Fowl Talk for Thanksgiving

By Hugh Rawson

“Do you want white meat or dark meat?”

“Dark, please.”

“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.

So remember this Thanksgiving as you offer a child a drumstick to thank our uptight ancestors who bequeathed us this picturesque word for leg.

16 thoughts on “Fowl Talk for Thanksgiving

  1. Harry

    A woman I know, who grew up in the American south, said she was taught that “horses sweat, gentlemen perspire, and ladies glow.” The popularity of air conditioning, however, may have made such conversations unnecessary.

    There’s one question you didn’t address that has always puzzled me: why is a bird indigenous to North America, and unknown in Europe before the 17th century, named after a country in Asia?

    1. The “horses sweat, etc.” is a well known axiom that has a Victorian ring to it but may not actually be that old. The substitution of “perspire” for “sweat” is a pre-Victorian phenomenon, however. For example, from Gentleman’s Magazine” in 1791: “It is well known that for some time past, neither man, woman, nor child . . . has been subject to that gross exudation which was formerly known by the name of “sweat”; . . . now every mortal except carters, coal heavers and Irish Chairmen . . . merely perspires.”
      I thought of getting into the origin of “turkey” as the name of the American bird but didn’t have the space to go off on this tangent. Briefly: the name was initially (1541, OED) applied by the English to an African bird, the guinea fowl, because the first specimens were imported through Turkish dominions. The error then was compounded by assuming that the New World turkey was the same as the African bird or a species of it. Ben Franklin thought that the turkey rather than the bald eagle should have been chosen as the nation’s symbol: “. . . the bald eagle . . . is a bird of bad moral character . . . . The turkey . . . is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America” (letter to Sarah Bache, 1794) But would we dine on the national symbol on Thanksgiving Day?.

  2. Delfin Carbonell

    Very interesting and informative, as usual. Thank you.
    Two questions: Why do you write “commonly is associated” instead of “is commonly associated”? Why do you write “… predate Her ascension to the throne…” and yet you do not mention Her by name? You use the adjective Victorian, I know.
    Triffles. Keep on writing. Thank you. Delfin

    1. I chose not to split the verb with “commonly.” Don’t know why nor do I think the position of “commonly” makes any difference in the meaning. Some old-fashioned grammarians might argue that the verb shouldn’t be split, but I’d disagree. In my opinion, both are correct. . . . I thought the context and the capital “H” in “her” made the meaning clear enough. . . . Ah, trifles!
      I am pleased to report that my wife, who is taking Spanish lessons, loaned her teacher a copy of your slang dictionary, “A Shorter English and Spanish Colloquial Dictionary,” and the teacher was suitably impressed. She (a native of Argentina) may have encountered a few words that were new to her!

      1. Delfin Carbonell

        You are very tactful. Touché with trifle.
        I hope your wife’s teacher is not a prude, or else… Thanks for keeping the book all these years.
        I give you an A + for your answer to my silly questions.
        Waiting to read another piece, I remain

  3. Dom Glennon

    Hi Hugh, I’m sure you’re aware of the stories of Victorians covering up the legs on their pianos and tables for fear of causing offence or arousal. I’ve heard this referred to many times, but it seems that concrete evidence is flimsy: . It also appears to have been used both by the British and Americans at various times to oiur scorn on the others’ prudishness!

    1. Delfin Carbonell

      I saw the legs of the piano in my geandfather’s home covered. He was a Spaniard and far from being a prude. I believe the idea was to protect the legs from scratches. Now people dump pianos on the street. O tempora, O mores.

      1. One’s memory can play tricks on one, but I swear that I recall my grandmother putting small white (muslin?) skirts around the feet of the piano in her parlor. This would have been in the early 1940s in western Pennsylvania. I don’t think grandmother was particularly prudish and it may be that the tiny skirts would have protected the piano legs from scratches from the carpet sweeper. More likely, though, I think the skirts were placed out of habit: It was the custom of the country, or that part of it, at that time.

    2. Hi Dom: See my note below about my grandmother’s piano. And thanks for the link to The Smart Set. I think that I should try to keep track of what goes on in this publication. All best Thanksgiving Day wishes to you.

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