33

I am looking for some examples of words that, possibly due to their non-Latin origin, would have sounded offensive if they went through the English language rules. For example, if a specialty Bohemian medical practice sounded like "rap" then people practicing it would be "rappists," like psychologists who practice psychology. Since that's too close to "rapists," out of respect the word might have been changed to something else, for example "rapsters".

  • 4
    You might be interested in the concept of the euphemism treadmill. – zwol Apr 4 '17 at 18:18
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    I've heard that the proper term for properties of Venus is 'Venerial', but 'Venusian' is commonly used to avoid the association with unsavory diseases. – kbelder Apr 4 '17 at 19:15

18 Answers 18

57

The seed of Guizotia abyssinica used to be known as niger seed. That combination of letters is pronounced differently from the much more common word with a similar spelling, and the difference should be obvious because of the single g. But you'll find it much more commonly listed (e.g. on packaging for bird food) as nyger or nyjer, a phonetic spelling that dodges any confusion (perhaps not helped by spell checkers not including the original spelling).

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    This is currently the only answer that shows a change in spelling. – J. Siebeneichler Apr 3 '17 at 14:01
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    Consider: abyss acronym analyst aneurysm apocalypse archaeopteryx beryl bicycle cataclysm chlorophyll chrysalis chrysanthemum crypt crystal cyst dyspeptic ethyl funny glycerine glyph gym gymnast gypsum hymn hymnal idyll lymph lynch Lynn lynx lyrics martyr myrmidon myrrh myrtle mystery mystic myth nymph onyx pharynx phenyl physician physics Plymouth pterodactyl pyramid pyrrhic rhythm satyr sibyl stygian Styx syllable sylvan Sylvester symbol symmetry sympathy synapse synchronize syntax synthetic syphilis Syria syringe syrinx system syzygy tryst typical tyrannize vinyl wyvern zephyr. – tchrist Apr 4 '17 at 14:14
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    @tchrist A good point even though none of them are y-consonant-e except wyvern which I think is an error /ˈwʌɪv(ə)n/ (a few other questionable items in your list: ethyl can have the long i (see e.g. TFD) as can synapse in en-gb; in funny the y is at the end). There are plenty of examples that agree with my statement too (I thought of a few when I posted before I fully woke up this a.m.). I was concentrating on the nyjer spelling when I said phonetic because of the j (OK there are exceptions but dʒ must be most common) – Chris H Apr 4 '17 at 14:37
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    @ChrisH: "Niger" (the country) can be pronounced either way, according to the dictionaries I checked. Actually, before reading your comment, I did not even know the pronunciation with stress on the last syllable existed (it's not like I hear it spoken aloud often, though). (This isn't a criticism, just something I found interesting. The pronunciation with stress on the last syllable may be more common in GB but there is evidence indicating that both pronunciations exist on both sides of the Atlantic.) – sumelic Apr 4 '17 at 16:48
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    @tchrist noted for cases when US or other rhotic accents can be assumed. Unless there's explicit reason not to, I'll answer from a (Southern England) English perspective. I've also seen /ˈwaɪvərn/ in my searches. Now I want to find a UK D&D player to interrogate for comparison. – Chris H Apr 6 '17 at 15:30
34

Scott Pilgrim about Pacman

Did you know that the original name for Pac-Man was Puck-Man? You'd think it was because he looks like a hockey puck but it actually comes from the Japanese phrase 'Paku-Paku,' which means to flap one's mouth open and closed. They changed it because they thought Puck-Man would be too easy to vandalize, you know, like people could just scratch off the P and turn it into an F or whatever.

-- Scott Pilgrim vs The World


EDIT: Fact-checked: https://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/37847/was-pac-man-originally-named-puck-man

