Found in the treasure chests of the English language: useful words, strange phrases, Shakespearean quips… This time: do you know about the birds and the bees?

When is it right to call a spade a spade? If you’re in Britain, probably never. The British are masters of the art of euphemism – also known as mincing words, beating about the bush, and pulling one’s punches. As you may have found out to your cost, a true Brit calls something “not bad” when it’s actually great, and “pretty good” when it’s only okay – in fact, you might be forgiven for thinking that our idioms have been carefully constructed to confuse.

bee
Photo: John Severns (PD). If you’re referring to the facts of life, make sure you only talk about the birds and the bees.

As a visitor to Britain, how should you deal with our national hobby of never saying what we mean? My suggestion: try beating us at our own game. Whatever euphemism a Brit uses, there is always a more ridiculous one with which you can trump it.

So what do you say when your new British girlfriend tells you she needs to powder her nose or even spend a penny – both euphemisms for going to the toilet, which was itself originally a euphemism but is now thought of as overly direct by many people? You could opt for an Americanism and suggest that you’ll help her find the restroom – one of a few euphemisms where the Americans almost beat the British. Or you could make the charming suggestion that she should go ahead and answer the call of nature. But your winning move will arrive later in the day, when you tell her, “I have to see a man about a dog.” Originally, this phrase seems to have been related to betting, and it has been used in the past in America and Britain to refer to getting a drink. But it has now developed into one of the most picturesquely indirect ways of saying that you need to go to the little boys’ room.

If your girlfriend is impressed by your use of euphemism, you might find that you get to see her in her birthday suit (naked), which leads us to many dangerously vague and misunderstandable phrasal verbs such as getting off, doing it, and getting some. These verbs mainly exist so that schoolchildren who have only just learnt about the birds and the bees (sex) can giggle when someone says, “I was getting off the bus.” To win the euphemism game, you should venture into the more colourful examples: ask her if she’s up for a roll in the hay, or tell her you’d like to have your wicked way with her. Both these phrases conjure up images of bodice-ripping historical dramas, so you should be onto a winner.

Ask her if she’s up for a roll in the hay, or tell her you’d like to have your wicked way with her.

But what if she tells you she doesn’t want to make the beast with two backs with you? She may have discovered that you’re not the prudish, euphemism-loving man she thought you were – that you got the necklace you gave her off the back of a lorry (ie you stole it), that you’ve visited a house of ill repute (a brothel), and that you’ve been economical with the truth (lied) when discussing your previous relationships. She may even know about your girlfriend back on “the continent” (arguably a euphemism for “place which Britain pretends to have nothing to do with”); she may accuse you outright: “I know you’ve got her in a family way” (pregnant). No matter how many times you insist that your ex-squeeze does not have a bun in the oven, your budding Erasmus love story is not looking good.

What are your options? Experts from UniLad magazine, which provides British men with useful tips for making women avoid them forever whilst also creating great “banter”, would certainly suggest that you play the sympathy card at this point. Tell her about your beloved pet parrot, which recently passed away and is now no longer with us. Just as her heart is beginning to melt at the sound of this delicate verbiage, capitalise on your success, adding that the parrot has shuffled off the mortal coil and gone to meet its maker. If you shed a few tears, maybe she’ll relent – so long as she’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer (not very clever). Or maybe she’ll be so impressed by your Monty Python references that she’ll forgive you everything.

Cover Photo: Wikimedia

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    Lucy Duggan's novel Tendrils was published in 2014. She is working on a PhD in Czech and German literature at Oxford University, but when she has the chance, she likes to wander around Prague, Moravia or East Germany. In Oxford, she regularly performs her poetry and prose at the Catweazle Club. She also publishes her miniature stories at www.tinystori.es More information: http://www.peerpress.co.uk/tendrils.html

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