Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

The Better Angels of Our Lexicon

Let's talk angels.

I don't mean the kind of angel so elegantly defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "A ministering spirit or divine messenger; one of an order of spiritual beings superior to man in power and intelligence, who, according to the Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and other theologies, are the attendants and messengers of the Deity."

Nope, the angels I'm referring to are a lot closer to the ground, though mostly inspired by the high-flying, heavenly sort: these angels are all euphemisms. Euphemistic senses of angel fly all over the lexical wilderness, though most of the following would be unwelcome on a shoulder.

a mark

The Dictionary of Regional English (DARE) defines this sense of angel as "an innocent; a prospective victim of a swindle" and traces it to 1935. A 1964 citation indicates an angel "can be depended upon to buy unsound horses." I guess this euphemism plays on the notion that angels are too pure to consider the possibility of being swindled — and are therefore susceptible to being hornswoggled. Note to self: try to convince my guardian angel to buy a bridge.

a dustball

DARE traces angel as a synonym for a dust bunny to 1950. I like this term a lot. It makes living in squalor feel downright heavenly.

a prostitute

According to Green's Dictionary of Slang, an angel has been the kind of woman who works for a companionator since at least 1600. Apparently, this coinage was originally specific to sex workers who hung around North London's Angel public house. On the other end of the chastity spectrum, an angel has also meant a young woman, particularly one who is unmarried. This has some disturbing spin-offs such as swamp angel: a southeastern Missouri term for a young lady from the swamps, the sticks, or nowheresville that is probably also the name of a Lynyrd Skynyrd song.

a blip

Here's a meaning more in tune with the mysterious, magical, unexplained nature of angels, as explained in this 1947 Oxford English Dictionary (OED) use: "Radar equipment..has given fairly consistent unexplainable echoes at altitudes between approximately 300 and 3000 yards. For want of a better term, these echoes have been dubbed ‘Angels' by Signal Corps personnel." Interestingly, these angels often turn out to be feathered friends of a different sort, as seen in these examples from 1958 ("A Swiss biologist, working with British radar equipment at Zurich airport, proved that ‘angels' were the echoes from small birds on migration.") and 1962 ("A substantial proportion of angel echoes are indeed attributable to birds.").

a height

This sense is inspired by the location of angels: up. It's a military term defined in a 1946 OED example as "a measurement of one thousand feet in height, used in the air combat code." As shown in this 1943 use, this is a logical and poetic way of measuring a heavenward journey: "We climbed into sun, Woody advising us to get as much angels as possible." That meaning is far less depressing than another military euphemism defined on Grant Barrett's sadly defunct website Double-tongued Dictionary: an angel as a dead soldier. Barrett found an example from the Los Angeles Times in 2004 indicating that, at least among some Marines, bloodless terms such as HR (human remains) and KIA (Killed in Action) gave way to angels, with one Marine saying "That's what we're comfortable with: They're our angels, going home."

a dish

I wouldn't call this a euphemism exactly, but angels on horseback sound so delicious I must write about them until I can eat them. An OED citation from 1900 is absolutely mouth-watering: "Angels on Horseback, now — those delicious little morsels of oysters rolled in bacon, and served on crisp toast."

a theft

Here's a term that would make a devil blush: angel off. Green's defines it as "to rob a drug dealer's customers immediately after they have bought their supplies." However, the one example from 1966 suggests that angeling off is less about robbery and more about policework. It seems to be a tactic of busting customers who can be squeezed for info on a known dealer, and also "just to make business rough" for the dealer. Speaking of illegal substances, be wary when buying what you might assume to be delicious pasta: angel hair is a synonymous variation of angel dust (which the OED traces back to 1969). So is angel puke.

a freckle

Angel kisses are freckles, which strikes me as kind of crazy. I always assumed freckles were kisses from demons or orcs. A similar term — angel's kiss — is rhyming slang for a popular word that means urination.

Finally, does your business have any angels?

You've likely heard the sense of angel as a financial backer, which the OED traces to 1891 and especially applies to "one who supports a theatrical production." However, it can have a more specific meaning. As Green's puts it, an angel is "a rich backer of a large-scale crime."

I choose not to be such a diabolical angel for ethical reasons (and also because I'm broke). Yet I do enjoy this extremely unangelic sense of angel. You could say this type of angel is a job creator, and it could apply to some of the most despicable and demented jobs in the world. Sweatshops have angels. Cartels have angels. Ponzi schemes have angels.

In the recently announced Star Wars Episode 7, perhaps we will learn that the treacherous galactic empire run by Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader has an angel. My money's on Donald Trump.


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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:

Friday November 9th 2012, 1:41 PM
Comment by: Rain
I learned a lot about angels from this article. I already knew about some of them, like theatrical backing angels and angel dust, but some were news to me, like dust bunnies and sex-trade workers.

I have clipped a small metal angel to the sun visor over the driver's seat in my car. It reads, "Don't drive faster than your guardian angel can fly."
Friday November 9th 2012, 10:36 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
There's also "angel hair," a sticky, cobweb-like substance reported in connection with UFO sightings.
Saturday November 10th 2012, 10:43 AM
Comment by: keith M. (Kula, HI)
I was better informed re/alternative uses for the word "angel"after reading Mr. Peter's essay. I will quibble with the use of the word "euphemism" in the article. I checked my OED, and the etymology and they don't seem to apply to the variation of the use of the word angel. Is there a more accurate word that could have been used? Keith Mac Kula, Maui

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