Some of the reference questions we receive here at the Library Commission ask for the definitions of words, the spelling of words, or the origin of words or phrases. Stroll through the shelves of our reference collection and you will find many different dictionaries. We have the typical works, such as the classic Oxford English Dictionary, as well as foreign language dictionaries and medical dictionaries. Look a little further, however, and you will find some really fun and unique titles like these:
· The Routledge Dictionary of Modern American Slang and Unconventional English
· An Encyclopedia of Swearing: the Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, and Ethnic Slurs in the English-Speaking World
· The Endangered English Dictionary: Bodacious Words Your Dictionary Forgot
· When is a Pig a Hog?: a Guide to Confoundingly Related English Words
One of the sources I have recently stumbled upon is How Not to Say What you Mean: a Dictionary of Euphemisms, by R.W. Holder. Euphemisms, of course, are words or phrases that we use to make something that is really bad or taboo seem not so bad. For example, instead of telling your four-year-old niece that her pet goldfish died, you might say that it “went to sleep” or “went to a better place.” Many of the euphemisms in the book have to do with death, but other topics include religion, sex, bodily functions, mental illness, and crime-all topics that we might not be comfortable discussing.
Here are some of the words and phrases from Holder’s book that I thought were unusual (there were others I thought were unusual too, but these are the less vulgar ones!):
· Airport novel: a book written for a person who does not read regularly. For the captive traveler market and considered by the literati to be unworthy of their attention (7).
· The Aztec two-step: An affliction of visitors to Mexico—you have to keep dancing to the lavatory. Also known as Montezuma’s Revenge (16).
· Break your elbow: to give birth to a child outside marriage (42).
· Devoted to the table: gluttonous, not merely fond of a piece of furniture. Heavily overweight (103).
· File thirteen: a wastepaper basket. Where you dispose of unwanted or superfluous correspondence or printed matter (140).
· See a man about a dog: to go to any place that is the subject of taboo or embarrassment. The dog’s location depends on the company you keep—a lavatory, in mixed society; an inn, in the presence of your family at home; home, if you are with friends in an inn; and so on(351).
· Terminological inexactitude: a lie. The term was coined by Winston Churchill (404).
· With respect: you are wrong. Used in polite discussion and jargon of the courts where an advocate wishes to contradict a judge without prejudicing his case. There is high authority for the view that “with respect” means “you are wrong”…“with great respect” means “you are utterly wrong” and”with the utmost respect” equals “send the men in white coats” (442).
What are some of your favorite euphemisms, words, or phrases? Leave us a comment! We’d love to hear from you.
Have a wordy question? Ask us!
Holder, R.W. How Not to Say What You Mean: a Dictionary of Euphemisms. New York: Oxford UP, 2002.