Evasive Maneuvers

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.

a horse

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.

a crowbar

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.

a bedbug

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.

a painter

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.

a disease

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.

a bum

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?

an exclamation

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!"

a bathroom

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."

a killer

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.


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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:

Thursday May 2nd 2013, 2:33 AM
Comment by: Phil H. (Thessaloniki Greece)
It also collocates with "forger," as in this passage from Bartleby. The grub-man is speaking about Bartleby to his former employer, who has come to visit the scrivener in the Tombs, where he has been jailed as a vagrant:
"Well now, upon my word, I thought that friend of yourn was a gentleman forger; they are always pale and genteel-like, them forgers"

And a "walking gentleman" is a bit player in a theatrical troupe.
Saturday May 4th 2013, 11:03 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Not sure if this really qualifies, but there's also the expression "gentleman farmer," which seems like it has both a denotative aspect (someone who farms for amusement, presumably because he doesn't actually need to) and a connotative one (an amateur). I don't know offhand, tho, whether we could add "gentleman" a prefix for other vocations to indicate the same.

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