Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

In the Euphemism Club: Preggo Edition

It would be difficult for me to pick an all-time favorite euphemism. That would be like a parent picking their favorite child or a supervillain picking their favorite doomsday device. How to choose among so many beloved contenders? How to compare strategic dynamism effort to orphan poo? How to rank ameliorating the situation against life problem issues? Picking a favorite euphemism is a serious choice problem issue.

That said, if I had to go with one, I'd pick in the pudding club, a perfectly preposterous term for "pregnant." I first heard this Britishism in a memorable exchange from Harold Pinter's 1957 play The Birthday Party, in which two shady, absurd characters grill another confused soul:

Goldberg: Why did you never get married?
McCann: She was waiting at the porch.
Goldberg: You skedaddled from the wedding.
McCann: He left her in the lurch.
Goldberg: You left her in the pudding club.
McCann: She was waiting at the church.

I first thought Pinter made up in the pudding club, but the Oxford English Dictionary has examples going back to 1890. Here's a charming use from 1936, recorded by Jonathon Green in Green's Dictionary of Slang: "All I ask is that you don't tell me that you're a clergyman's daughter or that you were put in the pudden club by the squire's son." A 2005 OED example shows the term still has currency: "Other women would let trifling matters like [being] five months in the pudding club, having two left feet or not being able to carry a tune hold them back."

If you're wondering what in Zeus's name pudding has to do with a fetus, a related expression may help fill in the blanks: a pregnant woman has a pudding in the oven, which is a lot like the common idiom, have a bun in the oven. Pregnant woman as baker is a logical metaphor, though I can't condone the selling, eating, or having of children. 

Anyhoo, speaking of pudding, buns, and ovens, here's an all-pregnancy column. I dedicate these euphs to a friend who has a joey in the pouch.

clergy of belly

This is a term for the legal mercy often given to pregnant women. This 1678 OED use partially explains it: "Who therefore, in a strait, may freely Demand the Clergy of her Belly." Basically, demanding clergy of the belly is like saying, "Come on, I'm pregnant. Cut me some slack here." Take heed, preggo ladies! Pregnancy may be precarious, but it's the perfect time to pull a Ponzi scheme or take a hostage.

belly plea

A similar term seeks mercy not for the member of the pudding club, but for the pudding. As Green's puts it, a belly plea is "offered by a female criminal facing the death sentence, that since she is pregnant, the law should spare her unborn child's life; thus plead one's belly, to make such an entreaty." That seems fair, since all babies are innocent. Well, except the ones who run the placenta black market, but that's another story.

apron-up

This term, found in Green's, has two explanations, referring to both "the use of an apron to hide a pregnancy" and "the inevitable raising of the apron's profile as the foetus grows." I wish the tabloids would adopt this term and give up on baby bump. If Snooki had been described as apron-up, it might have distracted from the fact that everything about her was prophesied in the Book of Revelations.

interesting

Interesting is one of the least interesting words in the lexicon, but its vagueness makes it a weapons-grade euphemism. As far back as 1748, folks have been using it as a cover for the pudding club: "So that I cannot leave her in such an interesting situation, which I hope will produce something to crown my felicity." An apron-up lady can also be described as in an interesting state or condition, while the birth is an interesting event. This OED use, recorded in 1930, interested me: "Winifred, beginning to be 'interesting', owing to the approach of a little Dartie, kept her eyes somewhat watchfully on 'Monty'." Another understated term is a southern U.S. euphemism for pregnant recorded in the Dictionary of American Regional English: like that.

Mr. Knap is concerned

This extremely vague idiom has been in use since at least 1812, and the origin is pointed to in this example captured by Green: "Speaking of a woman supposed to be pregnant, it is common to say, I believe Mr. Knap is concerned, meaning she has knap'd." As you might guess, knapped has sometimes been a term for pregnant too, perhaps because it also means knocked. Mr. Knap is concerned is reminiscent of a euphemism I've mentioned before: Mr. Palmer is concerned, which alludes to a palm that receives a bribe.

in the spud line

This one goes back to at least 1937, and here's an OED use from 1967: "It couldn't have been himself that put Kathleen Ertall in the spud line." I don't totally understand the logic here, but I assume it has something to do with a spud as a potato, which does grow, though not into something that will wear a diaper or chomp a binky. A more transparent term is swallowed a watermelon seed. In DARE, there are many variations such as swallowed a coconut, pill, quarter, seed, train, apple, elephant, or olive seed.

Finally, I must remind readers of some timeless advice: Never ask a woman if she's pregnant. Play it safe and ask if she's swallowed a pumpkin.


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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday September 5th 2012, 9:06 AM
Comment by: Ted G. (Fairfax, VA)
Years ago a relationship rep that I had known on and off for several years stopped by my office, looking a bit larger than I remembered,and in a moment's lapse I observed, "With child?". Her terse reply, "No". The remainder of her visit was testy.
Wednesday September 5th 2012, 2:01 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
You are always funny.
This time you have chosen a sensitive topic.
Though funny, yet for the shake of sensitiveness associated with the topic your column failed to create any impression on me.
Thursday September 6th 2012, 3:46 PM
Comment by: Barbara S. (Arlington, VA)
Maybe we should write about euphemisms for "over sensitive."
Thursday September 6th 2012, 7:51 PM
Comment by: Susan C.
Pudding, potatoes, pumpkins, watermelon, coconuts, buns. My, we're getting hungry...maybe it all needs more cinnamon.

But my favorite of all? "like that"

So oblique. So reflective of something so apparently common and yet unspeakable. Perhaps a ting of distaste?

Would we have so many of these euphemisms if both men and women could get pregnant?

Thanks for another great read!
Tuesday September 11th 2012, 8:23 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
"Knocked up" is not, of course, a new euphemism for "pregnant." But I regret to inform that it's the name of a new mobile app

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