Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Torment It! Euphemisms from the Dictionary of American Regional English

One of the happiest occasions in dictionary and word-nerd history occurred recently when the Dictionary of American Regional English — a project five decades in the making — published its final volume. This historical dictionary of words and phrases that do not ring out from sea to shining sea is one of the most ambitious works of lexicography ever. To call it a wealth of lexical riches would be the understatement of the eon. It is a whoopensocker (“Something extraordinary of its kind”).

Among the many terms and turns of phrase are some of the freshest euphemisms that have ever caught my ear or struck my eyes. Here’s a sampling. In some areas of the country, folks will know just what you mean; in others, they will be paralyzed with confusion. No matter where you reside, these terms will allow you to join the tradition of down-home, fresh-baked, half-baked, all-American malarkey.

White House

Readers of previous columns know I love a good term for an outhouse, but this might be my all-time favorite. White House seems so fitting given the base nature of our political system, which is ever at home in the sewer. White House is a cousin of similar outhouse-describing terms such as federal building, government house, and Roosevelt. At least in Wyoming, people who need to see a man about a dog also say they’re going to see the President’s wife.

war department

I know little of war departments, but not because I’m a civilian, a pacifist, or a resident of regions far from the southern and western states where this term is used. Rather, my ignorance is caused by my singleness, since this is a humorous (at least from a piggish male perspective) term for a wife.

smaller states

I knew that Alaskans referred to the rest of the U.S. as the lower 48, but it turns out we’re also known as the smaller states. In one of the hugest smaller states, a Texas tortoise is a gopher. That’s one of many amusing terms from the Longhorn State such as Texas canary bird (a mule), Texas nightingale (a donkey), Texas itch (mange), and Texas time (a space-time continuum, or maybe just a state of mind, where people are leisurely and/or late). Bonus euph: Tennessee chicken (also known as Arkansas chicken or Georgia chicken) means pretty much any kind of meat except chicken, whether pork, rabbit, or (hopefully not) long pig.

where it doesn’t snow

This is a term for hell used in similarly sweltering regions such as Texas. Another of the many euphemisms for hell substitutes the place for what goes on there: torment. Thatcan also be a weakened form of damn as in “Torment it!” On the other hand, it’s snowing down south means a woman’s slip is showing.

termination dust

Speaking of the white stuff, here’s an Alaskan term for the first snow of the year. Why termination dust? As explained in a 1965 use “The first snow...marks the end of the construction season and the termination of the job.” This is a great example of how people use humorous language to deal with the continuous crapstorm of everyday life. If snow is a thorn in your side, why not give that thorn an appropriately thorny name?

tooth carpenter

This term for a dentist is a little more dysphemic than euphemistic, but as somewhat of an anti-dentite, I like it. It reminds me of tree surgeon: a woodpecker.

swoggled

What makes DARE such a pleasure is the earthy, meaty, folksy creativity of so many terms, like this euphemism for damned. Here a use and an explanation from New York State in 1894: “’Wal, may I be everlastingly swoggled!’ she ejaculated. From a Durkey Points standard this was a fearful curse for a church member.” I like words that would fit comfortably in the mouth of Yosemite Sam, and I’ll be swoggled if this isn’t one of them.

Sunday cow

English has many oddball synonyms for BS, like farmyard confetti. Here’s another beauty, found in Alabama. A Sunday cow is a bull, in the sense of poppycock or horsepucky. Sunday is the basis of quite a few euphs: a Sunday baby is a bastard, a Sunday milkshake is a beer, and a Sunday-school word is a dirty word.

thunderation

I mentioned blamenation in last month’s column on euphemisms from Green’s Dictionary of Slang, and this is another cousin of tarnation and damnation. This one is used in many regions in some surprising ways, including as an adverb, as seen here in 1835: “I don’t know as I can say he was so all darned thunderation fat.” Here’s another use from 1852: “And all fur your good, too, ef you warn’t so thunderation blind you couldn’t see it.” If you can’t tell, I am durned thunderation stoked about this word.

Of course, these words are just the tip of the tip of the tip of the lexical-berg. The euphs are piled high in DARE, along with every other type of word. Do yourself a solid and get thee to a library or bookstore to check out the latest volume of DARE, along with the previous four tomes. The work of Joan Hall, the late Frederic Cassidy, and company will make you pleasantly swimmy-headed (dizzy). I’d let you borrow mine, but I called snooksies (dibs) on it for the next decade.


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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:

Wednesday April 4th 2012, 11:23 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
I'm heading for the bookstore! Thanks for launching my day so brightly!

The Happy Quibbler
Saturday April 14th 2012, 2:11 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Lovely, and much needed reference work. I should get it to search out the Pennsylvania Dutch 'isms' of my youth!

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