he should refer to “such articles” if he simply had to mention them. After some hesitation the young woman said that “as she knew me well, she would tell me that the word leg was never mentioned before ladies.” The proper word, she explained, was limb, though she herself was “not so particular as some people are, for I know those who always say limb of a table, or limb of a piano-forte.”
To be slightly more specific, refined diners might describe those “articles” as upper, lower, or even under limbs, as in “A bit of the wing, Roxy, or the under limb?” (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Elsie Venner: A Romance of Destiny, 1861). Joints in the sense of legs were similarly divided into first joints and second joints. A person with a hearty appetite might want both. For example, W. F. Goodmane, another British visitor to the United States, said he was asked “by a lady at a public dinner, to furnish her with the first and second joint” (Seven Years in America, 1845). Very fastidious people might even ask on occasion for the trotter, as of a chicken.