Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Jeebly-Beebly! Euphemisms from the Terrestrial Dimension (and St. Louis)

Charlie Sheen's ongoing meltdown has been a godsend for the lexicon. (Read VT supreme commander Ben Zimmer, Slate's Christopher Beam, or me for more.) But what has he done for the wild world of euphemisms?

The ultimate Sheen euphemism is probably bi-winning—a batty denial of the actor's possible bi-polar status. But my fave was coined on March 7, after the news hit that American's favorite Vatican assassin warlock was fired from Two and a Half Men. On that giant of puny journalism, TMZ, Sheen issued this response: "This is very good news. They continue to be in breach, like so many whales. It is a big day of gladness at the Sober Valley Lodge because now I can take all of the bazillions... and I never have to put on those silly shirts for as long as this warlock exists in the terrestrial dimension."

My decoder ring and critical-thinking skills have both been on the fritz since 1994, but I'm pretty sure terrestrial dimension = Earth. This might be the craziest thing Sheen has said so far. When's the last time he was on Earth?

Fortunately, yours truly has been roaming the terrestrial dimension night and day, if by "roaming" you mean lying on the couch, hanging at the coffee shop, and plundering dictionaries and the Web for lexical gold. Here are some of the gnarliest nuggets: use these terms early and often. Nosh on them nightly. Smoosh them in smoothies. Eat them with abandon. They contain absolutely no calories or common sense.

employee dialogue session

One of my employers, who shall go unnamed so they can continue to be so, recently used this humdinger of a term in an email. Like all bloated three-word malarkey-isms—including the much-mocked kinetic military action—it immediately set off my spidey sense, euphemism-dar, and women's intuition (to steal a joke from the late Leslie Nielsen). I guess I can't blame any business for shying away from the term meeting, which is synonymous with real-life pain that's been mined for comedy gold on The Office, Office Space, and Dilbert. Twitter's top humorist (http://twitter.com/badbanana) Tim Siedell has also done the topic proud with tweets such as "My primary objective in any meeting is to end the meeting" and "I didn't have to chew my leg off to get out of that boring meeting, but doing so certainly sent a strong message." Speaking of tweets, I stand by one of my own: "A day without a meeting is like a puppy without a puppy-eating python."

give someone the mitten

Last month, I mentioned the phrase going out for ice cream as a way of not saying "I'm kicking your keister to the curb" to a romantic partner. This month, it's the same topic and an even more euphemistic expression: giving someone the mitten, which I spied in Green's Dictionary of Slang, the recently published and thoroughly amazing work of Mr. Slang, Jonathan Green. This idiom has been used since the mid-1800's, and you can also give someone the frosty hand, the frosty mitt, the frosty paw, and the ice mitt. The OED includes this phrase, and it applies to other sorts of severed relationships, like this use in 1851: "At the Collegiate Institute of Indiana, a student who is expelled is said to get the mitten." I tweeted Jonathan Green for some insight into the term, and he wrote "Mitten = hand. The image is of handing someone a rejection. The hand in question is gloved (distaste?)" I have to say that sounds like a nice way of being dumped. Women are constantly giving me the cinder block.


English has a Jiminy Cricket-load of ways to avoid the word Jesus—like geez, jeepers, and Jehoshaphat—not to mention distortions like Jeebus, a Homer Simpson-ism. I spotted another on Twitter recently: "awwwww! Sweet jeebly-beebly! What a cutie the offspring was! :)" I like jeebly-beebly because, like other reduplicative terms such as higgledy-piggledy and jibber-jabber, it is more fun than a monkey in a top hat juggling kittens. Also, it reminds me of jeezum-peezum, another reduplicated Jesus evasion used by my Jamaican friend Coleen. Green's doesn't list jeezum-peezum, but it includes some close relations: jeezum, jeezum-crow, jeezy peezy, jeezy-wheezy, and jeezle-peezle. Also, jeezly dates from 1938 as a synoynm for darned. Well, I'll be jeezly.

Speaking of terms that make you say "Jumping Jesus on a jackalope!", my other friend Colleen—a writer and waitress—recently had a customer-service experience that included a euphemism as mysterious as a crop circle and much more annoying. A family ran up a $111 bill, but only left $120. Even a tip-challenged schmuck like Larry David would know that's not enough. Seemingly, so did the family, as the dad presented the measly cash along with these words: "Sorry we can't tip more. We're from St. Louis."

