Euphemisms: Stupidity

Euphemisms… we use them daily, whether we realize it or not. They abound in English, multiplying like rabbits in every dark corner of life. In fact, they hardly ever multiply in the sunny spots, because we don’t require them there. The very definition of the word confirms that notion: “The use of a word or phrase to replace another with one that is considered less offensive, blunt or vulgar than the word or phrase which it replaces.”

euphemism - Dog, Doing BusinessEvery generation creates new ones, because a parent’s euphemism becomes the general term which is then too close to the original meaning, and so the children get creative with words, and so on. There are a few euphemisms that have remained unchanged over centuries, such as passed away, which came into English from the French “passer” (to pass) in the 10th century; others shift gradually, such as the word “nice”: When it first entered English from the French in the 13th century, it meant foolish, ignorant, frivolous or senseless. It graduated to mean precise or careful [in Jane Austen’s “Persuasion”, Anne Elliot is speaking with her cousin about good society; Mr Elliot reponds, “Good company requires only birth, education, and manners, and with regard to education is not very nice.”  Austen also reflects the next semantic change in meaning (which began to develop in the late 1760s): Within “Persuasion”, there are several instances of “nice” also meaning agreeable or delightful (as in the nice pavement of Bath).]. As with nice, the side-stepping manoeuvres of polite society’s language shift over time, giving us a wide variety of colourful options to choose from.

Recently, my husband and I were talking about the topic, and the specifics of the word stupid came up; so without further ado, here’s a round-up of ways of getting around describing someone as stupid, dumb, or, well, an ass:

  • Thick as a post
  • Doesn’t have both oars in the water
  • Two sandwiches shy of a picnic
  • A beer short of a six-pack
  • A brick short of a load
  • A pickle short of a barrel
  • Has delusions of adequacy
  • Has a leak in their think-tank
  • Not the sharpest knife in the drawer
  • Not the sharpest tack in the box
  • Not the sharpest pencil in the box
  • Not the sharpest tool in the shed
  • His belt doesn’t go through all the loops
  • His cheese has slipped off his cracker
  • The light’s on but nobody’s home
  • If you stand close enough to them, you’d hear the ocean
  • Mind like a rubber bear trap
  • Would be out of their depth in a mud puddle
  • Their elevator is stuck between two floors
  • They’re not tied to the pier
  • One prop short of a plane
  • Off his rocker
  • Not the brightest light in the harbour
  • Not the brightest bulb in the pack
  • Has a few loose screws
  • So dense, light bends around them
  • Their elevator/lift doesn’t reach the top floor
  • Dumber than a bag of rocks
  • Dumber than a hammer
  • Fell out of the family tree
  • Doesn’t have all the dots on his dice
  • As slow as molasses in winter
  • As smart as bait
  • Has an intellect only rivalled by garden tools
  • A few clowns short of a circus
  • Silly as a goose
  • Addlepated
  • Dunderheaded
  • A few peas short of a casserole
  • Isn’t playing with a full deck of cards
  • Has lost his marbles / isn’t playing with all his marbles
  • Has bats in his belfry
  • A dim bulb
  • He’s got cobwebs in his attic
  • Couldn’t think his way out of a paper bag
  • Fell out of the Stupid Tree and hit every branch on the way down
  • If brains were dynamite, he couldn’t blow his nose

I’m sure there are dozens more! If you know of any that haven’t made this list, please put them in a comment below!


Filed under Articles, Etymology, Grammar, History, History Undusted, Humor, Lists, Musings, Quotes, Translations

12 responses to “Euphemisms: Stupidity

  1. The list seems complete to me. I didn’t expect it to be so long, but I’ve heard them all at one time or another.

  2. “As smart as bait.” Wow, hadn’t heard that one. A few fries short of a Happy Meal I’ve heard from time to time. Might there be a copyright issue with McDonald’s? Your list, as is, is really good!

  3. I’d heard the fries version as well, but decided not to include it as I wasn’t sure if it was a wider-spread saying or not. I doubt it’s a copyright issue – they consider it free advertising, no doubt. 😉

  4. That you’ve heard them all is a good confirmation that I didn’t include any obscure “wannabes”. 😉

  5. I’m still amused at how long your list was.

  6. The sly allusion to general relativity was among those new to me.  I like the smooth transition from [dense] as a euphemism for [stupid] to [dense] as a rough synonym for [massive].

    While [passed away] and [entered into eternal rest] are sugar-coated euphemisms (and annoying ones, at least to me), some of the phrases here strike me as ways to say the unvarnished truth in a vivid and humorous way, w/o any evasion.  One example would be [smart as bait], which was also new to me.  Would be nice to have a word for this kind of euphemism as distinct from the kind that tip-toes around the meaning.

    Here’s one not on the list: [was in the loo when the brains were passed out].

  7. It might be fairly hard to draw a line between humorous and tip-toeing euphemisms, because one man’s humour is another man’s offence. I think euphemisms cover the whole range – they’re just other ways of saying the obvious… some polite, others with more biting sarcasm.

  8. Jenniah Maltrope

    Two fries short of a Happy Meal

  9. Michael Elliott

    Sharp as a marble.
    He’s so far behind he thinks he’s first.
    A few fries short of a Happy meal.
    When God was giving out brains, he thought they said trains and missed his.

  10. 😉 Thanks for sharing those!

  11. moemonque

    The wheel is spinning, but the hamster’s dead

  12. Susanne

    The lights are on but nobody’s home

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