Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

The Dutch, the Dunces, and Other Fun-Sized Wetware

Studies show that many people, pets, and colleagues are dumber than a brick. (Or, if you want to look on the bright side, as smart as a box of rocks).

However, as any manners maven will tell you, comparing a co-worker or schnauzer's intelligence to a stump or post is rather cruel. Thankfully, best-selling sportswriter Bill Simmons has concocted a five-word, poppycock-stuffed, restaurant-quality euphemism for stupidity: saddled with limited intellectual capital.

In a piece on the frustrating NBA lockout, Simmons wrote about the billionaires vs. millionaires battle that's keeping basketball arenas empty: "I don't trust the players' side to make the right choices, because they are saddled with limited intellectual capital. (Sorry, it's true.) The owners' side can't say the same; they should be ashamed."

Simmons was blasted in the blogoverse for this comment, which looks like a case of being too honest and too slippery at the same time. It's not a stretch to say athletes aren't rocket surgeons, but burying that thought with a clunky phrase like saddled with limited intellectual capital just draws attention to the dunce cap Simmons is placing on the NBA's finest. Still, I thank Simmons for that phrase. I dearly needed a new way of talking about my relatives to each other behind their backs, just in time for the holidays.

Speaking of the holidays, please enjoy this month's round-up of old and new rare euphemisms. They will lift your spirits and cloud your mind during these long months when falling temperatures, limited sunlight, and insufferable carols make so many of us contemplate the soon-to-be-explained Dutch act.

the Dutch act

I never associated the Dutch with anything more shameful than splitting the bill — or the dreaded Dutch oven — but as this 1904 Oxford English Dictionary example shows, the Dutch act has been a euphemism for suicide for over a hundred years: "A week later Dal was found dead in his cell, and I believe he did the Dutch act (suicide)." Michael Quinion provides some clues as to why Dutch terms in English are mostly negative, including the phrase in Dutch, which means to be in a pickle — a disgraceful, humiliating, shame-soaked pickle. So someone in Dutch is a likely candidate for the Dutch act. Fortunately, the meaning is not always so dire. This 1912 use sounds more slap-on-the-wrist-y than mortifying: "I don't want to put you in Dutch with your fleet."

mobile unit classroom

Ah, the bread and butter of this column: a three-word euph. I spotted this malarkey-ism/ in an article by Gwen Green on the challenges faced by young teachers: "Often these novice teachers are given the most challenging students; large class sizes; and assignments to mobile unit classrooms, a euphemism for trailers." The measly money we dedicate to education is a never-ending tragedy, but at least our jibber-jabber and jargon provide some comic relief. Mobile unit classroom — like so many three-word phrases — hides the truth yet is so transparently shady it highlights the act of hiding. It's a bit like concealing a failing report card under a dunce cap (an out-of-favor headgear that should, it seems, be sponsoring this month's column).


I don't know if this is a euphemism exactly, but holy mother of pancakes, it is a weird and wooly word. Brad Allenby used it in a Slate (http://www.slate.com/id/2303277/entry/2303736/) piece: "As biological organisms — 'wetware' — we're just bad fits with certain environments, such as combat or space." The OED has uses dating back to the 70's, first meaning "Chemical materials organized so as to perform arithmetic or logical operations." Later, it was a euphemism for the ol' thinkbone, as here in 1977: "Computer scientists have lately begun talking about 'wetware', which is the human brain." So it seems wetware evolved from a term for squishy lobes to a term for the critters possessing those squishy lobes. Wetware reminds me wetwork, a term for what Walter White calls ameliorating a situationkilling somebody.

Ten Commandments

As a former Catholic school student, I am plenty familiar with the Ten Commandments, though I have long been confuzzled that they make no mention of the institution of slavery or the horror of Bluetooth.  So I was surprised to find this term also refers to, as the OED puts it: "the ten fingernails or 'claws' (esp. of a woman)." Here's a use from 1540: "I beseech him that high sits, Thy wife's ten commandments may search thy five wits." It's not easy finding a phrase that combines physical pain, painful sexism, and semi-blasphemy in such a compact package. This quote from 1830 is a fearsome threat: "I'll write the ten commandments on your face."

Now, in the spirit of Halloween, let's celebrate a euphemism I was reminded of by pop culture writer Misty Harris: "Whoever named Halloween candy bars 'fun-sized' clearly believed in the grand tradition of lying to children."

Many have noted the absurdity of this term for small stuff, including Stephen Colbert: "fun-sized candy bars? they're slaughtered before they can grow to full size — what's 'fun' about that?" You can buy a T-shirt that says "I'm not short — I'm fun-sized." Reducto, the shrink-happy villain from absurd animated show Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, has been known to threaten: "I'll make you fun-sized!"

Still, I feel this euphemism demands wider use. Wouldn't we feel better about our shrinking economy if it were described by leading economists as fun-sized? If I had fun-sized self-esteem instead of low self-esteem, maybe I wouldn't be eating non-fun-sized pumpkin pies for breakfast. A small chance of success would be a fun-sized chance. Even dunce caps could be replaced by fun caps for those of us with fun-sized intellectual capital.

(You're welcome, Dunce Inc. The check better be in the mail).

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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 November 2nd 2011, 5:35 AM
Comment by: Kathy F. (Gainesville, FL)
My limited intellectual capital led me to check one star instead of the four stars I meant to check. Very funny article.
Wednesday November 2nd 2011, 9:35 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom)
Sunday November 6th 2011, 5:16 PM
Comment by: Fiona W. (Portland, OR)
Euphemism at work: My friend often tells people that she is fun-size. She ought to purchase one of those T-shirts.

Thank you so much for this amazing column.

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