Someone near and dear was suffering from a painful case of Hemorrhoids the other day and I wanted to ask how he was feeling, but couldn’t really find the right words. I mean, I could have asked, “How’s your ass?” but didn’t. It’s weird, isn’t it, the way we try to avoid certain words? Try this experiment:
Take a pencil and draw a naked man. Then, take a pen and attempt a written description. When you come to those parts of the body that are not usually mentioned in polite society, you will find that you have only four alternatives: a nursery word, an archaism, a word from the gutter or a scientific word. The nursery word might be ‘willie’; the archaism might be ‘phallus’; the gutter word might be ‘prick’ and the scientific word might be ‘penis,’ making the topic either childish, quaint, contemptible, or of purely scientific interest. Your choice of words forces you to an implicit comment, but at the same time, as George Bernard Shaw tells us: ‘It is impossible to explain decency without being indecent’.
Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and Empress of India, not only lent her name to a hospital in Castries, but also a set of values that changed the way the British Empire, and possibly the rest of the world, behaved. Hers was a time of many contradictions: an outward appearance of dignity and restraint, widespread prostitution, child labour, and a set of hypocritically applied moral standards that might have reminded some of the Puritan Movement of Oliver Cromwell 200 years earlier, that abolished Christmas for being ‘too indulgent of the sensual pleasures’. The world was very different then: Homosexual acts, for example, were a capital offence until 1861.
In Victorian times it was considered improper to say “leg” in formal company; the preferred euphemism was “limb.” At the seaside, despite the use of a ‘bathing machine’ in which to disrobe before descending into the water, it was still possible to see people bathing naked. Obviously, the sight of someone taking their clothes off was more exciting than seeing the naked figure, which, when you think about it, explains the titillating attraction of striptease. Somewhat surprisingly, Queen Victoria liked to draw and collect male nude illustrations, and even gave one to her husband as a present.
Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, only four years after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire following partial abolition in 1807 and a full ban on slave trade, but not slave ownership, in 1833. Anti-slavery morality was pitted against the powerful economic interests of individuals and groups that claimed their businesses would be destroyed if they were not permitted to exploit slave labor. Inequality was rampant, and many argued that the living and working conditions of workers in English factories amounted to enslavement. Child, even infant, labour was rampant.
Religious morality changed drastically during the Victorian Era. The Anglican Church had demanded obedience to God, submissiveness and resignation to the will of the Church. Methodists and Presbyterians stressed personal salvation through direct individual faith in Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection. In 1859, Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ created a crisis of faith, questioning Christian beliefs and Victorian values; the Natural World had become what it was through gradual change over eons; natural selection and the survival of the fittest were the reasons man had survived.
Democracy was non-existent. The masses had little say in the affairs of government. About 300 families, firmly established as the traditional ruling class, held sway over society and politics. They believed they were born to rule through divine right. But eventually, when financial crises threatened, they were compelled to allow the wealthiest of the middle class to buy a place within their ranks.
Alone of all European nations, Great Britain failed to experience a major revolutionary upheaval during the 19th century. In 1848, when thrones toppled in France, Italy, and Germany, Britain remained an island of political stability. As the German economist Werner Sombart commented, “Against roast beef and apple pie, all dreams of socialist Utopias come to nothing.”
Wouldn’t it be nice if our Leaders-in-the-House, in the face of insults, invectives, accusations and threats of reprisal, could respond in a dignified manner by choosing to emulate Queen Victoria, who, whenever her sensibilities were offended, would respond with a chilly, “We are not amused.”
You see, choosing the right word for the right occasion really can be effective; it’s an art and skill that should be learned. There’s a time and a place for everything. “There are times,” as Tom Cruise once famously said, “when you just gotta say: Fuck!”