Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Blisters and Blamenation! More Euphs from Green's

I can't get through a column without citing Green's Dictionary of Slang. This biggest-ever slang dictionary, edited by Jonathon Green and published last year, is my favorite book.

I devoted a whole column to Green's last May, and I'm doing it again. The mission statement of this column is "Thou shalt find euphemisms that lurketh beneath the radar." Green's is one of the best possible sources of such terms. So here's a bevy of dodges, evasions, and ludicrous turns of phrase I learned through Green's. They are a type of poetry: a poetry of poppycock.

bit of nonsense

As a euphemism columnist, I am a nonsense collector. So are Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, at least according to this 20th century UK term for a mistress. It turns out bit is part of plenty of totally euphemistic, kinda sexist, sorta ridiculous terms. Doing a bit of ladies' tailoring is sex, while a bit of good, bit of stuff, and bit of all right all mean a young woman, and a bit of tripe is a wife. I'm not married, but I assume talking about a bit of stuff with your bit of tripe could get you in a bit of trouble.

privy council

The first part of this term isn't euphemistic: a privy has been a place where one does government business (a euphemism for numbers one and/or two) since about 1200. It's the addition of council that makes this term so silly and wonderful. William S. Burroughs used it in 1959's Naked Lunch, writing "...I got business in the Privy Council." Government business, I presume.

tears of the tankard

What a poetic-sounding phrase! The tears of the tankard... What sadness is summarized by this alliterative idiom? What romantic notion could be conveyed by this term, dating from the late 1600's? Well, these tears aren't salty, but rather, as Green puts it, "drops of liquor that fall onto the careless drinker's clothing." Presumably, if the tears of the tankard fall onto a white shirt, they could lead to tears of the drunkard.

house of profession

When a term is this vague, you know something's sketchy. In this case, the source of that sketchiness is a brothel, as used by Shakespeare: "I am as well acquainted here as I was in our house of profession: one would think it were Mistress Overdone's own house, for here be many of her old customers." Speaking of sex work, another 16th century term — squire of the petticoat­ — is a pimp.

blamenation

I knew about tarnation from my careful study of Yosemite Sam, but blamenation was a new one to me. This sugar-coated version of damnation was used in the 1800's, and here's an 1864 use: "Hurt! Blisters and blamenation, so ye is!"

oil of gladness

Used in the late 1700's and early 1800's, this term means "a beating; often in phrase I will annoint you with the oil of gladness." What a beautiful expression. It's so much classier than "It's clobberin' time!" I want a mixed-martial artist, professional wrestler, or spandex-clad vigilante to revive this term stat.

Ringsend handshake

Speaking of violence, this term for a kick in the Charlie Browns (to use a Buster Bluth term for the testicles) is a powerful reminder to stay the heck out of Ring's End, Ireland. It's been used since at least the 1950's. I wager that a Ringsend handshake is likely to end an Irish parliament (barroom brawl). Bonus euphemism: A Ringseld handshake is also known as the Oppenheimer technique.

right guy

This 20th century term has a few meanings that strongly distinguish it from Mr. Right. The first sounds like a real compliment until you get to the sixth word in the definition: "a trustworthy person, esp. in criminal terms." Like the non-praise-y praise model prisoner, you probably don't want to be known as a right guy. Speaking of inmates, the other meaning mentioned by Green is "a popular prisoner, respected by his peers." Again, not the kind of thing your mom is going to want to mention in her Christmas letter, unless it doubles as a letter of recommendation to a cartel.

timber-doodle

This 19th century term for "any form of spurious liquor" was bound to catch my eye, since I love terms such as flapdoodle, fopdoodle, dipsy-doodle, labradoodle, and peedoodles.

I wrote about peedoodles here after finding it in another remarkable word book, the Dictionary of American Regional English, which (spoiler alert) will be the focus of next month's column. I'll be celebrating the publication of DARE's final volume with euphs culled from the long-awaited Volume V, Sl-Z.

Here's a DARE euph to whet your appetite: stretch the blanket. That term, which brings to mind the common stretch the truth, means to lie or just embellish the truth, especially in a tall tale. It's been used since the mid-1800s in places such as Tennessee and West Virginia, and I'm not stretching the blanket to say it would be fitting (and accurate) if it were used on the Kentucky-based show Justified, which I love.

Like euphemisms and slang, that show is intelligent, funny, and complex. The hero's a little trigger-happy, and even its right guys are just plain all right some of the time — though they do tend to poison the timber-doodle.


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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:

Wednesday March 7th 2012, 4:25 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom)
I wasn't quite sure if Mark meant to overlook the possibility that "privy" once merely meant "private". Britain, of course has a Privy Council. Once the Queen's close private advisers, it now serves as a name for the Supreme Court when it sits as a court of last resort for some of the Commonwealth.

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