This mind-boggling comment is clearly a euphemism—but for what?

Does "We're from St. Louis" mean "We're cheap bastards," thus suggesting all St. Louisans are skinflints?

Maybe it means: "We're rubes! Whee-doggies, we don't know any better."

It could mean: "Man, Chicago is expensive. We're totally out of cash. In fact, we have to sell one of the kids to pay for gas money. Interested?"

We'll never know the answer, but I do know I've found an all-purpose excuse I'm going to drape over my sins, errors, boo-boos, screw-ups, and atrocities like a Snuggie. The next time I fart in church or obliterate the wrong planet with my Death Star, I can explain the ooopsie away: I'm from St. Louis, so cut me some slack.

FYI, I'm also new to the terrestrial dimension.

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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 6th 2011, 9:39 AM
Comment by: DoPhillips
Loved the article; I plan on using the, "Well, I'll be jeezly."

One phrase I've wondered about is, "I'll fix his/her little red wagon." Generally this phrase is used to express getting back at someone, but wouldn't one want his wagon to be fixed? It seems backward. Shouldn't we be smashing someone's little red wagon, instead?
Wednesday April 6th 2011, 10:04 AM
Comment by: Mitchelka (Boston, MA)
Great Googly-Moogly! Or is that a euphemism for an excellent search experience?
Wednesday April 6th 2011, 5:25 PM
Comment by: Mr. Natural (Sabaneta/Medellin Colombia)
Out-freakin-rageous my man! A Great read, the best laugh of the day!
Wednesday April 6th 2011, 5:30 PM
Comment by: Jackie (West Palm Beach, FL)
I think "fixing" someone's little red wagon is meant to be sarcastic.
That wagon is not really going to be "fixed". His most favorite toy is certainly going to be totally destroyed is what the speaker really means.
Wednesday April 6th 2011, 5:56 PM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
Thanks for an interesting article.

"Fixing" someone's wagon is certainly a common term for getting even. I suspect that "little red" was added for emphasis as well as to belittle the target of one's vengeance. "Fix" in this usage can be interpreted as sarcastic (VT gives this sense as one of the explicit definitions of "fix"). However, "fix" also means to fasten down, which would be a fine way to make someone's wagon (whose function is to move) unusable.

A quibble:
I suspect "Jehoshaphat" is standing in for "Jehovah" rather than "Jesus."
Wednesday April 6th 2011, 7:38 PM
Comment by: Chris B.
I'd say something profound, but I'm from St. Louis.
Wednesday April 6th 2011, 7:43 PM
Comment by: Eugenia R. (Metro-St. Louis, USA, MO)
OUCH!! (regarding the St. Louis, er...um, "excuse") By the way, we're not ALL like that...
Sunday April 10th 2011, 10:57 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Hey, up here in Winnipeg, "I can get it cheaper..." is a way of life! And no one worries a bit about our reputation!
Monday April 11th 2011, 12:10 AM
Comment by: ===Dan (Jersey City, NJ)
"Fix" in the sense you might fix an unsuspecting pet?

"We're from St. Louis" also might mean that the cost of the meal far exceeded "flyover-country" expectations, and they ran out of cash.
Tuesday April 12th 2011, 8:51 AM
Comment by: DoPhillips
I did an internet search to see what would pop up about the origin of the red wagon saying. Part of what I found is posted here. To see more follow the link at the bottom:
"FIX here is used in the ironic sense of dealing with or settling a score by doing ‘damage’ rather than repair. It was first recorded in this sense in 1833 in the expression FIX SOMEONE’S FLINT (see quote below), which was the probable predecessor of FIX SOMEONE’S WAGON. The shift from ‘flint’ to ‘wagon,’ according to The Oxford Dictionary of Slang and others, first appeared in 1951 (see Truman Capote quote below), but according to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang it was in the 1930s. Other 19th century expressions with similar meaning and which are still in use include SETTLE SOMEONE’S COFFEE, SETTLE/FIX/COOK SOMEONE’S HASH/GRUEL."

<1951 “She said her brother would FIX MY WAGON, which he did . . . I’ve got a scar where he hit me.”—‘The Grass Harp’ by Truman Capote>


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