Old English, the vernacular language used during the Anglo-Saxon period (and for quite some time after), is rich with highly descriptive words. You’ve probably heard of kennings, for example, which are metaphorical words (or phrases) that are almost riddle-like in their meaning: so, we get words like ‘swanroad’ (‘the sea’) and ‘bone-house’ (‘the body’). Delightful!
Another thing that occurs frequently in Old English, particularly in poetry, is the synecdoche, a figure of speech which uses the part of something to stand for the whole. To illustrate, a common synecdoche in heroic verse (think Beowulf) is ‘edge’ which is used to mean ‘sword’. Intelligent!
One of my favourite areas of Old English language (I’m afraid I do have to lower the tone now) is the euphemism, which at times is almost as creative as the kenning. Euphemisms are, of course, words or phrases that substitute for ones that may be considered a tad unpleasant for those with more delicate sensibilities, shall we say.
I revisited a good one recently whilst translating part of the poem known as Genesis A. It combines the metonym ‘bed’ (what we might call an attribute of sex) with the term ‘-ship’ (as in the word ‘fellowship’):
“Here inside are my two spotless daughters.
Do as I bid you – they do not yet know, either
of these women, the presence of men through
bedship – and give up this sin. I give you them
both, before you commit this shame against
your natures, this pointless evil against
humanity. Take these women. Let free my
guests whom I, for God’s sake, if I may, will
protect from you.”
Though ‘bedship’ always makes me smile, the context here is not in the slightest jocular. You may recognize the lines above as a reworking of the story from the Old Testament (Genesis 19) about the men and boys of Sodom demanding to ‘know’ the two men who had entered as guests into the home of so-called ‘righteous’ Lot.
It’s a little ironic, perhaps, that the poet doesn’t actually follow the Vulgate Bible’s euphemism, ‘to know’, when it comes to the Sodomites’ demand. Instead, we are told:
‘They proclaimed with words that they would shamelessly have sex with the heroes: they had no regard for honour.’
And yet, as you see, the poet does preserve the euphemism when it comes to Lot’s offering of his daughters as substitute rape victims – and not only preserves the Vulgate’s use of ‘know’, but amplifies it: My daughters, Lot points out to the Sodomites, do not 'know' men ‘through bedship.’
Perhaps the virginal status of the two daughters (note the euphemistic ‘spotless’) was a strong motivator for using the euphemism ‘bedship’; whereas the notorious Sodomites needed no such consideration: they simply wanted sex, and they were flagrantly open about it.
Having said that, the Old English word used for ‘have sex’ – hæman – has itself a euphemistic origin. Though throughout the corpus of Old English works it almost always simply means ‘to have sex’, its etymology suggests the early Germanic tradition of taking a bride home as part of the wedding (sex was, in effect, part of the ceremony). We can see that when we look at the stem hæm which derives from ham, the Old English word for 'home’.
It’s fascinating (to me, at least) that a euphemistic phrase or word can eventually end up being used very directly, and thus not as a euphemism at all. This appears to be the case with hæman.
I wonder, is that what happened also with the modern word ‘intercourse’?
‘Intercourse’ seems to have been used euphemistically to start with (I believe it was first used sexually at the end of the eighteenth century), but later the sexual meaning became the primary meaning.
‘We had wonderful intercourse!’ was probably at one time something you could get away with in polite company, without the slightest raising of a Victorian eyebrow. But by the late twentieth century, it wasn’t something to announce to your friends about the tea and scones you had with granny at the weekend.
Ah, Euphemism. Quite an art form.