Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

An Oodle of Euphs from Green's Dictionary of Slang

Every month I collect and inspect a plethora of sneaky terms from sources far and wide, to share a laugh over the human race's ludicrous attempts at lexical trickery. This month, the euphs are all coming from a single source I wish to celebrate: Green's Dictionary of Slang (GDoS). This is the largest damn slang dictionary in the world, and it's now online.

Jonathon Green has been collecting slang for decades, building his enormous dictionary on a foundation of research and examples, just like the Oxford English Dictionary. Unless the wonderful (but incomplete) Historical Dictionary of American Slang ever gets finished, there is no challenger to GDoS for the English Slang Heavyweight Championship of the World. Get thee a subscription, word-lovers and slang-sippers! To whet your appetite, here are a few terms from GDoS that drift into the euphemistic side of the road.

Covent Garden gout
This term sounds like a rather specific type of gout, and it surely is: Covent Garden gout is venereal disease. This term is not approved by the Covent Garden Chamber of Commerce.

put the burn on
This expression has had a few non-notable meanings such as "to pressurize" and "to stare aggressively." But an older meaning pulls this idiom directly into the orbit of euphemisms: putting the burn on can mean, as they say on Breaking Bad, to send someone to Belize. In other words, to murder someone.

abstractionist
Nothing attracts slang like crime. In fact, the first slang dictionaries were collections of criminal cant. Here's one of the most dry, effective, cloak-y euphemisms I've ever heard, circa the 1840s and the U.S.: an abstractionist is a pickpocket. This comes from the sense that abstracting removes a meaning, much as a thief removes a wallet. My apologies to Jackson Pollack.

churchyard cough
Around since the late 1600s, this term is not used by any current physicians, not even Dr. Doom. If you had a churchyard cough, your cough was so bad it was likely to be the end of you. A close relative that's even grimmer is churchyard luck. Green describes that 1880s term as "cruel but pragmatic, the loss of one extra mouth to feed is 'lucky' for the penniless parents." Indeed, churchyard luck makes The Walking Dead seem like The Powerpuff Girls.

make a hole in the water
Suicide, as they say, is not the answer, and its taboo nature makes it a word many hesitate to even say. GDoS contains many evasive terms for this self-destructive act, but making a hole in the water is a particularly vivid and disturbing idiom for suicide by drowning. This expression has been around since the 1800s. This is Green's earliest example with this sense, from Western Times: "A pot-boy [...] and his 'lady love' were severally charged with an attempt to commit suicide. The frail damsel sought to make a hole in the water, but was prevented by her gallant." Nice job, pot-boy (a waiter or bus boy, FYI).

frogskin
This is more dysphemic than euphemistic, but what the heck: frogskin, since the early 1900s, is a term for a dollar bill. Sometimes the term takes the skin of frogs in vain: it can also refer to a counterfeit bill.

channel swimmer
GDoS collects oodles of drug-related terms, and a full oodle is related to one of the most devastating drugs of all: heroin. One of the most inventive, though icky, such terms is channel swimmer. This refers to a heroin addict, and the "channel" is the vein into which the drug is injected. Similarly, if the addict misses the vein, they missed the channel.

beam me up, Scotty!
At the risk of making Gene Roddenberry roll over in his escape pod, here's another druggie term that has nothing to do with snorting dilithium crystals. Since the 70s, this popular catchphrase had a common, unremarkable meaning of "Get me outta here!" But since at least the early 1990s, this has also been an expression meaning, "Give me some drugs!" The drug has most often been crack cocaine.

make crooked spindles
This term refers to a wife cuckolding her husband, as the kids used to say. Why spindles? Well, spindle was a euphemism for a part of the anatomy I'm terrified to name, excepted by a scientific term such as dingaling.

drop off the shopping
This is a recently recorded term found in Ireland, and it resembles expressions such as "drop the kids off at the pool." But drop off the shopping is a considerably more subtle and dainty way to say you have taken the Browns to the Super Bowl.

dratsab
These days, being born out of wedlock isn't considered a mortal sin or even particularly embarrassing: we've evolved as a species, at least a tad. But bastardry has long been the seed of insults, most of which turn up in the slang vocabulary. This one likely invokes the sense of a bastard as a mega-jerk, since it turned up relatively recently, in the 1990s. Dratsab is simply a backwards spelling of bastard. Fact: If you can trick a bastard into saying dratsab, nothing will happen.

Chicago overcoat
Since I live in Chicago, I'm a sucker for terms such as this, though I hope to avoid the referent for quite some time: a Chicago overcoat is a coffin. Like similar terms, this arose in the 1920-30s when Chi-town was known for tea parties and knitting circles—er, mob violence. Related lingo includes Chicago piano (a Thompson sub-machinegun), Chicago pills (bullets), and Chicago lightning (gunfire). Thank goodness Chicago is peaceful and crime-free today.


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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.

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Comments from our users:

Sunday November 20th 2016, 8:49 PM
Comment by: Judith D.
Thank goodness.
Tuesday December 6th 2016, 11:18 AM
Comment by: Lisa W.
I've heard athletes also use 'put the burn on,' to infer a sick workout!

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