Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Nip it in the Gazoomba! A Metric Bippyload of Euphemisms

As the author of the only euphemism column in North America or star quadrant XL47, you would be correct in assuming that I enjoy euphemisms as much as sunshine and chocolate cake.

But if there's one other language topic I dig enough to write about on a monthly basis — hint, hint! I'll work for cake — it would be eggcorns. I've been a longtime admirer and recorder of these logical mistakes, such as calling a moot point a mute point, or a mind-boggling decision a mind-bottling decision, or even a euphemism a youthamism. I love 'em.

Suffice to say, my cocoa was warmed and my world rocked when, on the American Dialect Society listserv, Haskin Laboratories Senior Scientist Alice Faber recently directed our attention to this fabulous tweet, which has one wing in each of my favorite wordbaths:

Girardi on Mo's groin: "We'll give it a few days off and try to nip it in the rear end." Yes, he said that. —Tyler Kepner, Sept. 2, 2009

Since 2005 — when our fearless and fez-less VT editor Ben Zimmer entered it in the Eggcorn Databasenip it in the butt has been recorded as an eggcorn of nip it in the bud. In turn, nip it in the bud was popularized by Barney Fife, that one-bullet-having crime-stopper played memorably by Don Knotts on The Andy Griffith Show. (Or so I've been told. I'm too young to remember myself; Knott's tour de force as Mr. Furley on Three's Company was the voice of my generation.)

So nip it in the rear end is a euphemism of an eggcorn — booyah. I just wonder if the possibilities have been exhausted. Mayhaps a military fellow might suggest Operation Nip It In The Fourth Point of Contact. Or an author of "Laugh-In" fan fiction might say "Nip it in the bippy!" Or some folksy folks might nip it in the wazoo, winker-stinker, or badonkadonk.

So much nipping, so little time. While you're considering your own latrine lexicon, please enjoy these rare-ish euphemisms, all of which would sound transcendent in a work of serious literature, such as a spamku.

non-paternal event

This bit of genealogical mischief is structurally similar to our friend the non-fatal event. The webpage of the Dawkins DNA Project defines the term, throwing in an extra bucket of euphemisms on the house: "False paternal event, false paternity non-paternal event, non-paternity event: all these terms refer to a break in the Y chromosome line due to adoption, name change, 'extramarital event' (infidelity), child known by other surname (mother's maiden name, stepfather's name), etc." I especially like "break in the Y chromosome line" — Zagat's quality doubletalk for an appropriate time to speculate about the milkman, the patron professional of secret parentage.

warmer than the average taco

When you're the Maxim No. 1 babe of the year, the same old words and phrases just don't cut it, since ascension to that position requires mandatory speeches, verifiable prophesies, and the composition of a daily sestina. Well, I may have a few facts crossed, but I am confident that House star and mega-babe Olivia Wilde could be a future language columnist, judging by this analysis she made back in May:

"We don't have to think of appropriate adjectives for people, places, performances, tacos, or objects anymore as they all fit snugly under the glorious umbrella of 'hotness.' So I don't know how hot I am but I'm honored to be considered as warmer than the average taco."

Since men and women and woodland critters alike agree that your humble columnist is warmer than the average freezie pop, I feel Ms. Wilde and I have something in common, and she should CALL ME.  


When I'm not collecting euphemisms, I spend most of my time strolling around Chicago's Lincoln Park with my dog. I haven't managed to monetize that occupation, so I also teach for a few colleges. Most of the time I like teaching, but I've never enjoyed giving bad news to students, especially news along the lines of, "Your writing skills — and American education — are making the baby Jesus cry." So I use a little formula my friend Theresa the middle-school teacher taught me: "The student's X skills are still developing." Theresa fills in that blank on report cards when the kid's skill level is somewhere between zilchola and diddly-piddly-squat.

I've used "developing" as a substitute for "apocalyptically bad" hundreds of times over the years, to soften the blow of a harsh evaluation, and it makes me feel better about myself too. I often look in the mirror and whisper, in a reassuring tone: "My column skills are developing. My jai alai skills are developing. My don't-spill-stuff-on-my-pants skills are developing." It's a comfort. On the other hand, I suspect "developing" countries may not hold the term so close to their bosom.

diabetes of the blow-hole

Do you like to dance? Do you also enjoy revenge? Then have I got just the thing for you: it's called diarrhea. For some reason, busting a move and wreaking some vengeance have been wedded to catastrophic bowel event-y slang terms, including Ho Chi Minh's revenge, Montezuma's revenge, Rocky Mountain quickstep, and apple blossom two-step. But my favorite is the somewhat dysphemic euphemism diabetes of the blow-hole, which Dictionary of American Regional editor Joan Hall was kind enough to share with me. While we're on the subject that is often recalled by childhood mantras such as "When you're sliding into home and your pants fill up with foam," DARE also records perhaps the awesomest word ever for diarrhea: the any-go-flum-bums.

The any-go-flum-bums! What an expression. That term is a pure linguistic joy, as long as you don't have the real condition, which can be so difficult to nip in the ying-yang.

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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 October 7th 2009, 8:16 AM
Comment by: Barbara T.
Outstanding! I belly laughed at badonkawonk which sounds better to me than badonkadonk. Thanks for the morning lift.
Wednesday October 7th 2009, 10:32 AM
Comment by: Rana Anuran (Silver Spring, MD)
We were in sink avery stip o the waye til "bosom," et which ey was shure he'as gonta say "bazoom" r gaven eh topik, "bazoomka."
Wednesday October 7th 2009, 11:28 AM
Comment by: Martha M.
Um, hate to point it out, but your participle is dangling (very first sentence).
Wednesday October 7th 2009, 11:50 AM
Comment by: Mark P. (Chicago, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
That's OK--I'm seeing a doctor about that.
Wednesday October 7th 2009, 4:06 PM
Comment by: Joseph M.
taunt, toute, flaunt, flout, lout,... words to jumble, words to mix, trash the meaning, nay the nix. Say them loud for more effect, say the softly, fear reject.

I like your observations.

Joe McLinden
Friday October 9th 2009, 12:04 PM
Comment by: Fusun A. (Brossard Canada)
It started with me whe I thought Elvis's song was called "Devil in the Skies". After years of therapy, just when I thought I had overcome the disease, I bump into these:

" ¦need some help here… I need to know some youthanisms. I typed it into the search engine Google but it came up with nothing… By youthanisms i mean something like “I want to live life to it’s fullest” “I want to live out my time” “I want to live my 9 lives” That kind of stuff… (link)"


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