Yesterday, in an unsuccessful attempt to discuss government funding with President Trump, Vice-President Pence, and Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi sat down for a hellish 17-minute-long meeting. It was, in short, a mess — a fact that Pelosi conveyed to a reporter using a very interesting phrase.
“It was so wild,” she told CNN’s Manu Raju of the interaction. “It goes to show you: You get into a tinkle contest with a skunk, you get tinkle all over you.”
Hmm … indeed. To many, this phrase seemed strange or unfamiliar; some, having misheard the first bit as “tickle contest,” were extremely confused about why being soaked in urine would be an inevitable outcome. “What,” wrote New York Magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi. “Pelosi introduces world to new idiom,” proclaimed the Hill. But according to Anne Curzan, a linguist at the University of Michigan, Pelosi was simply trying not to be uncouth in her skunk metaphor.
Pelosi was trying to use the English expression about “not getting into a pissing contest with a skunk,” which the the Oxford English Dictionary has dated back to 1943, Curzan says. Basically, it’s advice to not get in an argument where you’re just trying to one-up your opponent, because you’ll “leave smelling smelling stinky, and you can’t win.” So, Pelosi was clearly trying to take out the vulgar word — but then replaced one that reads comically in the original phrase.
Where it gets fun is the use of “tinkle,” she says. “[Pelosi] takes out ‘piss’ and puts in tinkle, which is a euphemism for urinating,” Curzan told the Cut. “But what makes it odd is that it is a humorous euphemism, and one people often use with children. It’s funny to hear it in this context, and it’s funny to have it juxtaposed with skunk.”
So no, Pelosi didn’t make up an entirely new idiom; she just tried to make a somewhat indecent one more PG. But is that … better?