wordplay part deux

How to Not Say What You Mean: A Dictionary of Euphemisms, is the title of a great book. I’ve enjoyed reading it over the years, even dragging it out on occasion at get togethers for a guaranteed laugh. I think that’s where I learned the real meaning of deadline (see previous post).

In marketing, we’re often called upon to tell stories that don’t always want to be told. Some things are easier to sell than others. Some messages are easier to deliver than others. This is why I love euphemisms so.

My favourite euphemisms, I think, are the ones used by my dad. I think it can be hard for parents to say what they really mean. Especially when they see their wee babes grow up and make choices they never would have made.  One that comes to mind, is his way of describing people he doesn’t always understand (and I’m sure I’ve fallen into that category from time to time) “a few sandwiches short of a picnic“. Another, attributed to a writer describing President Bush is “born on second base, thought he hit a triple” my dad’s way of discrediting some “over-entitled” elected official. And I can’t say that I blame him.

I think, in general,  it may be hard for many of us to say what we really mean. Which is probably why we often say something vague, then tilt our head and say “you know what I mean” – as in, “please don’t make me say it out loud”.

Some other euphemisms that are well used and, in my case, not always completely understood include:

(thank you http://www.phrases.org.uk for everything here in italics)

Take it with a grain of salt


To take a statement with ‘a grain of salt’ or ‘a pinch of salt’ means to accept it but to maintain a degree of skepticism about its truth.


The idea comes from the fact that food is more easily swallowed if taken with a small amount of salt.

Cut off your nose to spite your face


Disadvantage yourself in order to do harm to an adversary.

Looking a gift horse in the mouth


Don’t be ungrateful when you receive a gift.


As horses age their teeth begin to project further forward each year and so their age can be estimated by checking how prominent the teeth are. This incidentally is also the source of another teeth/age related phrase –  long in the tooth

… when given a present, be grateful for your good fortune and don’t look for more by examining it to assess its value.

Three sheets to the wind


Very drunk.


If three sheets (or sails) are loose and blowing about in the wind then the sails will flap and the boat will lurch about like a drunken sailor.

In a pickle


In a quandary or some other difficult position.


… an allusion to being as disoriented and mixed up as the stewed vegetables that made up pickles.

Let the cat out of the bag


Disclose a secret.


… relates to the fraud of substituting a cat for a piglet at markets. If you let the cat out of the bag you disclosed the trick

While it would probably be more honest to just say what we really mean, excuse my french (forgive me my strong language – In the 19th century, when English people used French expressions in conversation they often apologised for it – presumably because many of their listeners (then as now) wouldn’t be familiar with the language), and I feel strongly that I can use this, as I am French afterall, hence the reason I don’t always get these english inside jokes, it’s just that much more fun.

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