"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. note It would be amusing if people from The Gay NinetiesTime Traveled to today, and wondered why there were people who opposed prostitutes getting married, and happy marriages in general.
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.
"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.
"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.
With some words, the shift comes from a narrowing of the meaning. "Aroused" originally was just a past-tense version of "arise" and could be used to refer to all manner of raising, such as being awakened or having one's emotions stirred up, or rising sexual desire (usually accompanied with a physical rise in a certain part of the anatomy). Nowadays, nearly the only use for it is the sexual one, making the other uses in older works sound a bit funny. Likewise, "straight" originally could be the opposite of being morally crooked, strung out on drugs, or sexually devious. Nowadays, only the last definition is usually applied, and that usually only as opposed to homosexuality (though occasionally, one can still see it applied to other unconventional sexualities in warning labels on foreign works, e.g. "If you're straight and don't like incest, this manga is not for you.") Older works such as the TV special "Scared Straight" (about scaring kids out of juvenile delinquency and criminality) and drug-addled hippies talking about "getting my head straight" in movies may therefore seem rather, um... odd to contemporary viewers.
"Ejaculate" is even more problematic, as it used to just mean "suddenly exclaim," but now almost exclusively gets interpreted as... well, you know. The Literature page has many examples including, despite its relatively recent publishing, Harry Potter.
There is a Finnish educational video titled Muna on mukava juttu, "An egg is a nice thing", which tells about the health benefits of eggs. Unfortunately, showing the video to a school class is bound to cause some snickering due to the word "muna", "egg", also being a slang term for a penis. Make the word a plural and it either refers to multiple eggs or testicles. Cue laughter when one of the kids on the video instructs his friends to "take the eggs in your hands"...
So do the German: "Eier". (And probably half of the human languages.)
A filmstrip put out by the LDS church back in the 70s has a funny example of this in its Spanish translation. The filmstrip is an allegory comparing a caterpillar in its cocoon to the resurrection. At one point, the younger brother insists that the caterpillar must be dead since it's been inside its cocoon for so long. The older brother explains to the younger brother that these things just take time and that "pronto sadrá de su capullo y será una bella mariposa." Which, technically means "soon he'll come out of his cocoon and be a beautiful butterfly. However, taking into account certain slang terms, it can also mean "soon he'll come out of his foreskin and be a beautiful gay man."
The term "G-string" originally meant "a loincloth worn by American Indian men". Referring to the groin, then an inappropriate term for polite company. G-string was intentionally juxtaposed with the musical term.
The first Russian atlas was called "The Show of all the World". The word used to mean "show" back then, now means "shame"...
A 1972 paper by WD Hamilton on the evolution of altruism in insects uses the word "bisexual" to mean that a behavior is found in both sexes of a species. Nowadays the term is "unisex".
Apparently, a 1883 London Times article had this little line describing the role of a Bouncer
" 'The Bouncer' is merely the English 'chucker out'. When liberty verges on license and gaiety on wanton delirium, the Bouncer selects the gayest of the gay, and —bounces him!"
In the Flashman novels, the eponymous anti-hero uses genuine Victorian slang, in which "bouncers" are a coarse expression for female breasts.
Various tv shows, movies, and animes up to around the mid 90's would sometimes refer to Condominiums as condoms for short... after a few decades of that I guess we realized what we were saying and started using 'condo' instead.
If this usage had continued, it would have given the Doom 2 level "Monster Condo" a whole new meaning.
XBox Live once suspended a Fort Gay, West Virginia resident for putting the town's name as his profile location. That user brought it up with customer service, trying to convince them that Fort Gay is a real location, and had nothing to do with sexual orientation.
This problem is a common one; for instance, in the British branch of AOL, it was (is?) difficult for residents of S***horpe, Penistone etc. to get accounts.
A long time ago, German men named Ignaz (from Ignatius) often got the nickname "Naz" or "Nazi". Guess why this stopped somewhen during the twentieth century, especially with the latter nickname.
But in America at least, the nickname was probably pronounced "Nazzy" rather than "Notzee."
This hasn't stopped with "Naz" though. There is a female Ed, Edd n Eddy character with Naz as a name.
In the (German) opera Lohengrin, the title character insists upon being called the Leader rather than the Duke of Brabant. In the opera itself, the word Führer was originally used for "Leader" in performances. This was changed to Schützer for reasons that should be obvious...
The Enola Gay, anyone? Its payload was code-named Little Boy, which isn't an example by itself, but juxtaposed with the craft's name...
