Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Bats in the Cave and Other Nonrecurring Phenomena

In William Goldman's terrific 1989 book, Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting, he uses the term nonrecurring phenomenon for films whose success mystifies Hollywood executives and their magic 8-balls.

As Goldman writes, the term means "It was a freak, a fluke, a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. The deeper and more important meaning is this: 'Get away, boy, you bother me." It's a nonrecurring phenomenon — I don't have to think about it."

Such thought could only lead to an awareness of a truth Goldman (who wrote the screenplays for All the President's Men, The Princess Bride, and many others) hammers home in this book: "Nobody knows anything." According to Goldman, who should know: "Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess — and, if you're lucky, an educated one."

This term has some currency in the film world, but it surely could be useful elsewhere in this perplexing world, where befuddling events often confoozle our thinkbones. When we break our diets by eating an entire pizza, maybe it wasn't an eating binge — just a nonrecurring phenomenon. When our predicted doomsday doesn't come to pass, the continued existence of the cosmos is probably just a nonrecurring phenomenon. All the times I've been embarrassed or humiliated in public — like the time my glasses were actually caught in a closing bus door — were egregious examples of nonrecurring phenomena, doggone it.

One phenomenon that does recur is the celebration of rare euphemisms in this column. Here are my latest findings, fresh from the Euphemism Lab. Don't worry! No stem cells or lexicographers were harmed in the locating of these terms.

Alderman Lushington is concerned

Word guy extraordinaire Michael Quinion recently answered a question on the history of the term lush, tracing the tangled history of this drunken word. It seems there was a club in the early 1800s called the City of Lushington, which spawned such euphemisms for being bombed as dealing with Lushington and Lushington is his master, as well as Alderman Lushington is concerned. However, just as Thomas Crapper didn't spawn the word crap, a path from Lushington to lush isn't supported by the facts. Still, all lush-y terms are enjoyable, and I love the similarity of Alderman Lushington is concerned to Mister Palmer is concerned, a euphemism for bribery. You're probably going to see some dumb bribes — like bribing the waiter for extra water — if Mister Palmer and Alderman Lushington are concerned at the same time.

high basketball IQ

During the NBA finals, I heard a term that struck me as particularly poppycock-y. The "compliment" high basketball IQ was applied to Juwan Howard, a member of the Miami Heat. While I don't doubt the brilliance of the basketball-centric lobes of Howard's brain, this dude is 38 years old — freaking ancient by pro athlete standards, and he played like it in the Heat's losing effort. From what I can gather, this term really means something like "this guy has the athletic ability of a statue, and a crumbling statue at that." FYI, I've had high basketball IQ since birth.

push a button on a guy

There's nothing I like more than rewatching a movie or TV show I've seen a bazillion times and spotting a euphemism I never noticed before. I had that distinct pleasure recently when watching The Godfather, Part II, as the thug Cicci explains his job in the Corleone family to a Senate committee: "Well, when the boss says push a button on a guy, I push a button, you see, Senator?" He then clarifies that pushing a button on a guy means sending him to join the heavenly choir — to use a less Cosa Nostra-y expression. In Green's Dictionary of Slang, the term is found in 1953: "So after he uses a babe for a little while, he pushes the button on her." Green's also has the term button man, defined as "a lower echelon member of a Mafia family" and not — as naive folks might assume — a man-seamstress.

to have a bat in the cave

Finding a euphemism in a classic of popular culture is something I love, but I feel equally pleased when discovering something appropriate for this column in a source that's not at all appropriate for this publication, like the very adult-oriented comedy Children's Hospital. During the first season, this conversation between doctors embiggened my vocabulary:

Lola: You got a, um, a bat in the cave.
Cat: What?
Lola: You got a stalagmite.
Cat: Huh?
Lola: You have a booger.

I don't know what else to say about this one except to recall the Seinfeld episode (1992's "The Pick") in which Jerry was caught apparently picking his nose by a girlfriend, prompting a memorable rant for the ages: "And what if I did do it? Even though I admit to nothing and never will. What does that make me? And I'm not here just defending myself but all those pickers out there who've been caught. Each and every one of them, who has to suffer the shame and humiliation because of people like you. Are we not human? If we pick, do we not bleed? I am not an animal!"

I think we can all relate to Seinfeld's picking-propelled indignation. When we are caught bat-shooing, button-pushing, or Alderman-Lushington-supporting, we deserve the benefit of the doubt. Surely any perceived violation was merely a nonrecurring phenomenon that, like an Illinois governor getting sent to the big house, happens again and again and again.


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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday July 6th 2011, 7:55 AM
Comment by: Derek B. (Moorpark, CA)
Stalactite for all you sticklers.
Wednesday July 6th 2011, 8:19 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom)
"befuddling events confoozle our thinkbones" what a sentence to conjure with. I love it
Thursday July 7th 2011, 1:15 AM
Comment by: Carl S. (Oceanside, CA)
Stalagmites lovingly reach up, beseeching, their Goddesses, stalactites.
Sunday July 17th 2011, 11:36 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
I loved it too.
Long live Mr Peter's Euphemism and humor.
Wednesday August 3rd 2011, 5:15 AM
Comment by: Kedarnath A. (Pune India)Top 10 Speller
Would not the words "accidental", "chance", or even "fortuitous" and "serendipetous" (sorry(!) not sure if the last is legit or not?) describe the phenomena better. What is this fascination for using language that belongs properly to the domain of science in everyday discourse?

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