Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Holy Pretzel! Euphemisms from Green's Dictionary of Slang

The current love of my life is Green's Dictionary of Slang: an enormous, meticulous, ridiculously wonderful historical dictionary that's the biggest slang collection ever made (uncurated Wiki-crapola like Urban Dictionary doesn't count). Jonathon Green's slangapalooza is an extraordinary source for fulfilling this column's mission: finding under-the-radar euphemisms.

Euphemisms, you say? Isn't slang more dysphemic? Well, sure. The dysphemism is the euphemism's drunk, embarrassing, honest twin. Calling cigarettes and electric chairs coffin sticks and sizzle seats are great examples. When you refer to a pile of cash as a wad that would choke a wombat or a lunatic asylum as a giggle academy, you're solidly in the dysphemic realm. That's pretty much the slang wheelhouse.

And yet, as Green has shown, the slang wheelhouse is larger than any of us could have imagined. In three huge volumes — with tissue-thin paper and tiny print — there are oodles of terms that are dainty, obfuscating, batty, and concealing. Here are a few of the most delightful dumplings of doublespeak: all new to me until Green's came along. Warning: they may make you scratch your top-hamper (head).

have a man for breakfast

Get your mind out of the gutter and into the morgue: this one means "to discover a murdered body when one wakes in the morning," and it's been around since the rootin-tootin' cowpoke-shootin' era of 1863. I bet Yosemite Sam would love to have a varmint for breakfast.

have one's little hat on

As fans of Paul Dickson's magnificent collection Drunk know, there are roughly a bazillion and a half terms for being stinko, like blotto. A new one to me was to have one's little hat on. Warning to teachers and writers: never have more than two hats on while grading a paper or writing one.

Mr. Palmer is concerned

Here's an idiom that should make everyone named Palmer offended — except the crooks. This phrase, used since 1812, means "the matter involves bribery". Since I live in Chicago, where the corruption is thicker than the pizza, I'm going to start using this phrase immediately. It may help me get around a few wire-tap problems I've been having at the Euphemism Manor.

monthly bill

This is a term for menstruation used since 1919. I flunked health class, but I don't think you can pay this bill online.

go between the moon and the milkman

That sounds so poetic, but as with so much slang, it refers to something sketchy, specifically: "to abscond from a house or flat, taking one's furniture and possessions, but avoiding payment of any outstanding rent, utility bills, etc." That's shady behavior in any era, even back in the late 1800's, when milkmen still roamed the earth.

dingledork

A dingledork is a dingleberry, a concept beloved by all — at least all of us who are twelve. I can't think of dingle-whatevers without recalling the words of my favorite comedian, the late George Carlin, whose Life is Worth Losing DVD contains this trenchant commentary: "Another word you don't hear too often is dingleberries. You know, you never hear it on Meet the Press. The dingleberry solution. Dingleberry-gate. Nothing." Even beyond the grave, Carlin identified exactly what's missing from politics today. Operation Odyssey Dawn sounds silly. Operation Dingleberry Destiny would sound sublime.

see a man about a duck

Speaking of the bathroom, I knew seeing a man about a dog meant to drop the kids off at the pool, but I never knew you could see a man about a bow-wow, rose, horse, or duck — all variations recorded by Green. You can also "see a cat about a horse," but I prefer the quacky version. I have a soft spot for Peking duck, Daffy Duck, Scrooge McDuck, and Gary Larson's duck-centric cartoons. Though The Far Side is best remembered for the cows, Larson's ducks are underrated. In fact, when I die, please put these words on my tombstone: "So, Professor Jenkins! ... My old nemesis! ... We meet again, but this time the advantage is mine! Ha! Ha! Ha!"

sophisticated lady

The meaning of this term is neither sophisticated nor lady-like — it's cocaine. Less euphemistic coke synonyms in Green's include showbiz sherbet and Bolivian marching powder. Man, who needs drugs when you have such mind-altering words?

In the interests of journalism — and finding an excuse to email one of my lexicographical heroes — I wrote Green and asked for some of his favorite euphs. Mr. Slang mentioned some wonderful examples that "over-egg the custard by underlining their euphemistic sidestepping with puns". Unfortunately, most of his faves also over-egg the obscenity level I can mention in this column. Bummer. 

However, I can get away with mentioning one Green suggestion: "Anodyne necklace, hangman's noose, it's a 'pain killer'." Hanging (along with death in general) is oft-mentioned in Green's. John roper's window is a noose and to take the morning stroll is to be hanged. Such euphemisms are pain-killers themselves. If the human race is Dr. House, our vocabulary is an endless bottle of Vicodin, getting us through the day.

I'll take the morning stroll if you don't believe these terms are just the tip of the tip of the tip of the slangberg. If you have a chance to buy, browse, or steal Green's Dictionary of Slang, do it. I could lend you my copy, but you'll have to talk to my friend Mr. Palmer first. He is quite concerned, and who can blame him?


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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 5th 2011, 10:01 AM
Comment by: Russell C. (Wooster, OH)
Thanks for bringing this three-volume lexical behemoth to my attention, and contributing to my next marital skirmish as I try desperately to persuade my wife that $450 on books is a much better investment that $450 on luxuries such as food, clothes, and a couple of days of gas. I suppose the local college library is an alternative but I can't sit there in my skivvies at 2:00 am whilst looking for such gems as "fair clemmed" and "touching cloth."

My only slight disagreement with you is that I think the Urban Dictionary is actually one of the better pieces of "Wiki-crapola" out there, and it's a wonderful starting point for many adventures in current slanguage. Yes, there are many examples of egocentric hapax legomena tossed in there as hopefuls try to invent their own words and persuade the rest of the world they're worth using, but I think you can learn a lot about how people THINK about language from the comments and quotations you find there.

Other than that, thanks again for pointing me to a new source of pleasure that has more words and phrases than you can shake a stick at.
Thursday May 5th 2011, 11:13 AM
Comment by: Mark P. (Chicago, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks... And good points about the Wiki-crapola.
Tuesday May 10th 2011, 2:56 PM
Comment by: Mary M.
When I began talking to people who are from other cultures I found out how many euphemisms I use! And then trying to figure out what exactly I meant when I use such terms as "can't get blood from a turnip" has been interesting. I use terms without thinking because they were part of my upbringing. I heartily agree that dingleberry & dingledork are both underused.

But I was confused by your section on seeing a man about a dog. My dad used it to refer to any errand that he was going on by himself away from the house.

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