In order to receive their certificates, student pilots must pass exams both in the aircraft and on the ground. The ground portion is naturally called the Oral Exam. This is usually shortened to just "oral" and applied to any verbal instruction. The term has persisted despite—or maybe because of—the connotation modern English has given the word. This leads to giggle-inducing statements like "I can't go out; I've got to do an oral with my instructor. It's going to take all night. Yeah, he's really hard..."
The Russian cartoon "Blue Puppy" is about a puppy who was born with blue fur. All the other animalsspurn him for that sole reason and sing a mocking song with words like "You're blue, you're blue, we don't want to play with you", "You're a disgrace to the whole world" and "We don't need blue dogs here!". The puppy laments his fate, saying "Why, oh why was I born blue?" Eventually he overcomes his grief, finds a friend and muses, that "It's OK to be blue if everyone loves you". This cartoon was created before the word "blue" became a Russian language equivalent of "gay". It doesn't help that said friend is a flamboyant outgoing sailor...
In the Filipino language, "bakla" means homosexual, but like "gay" it originally meant something else - "indecisive" or "doubtful". Thus the 19th century Pasion, an epic poem retelling of the life and passion of Jesus (which used to be recited during Lent) says "Si Cristo ay nabacla" ("Christ was beset by doubt") at Gethsemane.
In the city of Manchester, England, as you travel via the main arterial road from the south, you will pass a very-long established and respected dealer in tropical fish and indoor aquaria who have a deserved reputation for quality and excellence in all areas to do with indoor fish-keeping. The business name is a homage to the family who have run the premises for three generations and see no need to change it now just because there are other associations. They are called Gay-Lyfe Limited.
The word, "Jap," short for "Japan" and "Japanese," was once a common nickname and shorthand for "Jasper" (along with Jappie and Jappy), but is now considered a slur toward Japanese people, Nikkei (persons of Japanese descent), and Jewish American women. In the case of Jewish American women, Jap is spelled as "JAP" and is an acronym for "Jewish American Princess."
Kenzo Takada, a native of Himeji, Japan, opened his first boutique, the famous Jungle Jap, in Paris in 1971.
In Japji Sahib, the Sikh hymn that is a universal song of God composed by Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of the Sikh faith, the word "Jap" means "to recite," "to chant," or "to stay focused onto." In Jaap Sahib is the morning prayer of the Sikhs. It's a Bani (set of hymns) uttered by Guru Gobind Singh ji, the Tenth Sikh Guru, the Tenth Nanak that is reminiscent of Japji Sahib. It, along with the Japji Sahib, are two of the five Banis. In this case, Jap is a Sanskrit word that means “to utter in a low voice, whisper, or mutter, especially prayers or incantations.”
Japchae (also jabchae or chapchae) is a Korean dish made from sweet potato noodles (called dangmyeon), stir fried in sesame oil with thinly sliced carrots, onion, spinach, and mushrooms, flavoured with soy sauce, sweetened with sugar, and sometimes served with beef. The word "jap" in Jap Chae means "mixed and stirred."
Java Anon Proxy (a.k.a. Java Anonymous Proxy or Jon Donym) is a proxy system designed to allow browsing the Web with revocable pseudonymity, or state of disguised identity. There is also the Journal of Applied Physics, a scientific journal published by American Institute of Physics, and Journal of Applied Physiology, a scientific journal published by American Physiological Society. They, like Jewish American Princess, go by the acronym JAP.
There is a political game called the “Fat Jap Syndrome.” The term originated in 1968 when Spiro T. Agnew laughingly referred to his friend Gene Oishi, who was a Japanese-American, as “the fat Jap.” An American Spectator article explains how the Fat Jap Syndrome is a political ploy that twists the words of an opponent to manufacture an issue and stir up fuss about it to distract from the weakness and real issues of the candidate.
The word may be going through this a second time, resurging in Taiwan and Hong Kong (and some Internet circles) as an informal shorthand for "Japanese", hence phrases such as "the Jap version of X" or signs advertising a supermarket's "Jap Rice". This is still highly likely to offend people who only know it as a slur, so outside of China it is generally not used outside of informal contexts.
In Britain the phrase pronounced "jap engine" may have two different meanings. It may be "Jap engine", meaning an engine manufactured in Japan, with "Jap" as an abbreviation for "Japanese" which is considered offensive by some but is not necessarily used with offensive intent - especially in this context, as Japanese engines tend to be well-regarded. Or it may be "JAP engine", an engine - usually a V-twin - built by the company JA Prestwich, of London. These engines usually had the initials "JAP" in big letters on the rocker covers and were widely used in motorcycles and small cars in the inter-war period.
