Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Finding Distraction in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang

I've always been a bit of a prepper, but instead of hand grenades and soup cans, I collect books — especially dictionaries. So sometime during this interminable spring of social distancing and horrendous news, I got lost in Jonathan Lighter's wonderful Historical Dictionary of American Slang (HDAS).

I would share euphemisms from the whole dictionary, but it was never completed — one of the saddest stories in the increasingly bleak story of American lexicography. Instead, here's a look at euphemisms just from H, the holiest of slang letters. Even by restricting myself to one letter, I had to leave out plenty. HDAS is a treasure, and slang even more so.

H
Also a euphemism for heroin, this unassuming letter can take the place of a popular destination spot in the slang lexicon: hell. Others HDAS euphemisms for the infernal regions include Halifax and hallelujah.

hell buggy
Speaking of hell, war is. That's why a tank has been called a hell buggy. Similarly, napalm can be called hell jelly. That's more of a dysphemism than a euphemism, but whatever. Don’t put it on a sandwich.

hair case
I don't know why anyone would need an alternative to hat, but slang is about creativity, not necessity. A hair case covers your headbone.

hundred-mile coffee
This is the strong stuff, so-named because it will keep you awake long enough to drive 100 miles.

have a hairy canary
The hairy canary is a close relative of our bovine friends — having a hairy canary is just a more hirsute version of having a cow.

hamburgerhead
This is an alternative to meathead, an insult greatly popularized by All in the Family, which I recall watching on a cave wall during my youth in the days of yore. There's also hamhead. Speaking of words for dum-dums and nitwits, a hollowhead is an airhead.

call hogs
I've known a few people who call hogs — snore. If I were married to such a person, I think I would need my own moon base.

hogswallow
To hogswallow is to confound, confuzzled, bewilder, and gobsmack. I am hogswallowed by so many things these days.

hoisting engineer
A hoisting engineer is proficient and practiced at drinking. Hoisting engineers love, for example, hop juice (beer). They may wake up with whiskey in the hair (a hangover).

Hollywood shower
This isn't a euphemism for the latest plastic surgery routine that gives actors a freaky plastic sheen, not unlike being frozen in carbonite. This is a military term referring to any shower lasting more than three minutes.

honeyfuggle
I don't know how I missed this word when writing Bullshit: A Lexicon, but this is a synonym for BS, specifically baloney. A load of hooey is a lot of honeyfuggle.

hubcap hands
This is a baseball term for an affliction akin to butterfingers. A player with hubcab hands bungles catches and fly balls — the ball bounces off their clumsy paws. I for one would like to see Hubcab Hands become a new Batman villain.

humma-humma
Not sure this is really a euphemism, but it is a reduplicative word — one of my favorites lexical categories. A humma-humma — maybe an alternation of humdinger? — is a ruckus or brouhaha.

hunkum-bunkum
Again, not a euphemism, but reduplication makes my heart go pit-a-pat. This term, around since the 1800s, is an alteration of hunky-dory. Hunkum-bunkum does not seem to be a synonym for bunkum and bunk, but if you wanted to use it that way, I can't stop you. Another alteration of hunk-dory is hunky-dunky. Yet another is hunky-doodle.

We're living in times that are far from hunky-doodle, so take care of yourself. If you need to turn off the phone and bury your head in an old dictionary for a few hours, do it. Old words are the only kind of news I can stomach these days. They're a welcome refuge from Halifax.


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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 June 12th, 4:07 PM
Comment by: Don H. (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks for the amusing distraction.

"Hollywood shower" was the only one I recognized, from stories (or perhaps a single story) about life on submarines.
Monday June 15th, 4:00 AM
Comment by: Hotse L. (Lauderdale by the Sea, FL)
My first name is Hotse - never needed, nor got a nick-name. You can take it from there, if you so wish ...
Monday June 15th, 9:06 AM
Comment by: Charles H.
This is reminiscent of Poplollies and Bellibones. Thanks for the chuckles.
Thursday July 2nd, 11:53 AM
Comment by: Melanie L.
I also thought of Poplollies and Bellibones. I loved reading this article.

Some other books I have: Thou Improper, Thou Uncommon Noun by Willard R. Espy and Listening to America by Stuart Berg Flexner.

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