Pregnancy metaphors from around the world
Pregnant was something of a metaphor when it first started being used in relation to a baby. Its earlier meaning (which is still in use) was ‘full of meaning, highly significant’, and the word pregnant began being used as a synonym for the more self-explanatory term with child.
There are plenty of historical synonyms for pregnant in English: heavy, great-bellied, teeming, bagged, bound, pagled, and gestant, to name a few. Today’s post is more interested in phrases or expressions than single words, and British English seems particularly replete with euphemisms for pregnancy – but we’ve also taken a look around some other languages to see how they address the issue.
Bun in the oven
You might say that you have a bun in the oven – punning on the growing of a cake in the oven and the development of a foetus in the womb. The same expression is used in Italian (una pagnotta nel forno) and Swedish (en bulle i ugnen), while in Danish you’d have a cake in the oven (en kage i ovnen). Things are on a slightly grander scale in German, where you’d have a roast instead of a bun: einen Braten in der Röhre haben.
Bacon in the drawer
It’s all change in French, where you might have un lardon dans le tiroir (bacon in the drawer) or – leaving the world of food behind – un Polichinelle dans le tiroir. A Polichinelle is the French term for Pulcinella (often called Punch or Punchinello in English), a stock commedia dell’arte character which originated in the 17th century. An open secret is also known as a secret de Polichinelle.
Up the pole
English has various euphemisms for pregnancy which start with the words up the, but they aren’t necessarily related – except by the fact that you wouldn’t use them in formal writing (or polite society). Up the pole and up the stick refer to the place a monkey is said to find itself (according to the Oxford Dictionary of Euphemisms) though it may also have less salubrious phallic connotations.
Up the pole has had various other definitions (ranging from ‘in confusion and error’ and ‘in trouble’ to ‘strait-laced’ or ‘crazy’). The earliest known use of up the pole for ‘pregnant’ is found in James Joyce’s celebrated and linguistically innovative novel Ulysses.
Up the duff
While up the pole came from Irish English, up the duff is first found in Australian English. Though its origins are uncertain, it may relate to duff in the sense of a pudding boiled or steamed in a cloth bag (which began life as Northern English pronunciation of dough). It’s thus in a similar line to bun in the oven, and the analogous in the pudding club.
Up the spout
The term up the spout originally meant ‘pawned, pledged’ (where a spout was a lift used in a pawnshop). It could also figuratively mean ‘in a bad way, in a hopeless condition, out of the question’. When used as a slang term for ‘pregnant’, it may relate to this figurative sense – as it was initially usually said of pregnancies outside of marriage – but it has also been argued (again in the Oxford Dictionary of Euphemisms) that it ‘comes from a shell rammed into a rifled barrel from which, the copper band having been engaged in the steel groove, it can only be extracted with danger and difficulty’.
Again, not one you’d want to use when at your most respectful, in pig is one of several references to pregnant animals which has been transferred, either humorously or derogatorily, to pregnant women. One of the earliest examples of this transferral, which is also perhaps one of the most remembered, comes from Nancy Mitford’s 1945 novel The Pursuit of Love: ‘I am in pig, what d’you think of that?’ Others in the same line include in foal, in calf, in pup, and (turning from fauna to flora) in pod; one can also be in the spud line. Danish looks to fish eggs with at være med rogn (‘to be with roe’).
In the family way
A slightly earlier sense of in the family way or in a family way is ‘with or as with family; in a domestic manner; informally’, and the sense ‘pregnant’ dates to the late 17th century. This one has historically also been used of a man about to become a father.
Stung by a serpent
The Oxford Dictionary of Euphemisms adds the explanation ‘the common imagery of the penis as a snake, in this instance leaving an unwanted mark’. The idea of a mark also finds its way into the French être en cloque, which means ‘to be blistered’.
This one got its very own Judd Apatow film title, with the release of Knocked Up in 2007. To knock up has any number of senses, from ‘make even the edges of a pile of loose sheets by striking them on a table’ in bookbinding and score runs in cricket to ‘put together hastily’ and ‘arouse by knocking at the door’. It’s not clear where the sense ‘to make a woman pregnant’ (and thus knocked up for ‘pregnant’) comes from, but it’s been around over two centuries, originally in American English. It’s spread into other languages as well: in Danish ‘to get knocked up’ is at være blevet bollet tyk while in Swedish vara på smällen is ‘being knocked up’.
Expectant (and other gentler terms)
If this is all getting a bit risqué, then you might want to turn to expectant or expecting. The earliest known use of expectant as an adjective for ‘expecting the birth of one’s child’ is actually expectant father (from the early 19th century). Continuing the abstract theme, you might be expecting a happy event – which you can also do in French (attendre un heureux évènement), while in Italian you’d essere in dolce attesa, which loosely translates as ‘be in sweet waiting’. Chinese, meanwhile, offers 有喜. To translate it literally, it could mean ‘some great things happen’.
In Polish you could be ‘at/with hope’ (przy nadziei), in an ‘altered state’ (w odmiennym stanie), or in a ‘blessed state’ (w stanie błogosławionym). Swedish isn’t always so delicate about the issue: vara på tjocken directly translates as ‘being fat’.