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Apr 7 '17 at 11:07
21

It is not quite what you're looking for as the spelling wasn't changed just a little, but rapeseed has been changed to canola, to protect people's sensibilities about rape.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Apr 3 '17 at 21:03
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    It is clear from the discussion that has been moved to chat that the idea that canola was substituted for rape because people don't like saying the word rape is controversial. There is no evidence in this answer that this is the reason that people started to call rapeseed products canola – Matt E. Эллен Apr 4 '17 at 12:11
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    A few important links were moved to chat: canola and rapeseed oil are different products, history of the name: "The real problem with the name "rapeseed oil" is that the oil was so toxic that the FDA banned it for human consumption in 1956. So when Canadian growers bred a new variety of rapeseed in the 1970s with a lower content of the toxic erucic acid, they decided they needed a new name for it." – Jason C Apr 4 '17 at 13:47
  • Also the Canola Council of Canada ("canola" was a trademark name that stuck and moved into the US and elsewhere) gives the etymology here, and general cursory research shows only repeated evidence of the usual marketing strategies when creating new products and rebranding a poorly received old one. I wasn unable to find any supporting evidence for this answer. I post this as an attempt to summarize the noisy discussion in chat, noting that the burden of proof is on the poster of this answer. – Jason C Apr 4 '17 at 13:50
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    "to protect people's sensibilities about rape" -- That is simply incorrect. – Jim Balter Apr 5 '17 at 10:39
17

Not quite what you are asking, but something similar is found in proper names. The venerable Scottish surname ‘Smellie’ is nowadays often changed to ‘Smillie’ (itself a genuine variant e.g. Wikipedia article on Robert Smillie).

However some Smellies (including my former boss) strongly resist this, as exmplified in this article in the Daily Telegraph.

Addendum

You still have to be careful with people who spell their surname Smellie. Some of them pronounce it Smillie.

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    One particular Smellie I knew of, was unfortunate enough also to have the initials W.C. But he spared his children embarrassment by changing their surnames to Smalley. – WS2 Apr 2 '17 at 22:16
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    A bit of a tangent, but on the subject of names Charlton Heston was known in Greece as Charlton Easton, due to "Heston" in Greek sounding like "shit on him". – Philip Apr 4 '17 at 10:59
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    @user3522813 — Shield your eyes, oh ye of sensitive disposition, but, similarly, the vapour rub known in the UK as Vick (Vicks in the US?) is spelled WIck in Germany, as the WIkipedia entry puts it "in order to avoid possible sexual connotations". (V is pronounced like an F in German, and the word produced by this change is the German equivalent of the English "fuсk".) – David Apr 4 '17 at 12:47
  • There are also people who don't change the spelling of their name but do change the pronunciation; foe example the surname "Hogg" is sometimes pronounced with the vowel in "boat". – Michael Lugo Apr 4 '17 at 21:05
  • And I am sure I remember hearing on the radio that in one language the name of Lieutenant Pinkerton in Puccin's opera, Madama Butterfly, is is either changed or pronounced in a non-English manner, I think to avoid an association with urination. However, Google can't find me any details. – David Apr 4 '17 at 21:36
14

I can think of a word whose pronunciation was changed to make it less offensive: "coney", an archaic word for "rabbit".

I'm told by a former professor and other sources that it originally rhymed with "honey", but was changed to rhyme with "boney" because it sounded too much like a slang word for "cunt".

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    Your link actually says that it sounded too much like the word 'cunny'. – Jeremy Apr 3 '17 at 12:08
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    Re: Above comment (which raises a good point): More specifically, the link says it sounded too much like the word 'cunny', which was slang for 'cunt'. A slightly more forgivable transgression in the wording of this answer, although it should be clarified. Still a fine answer. – Jason C Apr 3 '17 at 15:02
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    Since 'coney' was derived from the dutch 'konijn' (pronounced co-nine), it is surprising to me that anyone would pronounce it as cunny. – Spork Apr 3 '17 at 17:23
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    Per the OED, coney didn't just sound like cunny, it was cunny...or rather, what was originally a special slang use of the word coney (rabbit or rabbit pelt) has developed into the separate word cunny. Cf. pussy (the small, soft animal) and pussy (slang for female genitalia). Also, coney's origins are murky; it was multiply borrowed and evolved from similar words in Anglo-Norman and Old and Middle French. The OED agrees that the modern pronunciation of coney was probably at least partially influenced by a desire to avoid associations with both cunt and *cunny. – 1006a Apr 3 '17 at 20:36
  • "Cf. pussy (the small, soft animal) and pussy (slang for female genitalia). " -- english.stackexchange.com/questions/100990/… – Jim Balter Apr 5 '17 at 10:45
13

The Ice Cream Sundae likely was first spelled "Sunday" but the spelling was changed because people objected to a dessert being named after the Lord's day.

See The origin of ice-cream.

