10 Historical Euphemisms for Infidelity
It's been 10 days since the news of General David Petraeus’s affair with his biographer stormed the Internet. You may be running out of ways to describe the ongoing antics. Here are 10 historical slang terms and euphemisms for infidelity that you probably won’t see in headlines.
1. Carrying tackle: Used primarily in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a man having an indiscreet affair was said to be carrying tackle. Tackle was also used to describe flashy or expensive clothing.
2. Groping for trout in a peculiar river: A Shakespearean joke used in Measure for Measure, where groping describes a method of fishing by feeling for them in the water with the hands; peculiar was already in use to describe a mistress, much in the same way a cat or an owl might be a witch’s peculiar.
3. Pour treasure into foreign laps: Another from Shakespeare, this time from Othello, wherein the character Emilia attributes adultery by wives to the misbehavior of their husbands: [They] “slack their duties, and pour our treasures into foreign laps.”
4. Left-handed honeymoon: In use as early as the 1920s or 30s, the saying in full is “He/She is on a left-handed honeymoon with someone else’s wife/husband.”
5. To cut/take a slice: In modern parlance, the adage goes, “It’s safe to take a slice because a cut loaf won’t miss one,” but the idea of women as neatly apportioned loaves of bread is at least 400 years old: a notable early appearance is found in The Tinker of Turvey, a collection of Canterbury tales dating from 1590.
6. Wife in watercolors: This Regency era phrase is less about describing the beauty of the woman you married as a work of art than it is about the easy solubility of water-based paint. A “wife in watercolors” was a mistress, because unlike an actual marriage, the relationship was easily dissolved. Likewise, “painting a wife in watercolor” was a polite euphemism for a man having a discreet affair.
7. Off the rez: Originally, “off the rez” or “off the reservation” was cowboy slang for a person out of his or her element or in unfamiliar territory. Later, the term was used to describe a person who had gone insane or was in extremely familiar territory with a person to whom he or she was not married.
8. War on two fronts: If love is a battlefield, adultery can only complicate (extra)marital strategy. The phrase has long been in use for actual military action, but entered American slang euphemistically after World War II and was bandied about a bit during the Lewinsky scandal.
9. Hiking the Appalachian trail: We can thank former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford for turning a legitimate test of endurance into slang for sneaking away to meet a mistress. When Sanford disappeared in 2009 for nearly a week, no one (including his wife) had any idea where he’d gone. His spokesperson reported that he wasn’t missing, only hiking the Appalachian Trail. But when Sanford reappeared, he admitted he had gone to Argentina to visit a woman with whom he was having an affair.
10. Yarding on: Beat slang gave the lexicon "backdoor" and "backyard" men and women in the 1950s (though the terms were probably around for a few decades before they adopted them), and naturally a verb form followed, as in “The scandal broke when emails revealed that General Petraeus and Paula Broadwell were yarding on their spouses with each other.”
Sources: 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1811/2003; A Glossary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Language, Gordon Williams, 1997/2006; Westopedia: Language and Lore of Real America, Win Blevins, 2012; Dictionary of American Slang 4e, Barbara Ann Kipfer and Robert L. Chapman, 2010; The American Slang Dictionary, Annotated. James Maitland, 1891/2007; Straight From the Fridge, Dad. Max Decharne, 2000; Merriam-Webster’s Book of Word Histories, 1991; The Best Guide to Euphemism. Nigel Rees, 2006; Urban Dictionary: Freshest Street Slang Defined. Aaron Peckham, 2012.