A Brief History of Pregnancy Euphemisms
A few weeks ago, Amal Clooney, international human rights lawyer and all-round badass, stepped up to give up a speech at the United Nations about atrocities in Iraq. TIME magazine saw fit to summarize the day’s events like this: “Amal Clooney shows off her baby bump at the United Nations.”
Of course, TIME got roundly criticized for this show of stupidity, and the tweet was soon deleted. But it got us thinking: If you’re going to be so sexist as to focus on a prominent woman’s pregnancy, rather than her stated professional purpose that day, why be coy about it? Why not just say “she’s pregnant”?
A long history of pregnancy euphemisms
Pregnancy euphemisms have a long and varied history across cultures. In Cantonese, to ‘have stuffing’ is slang for an unintended pregnancy; in Mandarin, the characters for ‘to have’ and ‘happiness’ are used to talk about pregnancy. Hindi has ‘pet se hona’ and ‘pair bhari hona’ (to be full in the tummy and to be heavy in the feet, respectively). Italian has a version of bun in the oven as well as ‘in stato interessante,’ which literally means to be in an interesting condition; French, too, has a version of bun in the oven, to describe pregnancy, as well as phrases that translate literally to ‘to have swallowed an apple,’ ‘to have four feet,’ and ‘to have hopes.’ A common Russian phrase to describe pregnancy is ‘beremenaya’ which means burden. In Chichewa, a language spoken in South-central African countries, words that mean ‘ill’ – matenda, wodwala and pakati – are used to describe pregnancy.
In English, in 2002, then-Us Weekly editor Bonnie Fuller revamped the magazine, and our lives, with pithy celebrity-based columns and a new phrase – ‘baby bump.’ (Some experts say UK papers were using the term before, but no name claim, no game.) But it was just the latest in a long line of English pregnancy euphemisms. To be ‘in the family way’, ‘in a delicate condition,’ ‘in the pudding club,’ to ‘have a bun in the oven,’ to be ‘up the pole,’ ‘up the duff,’ or ‘eating for two,’ are all pregnancy euphemisms, too, as is the somewhat disturbingly violent to be ‘knocked up,’ and – for a brief time in the early 20th century, ‘the rabbit died,’ a phrase that owes its origins to an early and fairly accurate (if horrifying) method of pregnancy testing that would definitely have been met with strong disapproval from PETA.
Can’t talk about what you don’t know
Part of the coyness of expression could be due to how incredibly recent scientific understanding of reproduction is. The condition of hysteria, or ‘wandering womb,’ wherein a woman’s womb wanders about the body and incapacitates her ability to reason, was a strongly held theory that originated with the Greek father of medicine, Hippocrates, in the 4th century BC and held sway as a common medical diagnosis into the 20th century. During the many intervening years, understanding of women’s reproductive organs was limited and the description of them usually derogatory (‘Matrix’ or ‘sewer’ were common euphemisms for uterus). It wasn’t until the 1800s that medical science started understanding with any kind of accuracy how women’s reproductive organs – and reproduction in general – work.
But through the centuries, one fact was clear: the act of sexual intercourse led to pregnancy, and with that small bit of knowledge came a misogynistic judgment that made it difficult to talk about pregnancy at all.
“The reason for the hiding and euphemisms is largely that pregnancy is proof of sexual activity, and we have had repressive enough ideas about that to want to deny that it occurred,” said Renée Ann Cramer, PhD, professor of law, politics and society at Drake University in the US, and author of the book Pregnant with the Stars: Watching and Wanting the Celebrity Baby Bump. “As a result, pregnancy — speaking about it openly, seeing the proof of it — has been considered obscene, almost pornographic.”
So even as women were conditioned, over centuries, to believe their purpose for existence was to have children, and the state of motherhood, glorified, the act of becoming pregnant and the state of pregnancy was dubious in society – so dubious as to be seldom seen in public and spoken of in code.
“Part of this relates to an unscientific belief that women become pregnant only through consensual and pleasurable sex, a belief that cuts two ways: First, it means that if pregnancy occurred, rape didn’t; second, it means that women who are pregnant have, somehow, done the unwomanly thing of enjoying sex,” Cramer said.
Pregnancy now — more visible, still euphemised
Into the 20th century, (wealthy) women spent the last few months of their pregnancy – when the state is most physically obvious – in ‘confinement’ or ‘lying-in.’ To be fair, this pre-delivery period of withdrawal and bedrest was viewed more as a safety measure for the health of the baby, rather than a hiding of a pregnant belly, but the result was the same. It wasn’t until the 1950s that pregnancy began to be normalized on a societal level, when Lucille Ball of I Love Lucy continued filming while pregnant and incorporated her pregnancy into the show’s story (though still referring to her condition with one of the most common pregnancy euphemisms: ‘expecting’).
Pregnancy and women’s pregnant bodies are, of course, more visual than ever. Less than 40 years after Lucille Ball became the first pregnant woman on TV, a naked and very pregnant Demi Moore graced the cover of Vanity Fair. And in the years since that, social media has, of course, given more avenues to women to celebrate their bodies, no matter what shape or life stage they’re in.
Yet, the baby bump and other euphemisms for being pregnant persist.
“I don’t see them (euphemisms) going anywhere, anytime soon,” Cramer says. “When these euphemisms get in the way of good medical advice, or are used because of shame, they probably should be discouraged. But, some euphemisms feel more accurate, more poetic, funnier, or more beautiful, than the actual technical words themselves. I wouldn’t advocate for an end to euphemisms. I’d advocate for an end to shame and humiliation!”