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    Just to be clear, this is an unconfirmed (albeit reasonable) theory. There isn't really evidence for or against it. I think this one will forever remain a mystery. – Jason C Apr 3 '17 at 23:41
  • Wow. If that's true that's some next level political correctness! – Mossi Apr 4 '17 at 1:01
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    I heard that it was called Sundae because it was against the law to make an ice cream soda on Sundays. But then again that was off of the back of the same cereal box that said you have different zones on your tongue for sweet/sour, which turns out to be false – Wayne Werner Apr 5 '17 at 22:58
10

As per the question's example of change in spelling and word (i.e. "rappists" to "rapsters"), there are numerous words that have changed to a gender-neutral form, often to make them less patriarchal. For example:

  • Fireman → Firefighter
  • Policeman → Police officer
  • Chairman → Chair
  • He or She → They (as a singular)
  • Woman → Womyn (not exactly in regular usage)

In the case of the first three examples, Dictionary.com says

The use of -man as the last element in compounds referring to a person of either sex who performs some function… has declined a great deal in recent years

Google ngrams depicts the increase in usage of firefighter in recent years.

ngrams firefighter

And police officer.

ngrams police

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Apr 7 '17 at 11:05
8

Do proper nouns count? There's a town in Labrador called Sheshatshiu. Per the Wikipedia page on the settlement, this would have traditionally been spelled differently (the trailing 'u' being replaced by a 't'). In Innu-aimun, it would mean "a narrow place in the river", but in English it becomes "she excreted feces".

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    I think proper nouns count, although wikipedia doesn't cite any sources for that. Seems reasonable, though, but could use some more backing. Btw, this never stopped Lake Titicaca, heh. – Jason C Apr 4 '17 at 0:03
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    "I went to the zoo the other day, and they had no animals, except for one dog. It was a shih tzu." (Source unknown - possibly Tim Vine?) – Toby Speight Apr 5 '17 at 17:42
5

One proper-noun example is the Scottish island called Rum. According to Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rùm, "George Bullough changed the spelling to Rhum to avoid the association with the alcoholic drink rum". It was changed back in 1991, with an accent added.

4

It is thought that the British title "Earl" was used instead of its continental equivalent "Count" because the latter is close to "cunt". This is the opposite of the suggestion in the question: a Germanic word used instead of a Latin word.

From Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English by Geoffrey Hughes, page 20:

It is a likely speculation that the Normal French title Count was abandoned in England in favour of the Germanic Earl ([Anglo-Saxon] eorl, a nobleman, [Old Norse] jarl, a viceroy) precisely because of the uncomfortable phonetic proximity to cunt, which in Middle English could be spelt counte. The Earl/Countess conjugation is uniquely anomalous among English titles in that the partners are drawn from different word-stocks.

  • The English title earl was not “introduced”; there were earls in England before 1066. English earls were rather like French dukes, in that there was no one between them and the king; but (I've read somewhere) William, duke of Normandy, wanted to be the only duke in England, so he used Latin comes, French comte, to translate the English title. – Anton Sherwood Apr 9 '17 at 19:33
3

The origin of wheatear is:

probably a back-formation from Middle English whit ers "white arse", after the prominent white rump of many species.

I can't provide any evidence that it was intentionally changed for reasons of decency, rather than simply by the natural mutations of language.

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    Similarly, the fruit now known as a medlar was centuries ago known as an open-ars. This is an accurate description of what it looks like, viewed in the direction where once a flower grew. – nigel222 Apr 5 '17 at 16:11
2

darn for damn; Dictionary.com

tame curse word, 1781, American English euphemism for damn, said to have originated in New England when swearing was a punishable offense; if so, its spread was probably influenced by 'tarnal, short for Eternal, as in By the Eternal (God), favorite exclamation of Andrew Jackson, among others. Related: darned (past participle adjective, 1806); darndest (superlative, 1844).

The Oxford English Dictionary says:

Perversion of damn n., in profane use; ‘confound’.

1781 Pennsylvania Jrnl. 20 June In New England prophane swearing..is so far from polite as to be criminal, and many..use..substitutions such as darn it, for d—n it.

The Cambridge Dictionaries Online Blog, titled Gosh Darn it to Heck! says of the 1781 quotation:

(Note the uses of dashes, a convention that we still use; up until about 1700, damn would more likely have been printed in full.)

