Euphemisms old and new
Gentleman Turkeys and Other High-Class Gobbledygook
Do gentlemen exist anymore?
The word feels old-fashioned and paleolithic in the era of dudes, bros, and creeps. However, the word gentleman has a long, vibrant history as a euphemism. That history is worth celebrating. In the spirit of a recent column on angels, here's a look at the critters and crimes gentleman has coddled and concealed.
Gentlemen, start your euphemisms.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines the phrase quite a gentleman as being "a laudatory description of a horse." It's used here in a Daily News story from 1889: "A trained and massive bay carthorse..who in pacing, prancing and stepping to music proved himself every inch a gentleman." An 1894 example vividly describes a horse as "a gentleman all over." This meaning is, according to my sources, goofy.
I stumbled on this euphemism last month, when I plumbed the depth of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang for euphs. Turns out a gentleman has been a crowbar as far back as 1807: this has something to do with the crowbar's ungentlemanly use as a thief's tool. Gentleman has also been a term for a smuggler, and a gentleman of the drop is a con man, so a crowbar being a gentleman makes some sense. Comic book fans will remember a famous story from the '90s in which the Joker beat Robin to death with a gentleman.
Bedbugs have been known to nest in the sheets of the upper crust, the dregs of society, and everyone in between, so it's fitting that the little vermin are sometimes known as gentlemen. The OED records this use from The Daily Telegraph in 1885: "Bed bugs..are the disagreeable insects known in modern polite English as 'Norfolk Howards,' or 'gentlemen in brown.'" A creature who digs in yards instead of mattresses is named by a similar term: a gentleman in black velvet is a mole. Also, you can call the devil the gentleman in black or the old gentleman.
Green's Dictionary of Slang includes gentleman of the brush as a term for a painter. By extension, a performance artist could be called a gentleman or lady of the yam.
Green's records gentleman's complaint as a term for gonorrhea, but this use is not verified by WebMD. On the other hand, a gentleman's gentleman is a valet, butler, or other servant. So if a valet has gonorrhea, he has the gentleman's gentleman's complaint.
The OED defines to be a gentlemen as meaning "to have no work to do." No less than Charles Darwin used the term in 1859: "Now I am so completely a gentleman, that I have sometimes a little difficulty to pass the day." As an insufficiently employed freelance writer, I suppose I am partially a gentleman. Yay?
As longtime readers know, I am a connoisseur of absurd exclamations such as Ron Burgundy's "Knights of Columbus!" and DARE's "Son of a basket!" The word gentleman has fulfilled this role on occasion. Also in DARE, gentleman is listed as part of some ridiculous exclamations, such as this 1968 example: "Jehosaphat (sic) gentleman!"
It wouldn't be a euphemism column if I didn't include a euphemism for doing government business such as "I need to see a man about a dog." Gentleman has meant the little boy's room (or, as the OED puts it, "a public convenience for male persons.") Here the term is used in 1929 ("'You go and leave them in the Gentlemen.' 'Leave 'em in the lavatory?'") and 1933 ("Over on that platform's the general waiting-room,..and over there's the Gentlemen's, and, any'ow, everythink's written up.") Despite these precedents, it probably wouldn't sound right to say, "I need to see a man about a gentleman."
This term may not be a euphemism, but it sure is weird. The OED records it in an example from 1897: "Young Nicholson's dinner at Cabul with a company of gentleman-murderers." According to my secret decoder ring, a gentleman-murderer is simply a murderer. Sadly, we don't need this term to remind us that most murderers are fellas.
a male animal
In previous columns, I've noted that gentleman cow is a batty euphemism for a bull, whose name is avoided for fear of association with BS. However, this usage goes far beyond BS avoidance, as the OED records examples of gentleman-hound and gentleman-turkey.
I'd love to see this catch on. Why shouldn't we refer to gentleman kangaroos, gentleman cockroaches, gentleman aardvarks, gentleman bonobos, gentleman Komodo dragons, and gentleman naked mole rats?
Well, I'd better wrap up this column. Spring weather has finally arrived, and my gentleman rat terrier is hankering to go to the park to chase some gentleman squirrels.