Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Son of a Basket! More Regional Euphemisms

The Dictionary of American Regional English — one of the most massive, impressive, unique works of lexicography ever, and winner of the American Library Association's 2013 Dartmouth Award for excellence in reference books — recently published its index, meaning the whole thing is available in print. This is great news that should tide word-lovers over till the whole shebang is available digitally.

Last year, I wrote about euphs from the fifth and final volume, and this time I'm going back to the beginning: Volume 1: A-C. I'll revisit DARE with a column on Vol. 2 before long, but for now, enjoy the following Americanisms. These terms hail from all around this sprawling, sass-talking country of ours. Feel free to print and read in the Andy.

Andy

What's an Andy, you say? An Andy is an outhouse, as seen in a 1947 citation: "This type of architecture was known in the northern counties as an 'Andy,' whence the juvenile euphemism, 'Going to the Andes.'" The Andes are also known as Aunt Jane's room.

basket

Like biscuit, basket is used Mad Libs-style to avoid strong words like bitch and bastard. There are also examples of "Son of a birch!" and "Son of a biscuit-eater!" in DARE. I guess any b-word would work, so feel free to improvise your own, along the lines of "Son of a bowling ball!" Bonus family-friendly exclamations: Besides being part of several menstrual euphemisms, Aunts are used in minced oaths like "My Aunt Nellie!" and "Great Aunt Hattie!"

animal

The word bull has long been besmirched by BS, the most common element in the world. That's why the innocent, non-malarkey-producing bull has been euphemized in many ways over the years, including the word animal. The term animal fertilizer is a close relative, as are beast, brute, and critter. Cow has also been a common replacement, both by itself and in terms such as cowbrute, cow critter, cow's husband, and cow topper. An unrelated Texas idiom means the opposite of bull: telling someone how the cow ate the cabbage is telling them the blunt truth.

basement

Returning to the theme of going to the Andes, this Texas term for "A toilet room in a public school" naturally evolved from the frequent location of the commode. A 1970 use contains a pretty good anecdote: "His son had been corrected by the first grade teacher when he asked if he might go to the toilet. 'You must say basement," the teacher scolded. Now the child has convinced his entire family that the path behind the house leads to the basement." Bonus bathroom term: Elmer Fudd's favorite hobby isn't always literal. Chasing the rabbit means going to the bathroom in parts of Massachusetts.

back of the lap

This is a classic example of the simple yet powerful creativity of euphemisms: the back of the lap is the butt, at least in Wisconsin. It's a worthy addition to your repertoire of synonyms for what I like to think of as the bippy or wazoo. Speaking of the badonkadonk, ace-over-apex is a tasteful, Pennsylvania variation of the expression ass-over-teakettle.

break one's leg

This is a term for landing in the pudding club: in other words, being pregnant. On the other hand, breaking one's arm is bragging, so-called because of the vigorousness with which someone is patting themselves on the back. A similar term is far crappier: to cut one's foot is to step in dung, which I don't recommend if you literally cut your foot first.

cute

Kittens are cute. Babies are cute. Hamsters are cute. Well, hopefully not in the sense used in Arkansas and elsewhere, where this is a euphemism for bow-legged. DARE informants indicate that this term has been favored by women and older folks who found bow-legged an indelicate word. As a dog-lover, I must point out that bulldog puppies are cute in both senses.

bagodbajees

This longer version of bejesus barely qualifies as a euphemism, but it is a slight attempt to not say the names of God or Jesus. Speaking of Jesus, the name Christ is euphemized by more words than you can shake the Shroud of Turin at: besides common ones like cripes, DARE records crackers, cracky, cramp, creation, creekers, crimps, crow, and cry-eye.

consarned, contwisted

These two euphemisms for damned are part of one of my favorite categories of words: terms that Yosemite Sam could plausibly say when discussing varmints. A non-euphemistic but awesome variation is contwistification, which was "a devious maneuver" in mid-1800's Virginia.

bees swarm

This Ozarks term should be clear from this 1953 use: "At Granby, Missouri, when a man's wife was about to be delivered of a child, a friend said to the husband, 'Well, Tom, it looks like your bees are a-swarmin'.'" In other words, bees swarm when a baby is born, so maybe this term is related to the birds and the bees.

Let's finish with another term from the Ozarks: build a pigpen, which is a type of cheating or swindling. It's explained in this 1953 use: "Woodcutters pile firewood pigpen-fashion in their wagons, to make the load appear larger than it really is. I have heard a backwoods politician charge the President of the United States with buildin' pigpens."

That's a charge made of every President, I reckon. Accusing the President of buildin' pigpens is as American as using terms as creative, charming, and flat-out cool as buildin' pigpens.

Long may we oink.


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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:

Tuesday February 5th 2013, 1:41 PM
Comment by: Cody (Eugene, OR)
I wasn't surprised to see the use of "B" words as euphemisms for less acceptable words. Several years ago, when I decided that I wanted to stop talking like a truck driver (or old flower child, which I was), I began to say, "hell's bells and bananas" whenever I was upset, angry, frustrated, etc. It worked! Sometimes I say simply, "Bananas!" Once in a while someone asks me what it means (nothing) but I no longer speak inappropriately in business meetings or other gatherings. I was able to stop a 30-year swearing streak that began in the late sixties! Now I appear to be a respectable grown-up.
Wednesday March 6th 2013, 12:49 PM
Comment by: mike H. (san diego, CA)
I think part of allure of the success of b words such as biscuit and basket is the tension of will the speaker slip up and say bitch instead of biscuit.

Mike

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