Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Slingin' Blue-Eyed American Slang

Over the past couple of years, I've done several columns on massive dictionaries that have been recently completed or published, like the Dictionary of American Regional English and Green's Dictionary of Slang. Unfortunately, not all lexicographical projects have such a happy ending.

Case in point: the Historical Dictionary of American Slang (HDAS).

Edited by Jonathan Lighter, only the first two volumes of HDAS — covering A-O — have been published, and the project has been in limbo for years due to funding issues. This is malarkey. HDAS is a unique, vital, necessary work of lexicography that deserves a place on every word-lover's shelves. I have about as much influence as an amoeba, but I hope someone reading this might help the cause or at least buy one of the existing copies. HDAS is too good to lie unfinished and out-of-date.

In that spirit, please enjoy these euphemisms from Volume 1: A-G. Since slang tends to be rough, raw, and rootin-tootin', some of these euphemisms may be closer to dysphemisms: the euphemism's overly frank sibling. So sue me. If you don't enjoy these terms, go eat a bowl of air pudding.

air pudding

What's air pudding, you ask? It's a whole lot of nothing. Here it is used in a sarcastic example from 1862: "While our friends at home suffer through roast turkey...we cram ourselves on air pudding."

clothesline vote

As members of a democracy, we've probably all made a clothesline vote or two. This refers to those times when you vote for someone not because of their innovative ideas and steadfast principles, but because the alternative makes Dr. Doom look like a moderate. In other words, it's the kind of vote you have to hold your nose during, preferably with a clothespin.

curbstone canary

This term for a beggar doesn't show great sympathy and understanding for the least fortunate members of our society. That doesn't mean it's useless. I say we revive this one and apply it to those annoying people with clipboards.

chicken pie

This term sounds delicious, and it is: deliciously corrupt. Chicken pie is defined in this 1871 use: "A curious term has, of late, sprung up in the South, to designate the necessary expenses for purchasing legislative votes and newspaper influence... These are called Chicken-pie." Given the Windy City's history, I think Chicago pie would make a logical synonym.

Edison Special

Euphemisms are comforting when dealing with difficult topics like the Chicago Cubs and death. For example: the Edison Special refers to dying via electric chair.


This word for a professional mover should give the willies to anyone who's ever hired one.

Buddhist priest

This is an alternative to the exclamation "Judas Priest!" — which itself is a euphemism for "Jesus Christ!" and the name of a goofy heavy metal band. Apparently, this one was big amongst the military in Vietnam. 

charm farm

This term for a school for flight attendants is one of many rhyming terms in HDAS, like  cheerful earful (bad news), face lace (a beard) and county mountie (a county sheriff or cop).

biscuit gun

Language is endlessly productive in naming things that exist, and it's not too shabby when it comes to naming stuff that doesn't exist. Take the biscuit gun. According to HDAS, it's "an imaginary device used to shoot food to aviators." A 1941 example gives a sense of how it's used: "Here, a new and gullible man is sent for the cannon report, or for the biscuit gun, the flagpole key, or the rubber flag which is used on rainy days." In other words, this term is used in pranks.

discombobberate, discombooberate

One of the ongoing pleasures of reading historical dictionaries is learning about close relatives of successful words that didn't pass the Darwinian test of time. I thank Zeus every day for people like Lighter who have preserved such creative, enjoyable linguistic goodies. As if discombobulate weren't fun enough, the variations discombobberate and discombooberate have both been used as well. It makes me want to submit an article to a psychological journal on the subtly different symptoms of discombobulation, discombobberation, and discombooberation.


Here's a slang word doing admirable double duty. First, you could be blue-eyed in the sense that you're pie-eyed (drunk). Second, it acts as a euphemism for damned, which is a handy intensifier. Here it is used in 1959 ("What in the blue-eyed world are you talkin' about?") and 1972 ("Not that there was a thing in the ever-lovin', blue-eyed world I could do about it.")

Let's hope HDAS makes a comeback. It's deserves another blue-eyed chance.

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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 3rd 2013, 7:55 AM
Comment by: James R.
dysphemism is my take away from this article, though I may use curbside canary in describing souvenir hucksters, as I write about travel. Nice column

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