Don’t Call Me Shirley

Whenever I’m trying to soften a blow, I find a nice name for the ugly thing I need to talk about. You know, a pimple becomes a blemish. “Boo boo” stands for road rash. Oops, I guess that’s a euphemism for a nickname. Maybe I should just say “scrape.” But it conjures up painful experiences I’d rather suppress.

In the United States, we favor nicknames for our unmentionables. Of course, “unmentionables” used to mean “underwear.” Once, our delicate sensibilities prohibited our calling undergarments by their names. We were ‘way too proper to say “slip,” or “brassiere” in mixed company. Certainly not “bra.” And we could never, never say “panties.” Why grown men stuttered at the prospect.

Then Madonna wore her lingerie on the outside, in an instant rendering all lingerie mentionable. We’ve been chipping away at George Carlin’s list ever since. You remember his list, don’t you? The seven words you cannot say on radio or TV. He developed it through trial and error when his mother smacked him each time he inadvertently said one in her presence. He wondered as a child why she didn’t just give him the list in advance. Would have saved him an a** whippin’.

See? That brand of whippin’, common in households back in the day, didn’t get the graphic descriptor in polite conversation. Now, even the President calls it right out.

Actually, we still can’t say most of Carlin’s words without some repercussion. Victorian civility precludes inclusion here of the one word from his list that’s common on TV now. You’ll just have to do your own research and sort it out.

Frankly, I wish some things remained unmentionable. Although in retrospect, some restrictions were pretty silly. My husband and I just watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” as we do every Christmas. We see something new every year (or maybe, like those progressing into senility, we repeatedly forget what we should be able to recite verbatim). This time, we laughed when we saw the scene in which Donna Reed reveals she’s pregnant by hinting with a veiled reference and a knowing smile to Jimmy Stewart. Then, he lets us know he gets the hint when he responds with elation, “You’ve got a bun in the oven?!”

It took an awful long time for some folks to grow up and say “breasts” without giggling like seventh grade boys in sex education class. Even nicknames for a person’s body parts remained taboo well past maturity and common sense. People didn’t speak about breasts, much less use the less-threatening, if inane, term “boobs,” in spite of the fact that Barbie raised them into waking consciousness (pun intended) back in 1959.

Today we’re pelted with so many blatant anatomical references that it takes a Grey’s Anatomy to keep up. We have gynecological patter on every show from “Oprah” to “30 Rock.” It started when Dr. Ruth surged past Dr. Freud with her gleefully graphic sex advice. Now, Dr. Oz just rides the wave.

In some cases it may be important to drop the niceties and call a thing by its proper name. Gambling for example. Have you noticed the ever-so-subtle push to rename it “gaming”? This shift is an attempt by those who want our money to make an unsavory thing more palatable. Responsible adults don’t have gaming addictions – unless they can’t resist the PlayStation.

“Sex workers” and their “agents” are wending their way into our vernacular. Prostitutes and pimps fade away. Their “clients” are no doubt grateful. The new language elevates and garners more respect. These are human beings, after all. Human beings deserve respect even if their behavior is ill-advised or self-destructive.

Nevertheless it rankles, like “collateral damage,” or “greed is good.” Too much 1984 for me! Remember? The Ministry of Plenty oversees economic shortages; the Ministry of Peace wages war; the Ministry of Love provides the center for punishment and torture; and, of course, the Ministry of Truth controls language and propaganda.

Still, part of me wishes we could retain the gentility of the charade. Let’s quit mentioning the unmentionables. I know; mortgage companies would go back to telling “stories,” instead of lies. We won’t deal with being fat when we can be “fluffy.”

But what’s the harm in eating “Chilean Sea Bass” instead of Patagonian tooth fish? It’s less stressful in a Stepford Wives kind of way.

Just don’t try sneaking those mountain oysters onto my plate.

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