"Cock" is not dirty all the time, that's one of those words that's only partly filthy. Cock, if you're talking about the animal, it's perfectly all right! They used to read that to us from The Bible in third grade; and we would laugh... "cock" is in the Bible!
A cross between Accidental Innuendo
and Unusual Euphemism
. This trope occurs when "language drift" — natural changes in the common vocabulary — causes a word or phrase originally intended as wholly innocuous to be potentially taken as startling, confusing or just plain funny in a different time or place. Usually relates to sexual euphemisms, but can also involve other sensitive concepts. Political correctness sometimes comes into play.
Even very slight changes in usage can produce this effect; until recently, a man might speak of his attraction to a "young girl" and mean a twentysomething. Nowadays she'd be young, or a girl, but not both.
And sometimes the expression still
has an innocent meaning that is at least as valid as the naughty one, but now there are just too many people with their minds in the gutter
Compare with Hilarious in Hindsight
, of which this is arguably a Sub-Trope
. See also Double Entendre
or Intentionally Awkward Title
for when this trope is invoked entirely intentionally, Separated by a Common Language
for the spatial analogue, and Get Thee to a Nunnery
for the reverse process.
Keep in mind that some of these words actually did
have their modern meaning at the time they were used, but only within certain sections of the populace
. The meaning of the word "gay" began to change as early as 1870
among the criminal classes of New York, where it originally meant "prostitute" (yes, before The Gay Nineties
); around 1900 the meaning changed to "homosexual prostitute" and within five years of that to simply "homosexual". This means that in some cases the writers are using the words deliberately in order to get crap past the radar
Some of these examples result from the euphemism treadmill
, whereby terms are repeatedly replaced as the previous word falls into such a state of misuse that it cannot be recovered. The words "idiot", "moron", and "imbecile" started as clinical terms, referring to people with IQs below 75, 50, and 25, respectively. As these terms fell into common use as insults, they were replaced by a kinder and gentler term: "retarded". Nowadays, "retarded" is considered so virulent that some people want it classified as hate speech
. The term used to describe people with life-changing diseases or injuries followed a similar path, from "crippled" to "disabled" to "handicapped" to "physically challenged"; when terms like "handi-capable" and "differently abled" were proposed, it came across as Political Correctness Gone Mad
and people generally agreed to stop messing with it.
Racist terminology is also a prime example of this. The infamous "N-word" (which is so virulent it cannot be even used clinically in many places anymore) used to be common language, even without racist overtones. For example, "nigger babies" used to be a name for a popular candy, while Agatha Christie
even used the title Ten Little Niggers
for her arguably most famous work; even back then the N-word was considered risky so it was retitled Ten Little Indians
for US publication, which annoyed another group of people, so they eventually settled on And Then There Were None
. Use of the N-word by productions in which it is specifically used as a criticism/condemnation of racism (i.e. All in the Family
, Blazing Saddles
) is often misunderstood by modern audiences.
Words changed meaning less frequently before the advent of radio and television, and when they did change, the transformation could be slow (as seen with "gay" above). It took over a hundred years for the primary meaning of the verb "want" to change from "lack" to "desire". Television sped things up: it took only a few weeks in the 70s for the meaning of "boob" to change from "dummy" to "breast" among the general public
. Naturally, with the advent of the uncensored Internet, words can change meaning almost overnight these days.
Compare Values Dissonance
and "Funny Aneurysm" Moment
; see also Unfortunate Names
, which sometimes result from this. Get Thee to a Nunnery
is the inverse
Some common causes of Have a Gay Old Time:
- Several examples having to do with slang terms referencing homosexuality.
- The Trope Namer is of course based on the word "gay", which once meant "happy, carefree, joyful". It started to take on its modern meaning in the 1930s, but continued to be used in its original sense throughout The Forties and The Fifties.
- "Queer" originally meant "strange or odd" and later came to refer to homosexuals, sometimes pejoratively and sometimes not. (Lately, this has been fluctuating as the cultural context shifts.) Nowadays, virtually no one uses the original meaning.
- The word "faggot" used to mean bundles of wood—um, sticks—before becoming a pejorative term for homosexuals. From the original term also came the word "fag," which, in Britain is a slang for cigarette but is basically considered "the other F-bomb" in the United States, which can lead to occasional unfortunate misunderstandings.
- "Come out" is now short for "come out of the closet," which refers to telling others that you're gay. However, it was a custom for young women of noble or wealthy classes to "come out" formally into society, meaning they were eligible for marriage and otherwise treated as adult women. So in many things from the 1800s to about the 1930s, you'll hear talk over whether Miss Such-and-So has "come out", or references to a "coming-out party."
- "Making love" used to connote romance or courting before it became a more genteel phrase for sexual intercourse.
- "Incontinent" in the time of Shakespeare meant 'immediately' ie. "I will come incontinently". It then turned to mean 'uncontrollably' ie. "Incontinent with rage". It then moved onto practically a medical diagnosis for someone with poor bladder and/or bowel control. Even the older meanings can cause trouble if mixed - "I will come to you uncontrollably" brings QWOP to mind.
- "Ejaculated" used to be just a different way of saying 'exclaimed'. It is now a recognised term for a function of genitalia.
- "Cum" is oftentimes bordering to this. It could either be Latin for with, e.g. "cum laude" (with honours); or a corrupted synonym of "come" for ejaculatory fluid.
- "Aroused" was originally interchangeable with "roused", but after acquiring sexual connotations this is definitely no longer the case.
- "Molest" used to mean "harass" or "annoy", without the more specific modern connotation of sexual assault.
- "Tramp" used to refer to bums, hobos, vagrants, drifters, or vagabonds. Today, its most common usage is as a derogatory term for prostitutes or hookers and is synonomous with equally derogatory terms such as "slut", "harlot" or "whore".
- Similarly, "bum" in British English. Apart from an archaic meaning of "bailiff" (used in one Agatha Christie story), until fairly recently it only had the "buttocks" meaning in Britain. Eagleland Osmosis means that the "tramp" meaning is now recognised as well.
- "Boob" or "booby" meant a fool or silly person before it meant a woman's breast, and is still used that way in the phrase "booby trap" (i.e. a trap a gullible or stupid person would fall into) but almost never by itself, unless referring to a kind of seabird.
- "Jackass" or simply "ass" used to only mean "donkey", but is now an insult, or a slang term for the posterior.