The word "Negro", now considered to be a racial slur or at least a politically incorrect term, used to be a neutral term to refer to black people (and, indeed, was considered less offensive than "black" itself) until the late 1960s.
The Ladybird life of Charles II says that he was called the Merry Monarch because he was gay. That would probably have come as a surprise to Nell Gwyn (and Barbara Villiers, Moll Davis, Elizabeth Killigrew, Catherine Pegge, Lucy Walter, Louise de Kérouaille...)
Similar to one Video Games example, the eponym "Lesbian" (title case) means "person or thing from the Mediterranean Isle of Lesbos" (aka Lesvos or Mytilini). However, since one such person in classical Greek times was Sappho, who specialised in poems about friendships (at all levels) between women (though whether she herself was gay is unknown), the metonym "lesbian" (sentence case) has come to mean "gay woman". Hence the original, eponymic meaning is seldom or never used these days. There was an attempt in 2008 to "rectify" this by banning the metonym, but this case was ruled an attempt to breach human rights.
There is an icecream in Australia titled as the "Golden 'Gay'time, with the tagline of "It's hard to have a gaytime by your own!"
It gets better. In some Australian fast food restaurants, it's possible to get a sort of milkshake-type drink in which the Golden Gaytime is an ingredient; these drinks are called 'crushes', hence fast food restaurant employees often having to utter the phrase 'here's your gay crush'.
The French expression "branler le chef" was once a perfectly acceptable way of saying "trembling one's head", i.e. nodding. But with the evolution of language, it will always elicit giggles in older works and never be heard as anything but "jack off the boss".
Similarly, the term "sans-culottes" originally referred to partisans of the French Revolution who wore long pants as opposed to the more aristocratic knee breeches. Given the modern meaning of "culottes," this could easily be misinterpreted as Going Commando.
The verb "Baiser" originally means "to kiss" but it later evolved into a slang meaning "to shag".
"Spastic" has fallen into this in British English, where it has come to be a very offensive term referring to someone with cerebral paulsy. This can cause confusion when used by an American English speaker, because in America the word retains its original, inoffensive meaning.
The Spastics Society had to change its name to Scope because of misuse, though the name change merely resulted in schoolchildren adding "scopey" to their vocabulary of insults. "Spasmodic" and the derivatives "spazmo" or "spaz" already formed part of that vocabulary. Fortunately, there are still inoffensive alternatives; "spasmodic" if referring to the original meaning, "manic" or "frantic" if referring to behaviour, and so on.
A milder example is "Sod", another name for a clod of earth. The word is also an insult in Britain,which leads to a lot of giggling from school children during Christmas performances of "Good King Wenceslas."
Quite a lot of people are stuck having "Gay" as their surname, often creating "hilarious" situations of being asked "Are you [Mr./Ms.] Gay?"
In many earlier depictions, Jetpacks are referred to as "man-rockets", which sounds like something else entirely to the modern ear. One old Modern Mechanix article repeatedly refers to them by this name, before promptly taking a turn for the Dude, Not Funny! when it describes a firefighter using his man-rocket to reach a burning building's "loftiest holocaust".
To be fair, "holocaust" originally meant "devastation by fire", which burning buildings have plenty of.
The masculine name Gabriel is mostly used in Hispanic countries but it is also used in Ireland where it was traditionally shortened to 'Gay'. Other countries frequently shorten it to 'Gabe,' instead.
There is a gas called arsole, because it contains arsenic, presumably not because of its smell. Another name for it is "arsacyclopentadiene", which sounds like a problem caused by sitting on a bike saddle for too long.
Visiting that page shows that some of the related compounds have even more unfortunate names, such as "arsecane", which sounds like a spanking.
In the late 1960s, a film was released called Happy to be a Bum. For the British release, the British Board of Film Censorship (as it then was) insisted that the title be changed to Happy to be a Tramp, because as they explained, "[over here] 'bum' means only one thing."note They were slightly wrong, as it can also mean "bailiff", but only slightly, as the latter meaning has fallen into disuse.
Quite a few words are inversions, having once had sexual or otherwise disreputable connotations which are now forgotten:
"Occupy" used to have the same semi-erotic overtones as "penetrate" does today, back in the 15th to 17th centuries.
"Token", in the early 19th century, was a slang term for venereal disease ("he tipped her a token").
"Scumbag" in the 1930s specifically meant a used, discarded condom.
Eton's Porny School. Not what one might think; it was named after its founder, Richard Porny.