Fact Check

Tampax Thumbtacks Confusion

Hilarious tale about a remark shouted over a store's public address system.

Published Jul 15, 1999


Legend:   A stock clerk's mishearing leads to an embarrassing question being broadcast over the store's P.A. system.

Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 1999]

One of the funniest "most-embarrassing-moment" stories I've come upon in a long time was about a lady who picked up several items at a discount store. When she finally got up to the checker, she learned that one of the items had no price tag. Imagine her embarrassment when the checker got on the intercom and boomed out for all the store to hear, "PRICE CHECK ON LANE THIRTEEN, TAMPAX, SUPERSIZE."

That was bad enough, but somebody at the rear of the store apparently misinterpreted the word "tampax" for "thumbtacks." In a business-like tone, a voice boomed back over the intercom. "DO YOU WANT THE KIND YOU PUSH IN WITH YOUR THUMB, OR THE KIND YOU POUND IN WITH A HAMMER?"

Origins:   So strong is our societal taboo

regarding bodily functions that we continue to bury these processes under layer after layer of euphemism. We not only refrain from referring to excretory functions directly, we employ several layers of indirection in talking about the places to which we've consigned them — "toilet" has given way to "bathroom," which has given way to even more genteel circumlocutions such as "restroom" or "washroom." As for menstruation, half the population utilizes a variety of roundabout terms to describe it, and the other avoids talking about it at all if possible.

The taboo extends not only to the unmentionable functions themselves, but also to ancillary products associated with them. There are still plenty of us who try to rush through the checkout line as quickly as possible and avoid making eye contact with the clerk when purchasing such common items as toilet paper (itself renamed by manufacturers to "bathroom tissue") and feminine hygiene products. The joke reproduced above (which has circulated on the Internet as part of a larger e-mail about true embarrassing moments gleaned from New Woman magazine) plays on not just the awkwardness of having one's purchase of this sort of product announced to an audience of strangers, but the mortification of seeing a misunderstanding elevate a private transaction into a moment of true public hiliarity.

The following joke incorporates a similar theme:

[Linkletter, 1967]

After baking several loaves of bread, a Cincinnati housewife told me, she ran out of wax paper. She went to the store, but the clerk misunderstood her request and brought her a roll of bathroom tissue. Noticing only one width of it, she asked, "Is this the widest you've got?" The clerk said, "Well, lady, what do you want to use it for?"

A joke popularized by comedian Jay Leno illustrates, in a slightly different way, the potential embarrassment created by our penchant for addressing delicate subjects with euphemisms rather than directness.

Barbara "wipe out" Mikkelson

Last updated:   19 March 2005

  Sources Sources:

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Choking Doberman.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1984.   ISBN 0-393-30321-7   (p. 138).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Too Good to Be True.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.   ISBN 0-393-04734-2   (pp. 155-156).

    Linkletter, Art.   Oops! Or, Life's Awful Moments.

    Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967   (pp. 79).