Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Ladies' Night at the Euphemism Bar

I believe in equality: in society and in columns.

Last month, I looked at the prolific use of gentleman in euphemisms. This month, I turn to lady. Lady euphs prove something I always suspected: the English language is seldom a well-behaved lady, but it always shows you a good time.

As a licensed euphemism columnist, I authorize you to use these terms in your Tumblr posts, doomsday signs, wedding vows, and ankle tattoos.

a crime

Here's a term — recorded in Green's Dictionary of Slang — that makes a helpful bridge from gentlemen euphs to lady euphs. If the lady and gentleman racket sounds like a high-class or white-collar category of crime, think again: it refers to "the theft of barnyard fowls." Bock bock.

a light breeze

Lady's wind could mean several things if you have the mind of a 12-year-old, not that I would know anything about that. However, the OED lists it as meaning "a gentle breeze." Here it is used in 1886 ("A gentle breeze blew from the Shore..a ‘lady's wind', sailors would call it") and 2000 ("Fishing conditions were perfect. We had a lady's wind, clear water, and the tide table was accurate"). Ironically, female-named hurricanes are the opposite of a lady's wind.

a cook

Last month, I mentioned terms such as the gentleman in brown (a bedbug) and the gentleman in black (the devil). Here's a similar term for a cook: lady of the frying pan. Though rarely used, this one is recorded in an OED example from 1809: "The lady of the fryingpan [Fr. La cuisiniere]..was assisted in her cookery by the coachman." Similarly, a lady of the bedchamber is "a woman of noble rank who attends to the queen or queen mother" I found the following qualification amusing for some reason: "In the royal household a lady of the bedchamber ranks above a woman of the bedchamber." Alrighty then.

the gut teeth of a lobster

Better don your bib before reading the following meaning of lady: this bizarre sense is defined by the OED as "The set of three grinding teeth that constitute the gastric mill in the stomach sac of a lobster, thought to resemble the outline of a seated female figure." Yikes. This term dates from the 1600s and has been used as recently as 1843: "It is a popular notion that a part of the body of the lobster, called the ‘old lady in her arm-chair', proves injurious when eaten. This part is the bony teeth of the stomach." Happily, the existence of this term should refute any argument that eating lobster is not ladylike.

a plane

In the prolific world of rhyming slang, to Adam and Eve is to believe and to be cream-crackered is to be knackered. Similarly, a lady of Spain is a plane. Due to rhyming problems, a lady of Poughkeepsie is merely a woman from New York State.

the Catholic Church

I was raised Catholic, but I never heard the term Lady of Babylon or the variation Scarlet Lady of Babylon: the OED lists both as derogatory terms for the Pope-headed church. Apparently, this term has an apocalyptic origin and is a reference to "the woman arrayed in purple and scarlet colour in Revelation 17:4." I'm not very religious, but I am superstitious. If you see thirteen scarlet ladies breaking a mirror during an apocalypse, that's probably bad luck.

a pack of rich women

All women eat, but according to the OED, ladies who lunch are "affluent women of leisure, pursuing a life of cultural diversions and social events, esp. lunches in expensive restaurants." This term dates from at least 1970 and may have been coined by Stephen Sondheim. Here's a 2001 use that captures the flavor of the term: "As if Notting Hill's ladies who lunch were not already spoilt for choice when it comes to exclusive shopping experiences." I don't think dudes who dine would convey the same spirit — at least not these days, when a dude is more of a bro than a dandy.

a drug

The Historical Dictionary of American Slang (HDAS) lists lady as a euphemism for a drug some ladies who lunch probably consume: cocaine. Green's has a variation that makes this euphemism far less euphemistic: lady snow (FYI, Lady Snow was not a claymation Christmas special from the eighties).

a prostitute

Lady of the night, lady of the evening, lady of easy virtue, and lady of pleasure all refer to a sex worker, to use a current euphemism. This 2007 OED use from the Stratford Beacon Herald in Ontario suggests the vice squad or mounties may need to crack down on Canadian geezers: "All the guys down at the senior centre chipped in to buy their 95-year-old pal Gus an evening with a ‘lady of pleasure'." As Green's notes, a prostitute can also be called a ladybird, though this usage is likely to make Lyndon Johnson turn over in his grave. In other feathery news, male and female harlequin ducks are called lords and ladies.

a critter

Last month, I mentioned examples of gentleman cows and gentleman turkeys. In the spirit of equal rights, the OED records lady bee, lady lioness, lady pig, lady beetle, lady dog, lady cobra, and the fabulously redundant lady cow. The same pattern is applied to professions, often with a sexist flavor, like lady doctor. I'm more enchanted with a 1684 use: "The Lady-Tyrant of your Enchanted Castle."

The world could use more lady tyrants, but I doubt we'll ever get them. I hope this doesn't sound sexist, but let's face it: ladies will never, ever be as good as gentleman at being horrible.

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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 June 5th 2013, 3:22 AM
Comment by: Seth Lee Abrams (Bigfork, MT)
You couldn't spit a bee-bee without hitting a euphemism around here...
Wednesday June 5th 2013, 3:26 AM
Comment by: Seth Lee Abrams (Bigfork, MT)
I know that's not a euphemism, but it'll have to do at this hour.
Wednesday June 5th 2013, 4:20 AM
Comment by: Phil H. (Thessaloniki Greece)
Apropos of your conclusion, have you forgotten the Iron Lady already?
Wednesday June 5th 2013, 11:55 AM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris Afghanistan)
So I allow miself to add ; Lady Frog and Lady Summer.
Wednesday June 5th 2013, 12:20 PM
Comment by: Susan C. (Irvine, CA)
Fabulous fun! Thanks!
Wednesday June 19th 2013, 2:08 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Let's not forget lady fingers (skinny little sandwiches - or are they cookies?)

"Lady of Spain, I adore you, from the first moment I saw you ..." hmm, apparently the writer of that song was quite smitten by an airplane. (I learned to play that song when I was a kid taking accordion lessons.)

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