  • There are presumably plenty of other examples in this vein (heck for hell etc.) – Chris H Apr 5 '17 at 5:59
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    In general such words are known as minced oaths. – Tom Zych Apr 5 '17 at 8:20
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    @TomZych good link! ab2's answer, and minced oaths in general, are an excellent response to the OP and deserve a much higher vote. – Chappo Apr 6 '17 at 8:51
1

In Newfoundland kittiwakes are generally called "tickleaces". An older spelling is "tickle-ass" -- apparently they sometimes fly in very close formations. I'm not certain, though, whether the spelling changed to be less offensive or more phonetic. There are many other spellings listed in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English.

1

Bic, the company known for making pens, lighters, etc., was originally named after its founder, Baron Michel Bich. "Bich" was changed to "Bic" because the former looked like it would be pronounced "bitch."

Another company that changed its name for similar reasons was Jay's Potato Chips, which used to be called Japp's Potato Chips (named after their creator, Leonard Japp, Sr.). It was changed after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the homophone "Jap" began to have very negative connotations.

0

It's related because it is about spelling, and how these words change their meaning. I'm talking about website domains, and unfortunate urls.

  • www.swissbit.ch. (a Swiss penknife company)

  • Whorepresents.com (who represents.com)

  • Expertsexchange.com (experts exchange.com)

  • Penisland.net (pen island.net)

  • Therapistfinder.com (therapist finder.com)

For the complete list, see 30 Unintentionally Inappropriate Domain Names

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    They did not change the spelling though, did they? – Tomáš Zato Apr 4 '17 at 13:27
  • @TomášZato no, but they may have considered changing the website domain in some cases. – Mari-Lou A Apr 4 '17 at 14:03
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    @TomášZato I don't know about the others on that list but expertsexchange.com was "corrected" (see next sentence) to experts-exchange.com, which, in the realm of domain names, is effectively a spelling change. That said I've never been entirely sure if expertsexchange was the only original domain and was changed, or if expertsexchange was merely a second domain name that was later dropped. The difference does matter in this context. The whois record of both domains yields results that raise more doubts (and conspiracy theories) than answers. – Jason C Apr 4 '17 at 16:38
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    Don't forget Powergenitalia. The Italian branch of Powergen. Lovely name. Unforgettable. – RedSonja Apr 5 '17 at 7:59
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-2

They do this in movies and TV shows to get past censors. Battlestar Galactica replaced "fuck" with "frak", Farscape used "frell" and on Home Alone - Joe Pesci used "frick" and "frack". Though this isn't strictly a real life example.

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    I saw the movie Repo Man on TV many years ago, and at one point a policeman rather quaintly yelled "Freeze, melonfarmer!" – Jeremy Apr 3 '17 at 12:10
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    Firefly's "gorram" is another example (although their general strategy for getting past censors was to curse in Mandarin). Also, this answer may be more applicable than you think, you could argue that some of these words have attained a permanent home in various niche lexicons. – Jason C Apr 3 '17 at 15:10
  • Not to mention Dingo's Kidneys – Peter Mortensen Apr 4 '17 at 5:39
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    I'd say that SciFi and fantasy universes often replace swearwords not just to avoid censorship but primarily to give their world a sense of authenticity. Almost every fantasy and sci-fi world has it's own curses, just as it has it's own religions and other terms. Especially, if (racism is involved)[tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/FantasticSlurs] (warning: TVTropes). – Tomáš Zato Apr 4 '17 at 13:29
-2

Many Irish comedians use Feck instead of Fuck. See Father Ted and Dara O'Briain. I seem to remember Dara having a segment in one show where he says Feck is not really an Irish word at all, just something to get around the TV regulations (and it sounds cooler in an Irish brogue).

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    Many Irish comedians use it because many Irish people in general use it. "Feck" is often held to be much less offensive than "fuck". – David Richerby Apr 3 '17 at 12:56
  • Which came first, Father Ted (1998) or the rise in Irish people saying Feck? :-) – Neil Apr 3 '17 at 13:57
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    Why would Irish people start saying "feck" in response to a British TV show? The OED has citations for "feck" going back to 1945, so it seems this answer is wrong. – David Richerby Apr 3 '17 at 14:06
-3

If something has a bad small, we call is "smelly." If something has a lot of salt, we call it "salty." In medicine, when a wound has a lot of puss, it was called "purulent" to avoid confusion with the various meanings of "pussy."

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    The word "puss" is not commonly used in medicine, except occasionally in veterinary circumstances. Perhaps you're thinking of "pus"? In any case, your reasoning is mistaken. – Chappo Apr 5 '17 at 21:13

protected by tchrist Apr 4 '17 at 18:37

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