Behind the Dictionary
Lexicographers Talk About Language
Mark Peters is a language columnist and lexicographer who loves collecting fanciful words, old and new. His book Yada, Yada, Doh! entertainingly chronicles words and phrases that made the leap from television to everyday speech, and his blog Wordlustitude celebrates bizarre online coinages like trouserwad, dumbitudinous, and toaster whisperer. Mark also collects euphemisms, those circumlocutions we use to soften the harsh realities of life. We asked Mark to tell us about some of the more intriguing under-the-radar euphemisms he's come across.
To paraphrase Homer Simpson: Euphemisms. Is there anything they can't do?
Though stand-up comedians and sit-down civilians love to make fun of euphemisms for their painful, Elaine-like dances around the truth, I prefer to focus on the sunny side of these words. I see the euphemism glass as not only half-full, but half-sunshine, half-puppies, and half-chocolate ice cream — with half sprinkles too.
I mean, come on. Would you want to live in world full of trash, stripping, assassination, and war — but no trash items, wardrobe malfunctions, regime changes, or widescale military operations?
Don't save me a seat!
As part of an ongoing celebration of the euphemism, here are a few not-so-well-known nuggets I've rescued from the dark dungeons of the English language. Readers are encouraged to use these words with wild abandon and your outside voice in any situation: No one will know what you're talking about anyway.
If Torture Euphemisms, Inc. were a publicly traded company, their rising stock — buoyed by harsh techniques, alternative interrogation techniques, aggressive interrogation methods, and stress positions — would probably have saved the economy. There's been an astounding number of new euphemisms for torture, and here's a subtle one: sleep adjustment. In many households and dialects, the addition of a comforting teddy bear or fluffy second pillow could be accurately labeled a sleep adjustment, but in this case, adjustment is code for deprivation. This term may have been raised in the same barn as adjustment center, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as "part of a prison reserved for the solitary confinement of refractory or unstable prisoners."
The list of synonyms for BS or nonsense is large enough to choke a whale: fiddle-faddle, twaddle, malarkey, truthiness, bosh, hokum, and balderdash are just a few members of a word category that performs heroic duty, particularly during election years. So if you need a fresh BS synonym, why not look back to the old Battlestar Galactica. The 70's version had no fancy fembots or growling Edward James Olmos, but it contributed more than just a preposterous looking robo-dog called a daggit. In addition to the now widely used frak, felgercarb was a term for BS that debuted in the pilot episode, "Saga of a Star World" (written by Glen A Larson, Sept. 17, 1978), when Starbuck has this discussion with Cassiopeia — a socialator, the BG word for prostitute — about an upcoming mission:
Cassiopeia: Why did you volunteer, Starbuck?
Starbuck: Well, somebody had to do it.
Cassiopeia: Did Apollo make you?
Starbuck: Yes, you certainly have a way of cutting through the felgercarb.
Felgercarb has never appeared on the new show, and it's kept alive mainly by old fans on message boards. Thanks to the gods of Google, it has been revealed that two blogs are felgercarbically named: Dr. Lizardo's Felgercarb and Frack and Felgercarb!
Frankly, this one seems as made-up as felgercarb — or maybe more like the old knee-slapper about calling a manhole a personhole. But on at least on two occasions, creative minds have decided that brainstorming was a term offensive to epileptics: first in Ireland in 2005, and then in England this year by the Turnbridge Wells Borough Council. To date, even the full resources of the Batcave cannot locate evidence of an epileptic agreeing that the term is harmful. As for myself, I prefer to think of the mind as a neuro-spatula, and new ideas as pancakes to be flipped and shared with the community, drenched in delicious cerebral syrup.
this side of the table
Speaking of breakfast, the other day I was reflecting upon bacon, eggs, and spiritual matters when a mother with three young children sat near my booth. Thankfully, this fam was kind enough to bring a euphemism, courtesy of the mom, who had to clean up after spilled water, spilled soup, and — that enduring classic — spilled milk, a hat trick of whoopsies committed by her three-ish looking son. The euphemism arrived when the frazzled maternal unit said to the waitress, "We're having a little trouble on this side of the table," as she sheepishly nodded to the puddle-happy lad.
My wish to all readers is this: that on whatever side of the table you drink or wear your beverages, you have a mother who is so kind.