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A Modest Addition to the Lexicon of Excuses

By Mark Peters


Before reading, I want you to know, just in case you hate this column, it is not my column. Not my column! These are not my words, not even the prepositions. I think my cousin wrote this—or one of his creepy pals.

Sorry, I guess I just wanted to be as cool as famous folk who use the “not my X” routine whenever the long arm of the law threatens to burst their celebububble. In a nifty blog piece, Roxanne Roberts and Amy Argetsinger suggest that “not my X” has become a kind of snowclone for the rich and famous and busted. By saying “Not my drugs!” Paris Hilton set up camp in a magic suburb of Denial-stan, where pants, luggage, and prosthetic genitalia all belong to others.

There are plenty of other established phrases and formulas for explaining away a goof, a frak-up, or a serious boo-boo. Fred Shapiro’s Yale Book of Quotations traces that paragon of passive voice, “Mistakes were made,” to a 1986 George H.W. Bush comment on Iran-Contra-gate. The classic “dog ate my homework” idea is at least as old as 1962; it appeared in The New York Times here: “Homework still isn’t handed in because the book was left in school; the dog ate it; the baby ate it; little brother scribbled all over it; mother was sick; last night was Scout meeting; it rained.” Other hall-of-famers include “God told me to,” (many examples are collected in God Made Me Do It), “I’m sorry if anyone took offense” (a classic non-apology), and “It was like that when I got here” (once recommended by Homer Simpson). When it comes to passing the buck, English is rich.

Usually, I’m a humble recorder of such words and idioms, but Hilton’s not-my-drugs-gate gives me an opportunity I’ve long been seeking: a chance to launch an expression I heard 16 years ago that I believe deserves a place in the language, right next to “Not my X” and other time-dishonored excuses.

Before getting to this whale of an evasion, some context: I heard it when I was a summer camp counselor, a job where many odd things were said. The highlights included my friend Theresa announcing “the devil is in the tetherball” to a terrified camper, another camper’s unusual repertoire of insults (pizza breath, trash-head, chicken weirdo, weirdo breath, napkin-lover, plus the surreal potato wing and breath-head), and the lifeguard-coined camp euphemism “the phantom is in the pool,” meaning there is a turd in the pool.

The evasion in question was uttered back in 1994—not long after one of my young campers produced a phantom in his pants. He was a tyke named Tom, and I think you’ll agree he dealt with this little poopoo snafu in the most creative way possible. Instead of hiding the evidence or denying the facts, Tom struck a pose much like a little Hamlet (that is, if Hamlet had been holding dirty underwear instead of a skull). He presented that pooified pair of tighty-whities dramatically with one hand, while pointing to them emphatically with the other, and glaring with the venom only a wronged child can summon.

“Look at that. Look at that,” Tom demanded, and my co-counselors and I did look, since prudence dictates keeping an eye on disgruntled children wielding feces-stained undergarments like a trophy (or shot put).

Tom implored us further: “Look. At. That.”

Like a prosecutor building his argument, Tom paused to flaunt Exhibit A (or should I say Exhibit P?), raising the evidence higher and higher, setting us up for the final blow, the closing argument, the coup de grace:

“Who pooped in my pants?”

Never before or since has someone (implicitly) accused me of making a deposit in their bank. It was a devastating accusation, an unforgettable moment, and yes sir, it makes me miss camp.

For years I told this story, at bar mitzvahs and on first dates, thinking its value was entirely humorous. But long after Tom’s amazing question was raised, I had a “Who pooped in my pants?” epiphany. Though I had been comparing Tom to Hamlet for years, I never realized that this question really was as poignant and timeless as “I must be cruel only to be kind” and “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

All right, maybe Shakespearian is pushing it, but isn’t “Who pooped in my pants?” remarkably Paris Hilton-like in its bold denial? It reminds me of other responsibility-evaders too, such as Rafael Palmiero. In 2005, the slugger non-explained a failed drug test like so: “As I look back, I don’t have a specific answer to give. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to explain to the arbitrator how the banned substance entered my body.” More recently, Matt Taibbi described a similar method of blame-dodging in Men’s Journal. In a piece called “The Jock’s Guide to Getting Arrested,” Taibbi advised, “If you get caught in any kind of drug/illegal-substance scandal, even if the drugs are on you, it doesn’t matter: They belonged to your cousin. Even if you don’t have a cousin.” Taibbi then cited numerous examples of cousin-blaming that are downright Tom-esque—I hope the little guy got royalties.

But Tom’s question resonates beyond the pathetic shenanigans of our crassest bimbos and mimbos: it’s a frighteningly precise, semi-Colbertian spoof of the responsibility-evading, self-pitying, life-lamenting, violin-cueing complaints most of us cough up every day. Over the course of my spoiled little only-child life, I’ve thrown many pity parties for myself, with themes as diverse as the crew of the Enterprise: I can’t control my temper. I feel lonely. I’m gaining weight. I can’t get the job I want. Etc.

In every one of these cases, except perhaps “Etc.,” my complaint easily translates to “Who pooped in my pants?” Let’s take the whine glass by glass, just to show you this question is equally as snowclonable as “Not my X” and “The dog ate my X”:

The job search blues: Who pooped in my resume?

Weight gain: Who’s not exercising in my pants?

Loneliness: Who’s not attracting attractive strangers to my pants?

Anger management issues: God damn it, who pooped in my personality?

Well, guess who? It sure wasn’t Maggie Simpson.

Speaking of The Simpsons, old Abe Simpson once said, “Whenever I’m confused, I just check my underwear. It holds the answer to all the important questions.”

Indeed.

Mark Peters is a lexicographer, humorist, rabid tweeter, language columnist for Good and Visual Thesaurus, and the blogger behind The Rosa Parks of Blogs and The Pancake Proverbs.

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