Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Clear Communication That Didn't Get Accomplished

Are you a team player?

How about a team member?

If you're employed, you may qualify as the latter.

While shopping at Target recently, I needed to conduct some government business. As I washed my hands after the conclusion of such business, I noticed a sign that pinged my euphemism-dar: "Team members must wash hands before returning to work." Team members? That's an awfully elevated way of referring to employees. This sign would be much more appropriate in the john at Avengers Mansion or the secret mountain lair of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.

Sinister genetic anomalies aside, welcome to another roundup of the euphemisms — new and old, fresh and stale, sweet and salty — that have lately come to my attention. I hope they tickle your funny bone and baffle your think bone.

hitting a lick

The criminal underworld has long been a petri dish of slang and euphemisms. Here's a larcenous term I learned recently, which was used in a 2008 story about a Dallas robbery: "Once at the apartment, police say, Mr. Johnson told a witness that he and his brother were in the process of 'hitting a lick' on Mr. Hobbs for $4,000." Basically, to hit a lick is to rob something or somebody. I'm not sure what the origin of this one is, but maybe it evolved from liquor store, which is such a popular venue for robberies and prayer meetings.

assistant

Bucky and Robin are two of the most famous sidekicks in the history of comic books, standing side by side with their spandex-clad mentors, Captain America and Batman, respectively. To the best of my knowledge, neither ever complained about the term sidekick, but a more obscure hero has objected. In an issue of InvincibleRobert Kirkman's other huge comic book success besides The Walking Dead — the title character encounters a Batman-like hero called Darkwing. But it's not the original Darkwing. If that's not awkward enough, the replacement says, "I'm simply continuing the legacy. I was Night Boy. His assistant." This prompts Invincible to ask, "Assistant? You mean 'sidekick'?" The former assistant grimly replies, "We don't use that term. It's demeaning." Clearly, when your resume includes stints as Night Boy and Darkwing, you are an expert in dignity maintenance.

continuations

I've always found the words pants and trousers to be kind of funny, and I'm a sucker for another word for what "society" and "the law" believe I should be wearing in public. As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, this term has a religious pedigree, defining continuations as "Gaiters continuous with 'shorts' or knee-breeches, as worn by bishops, deans, etc. Hence in mod. slang, trousers, as a continuation of the waistcoat." The term dates from 1825 and a magazine citation that mentions the "fear of spilling it over what a tailor would call my continuations." Since that use was from 1883, "it" was likely not a half-caf, no-whip, gluten-free, artisan latte with a protein boost.

goodwill

Goodwill is such benevolent word, the kind thrown around when decking the halls or playing insufferable Christmas music. However, this seemingly life-enhancing word was recently used as a somewhat nefarious euphemism. As discussed in The Guardian, a company called Peverel made goodwill payments to customers who had been bamboozled into paying overcharges by a subsidiary: the word compensation was avoided to dodge blame and accuracy. That's clever stuff. If you offer compensation, you're admitting wrong-doing. But if you offer goodwill payments, you're acting like a generous saint who probably cares for injured birds and ugly orphans. I'm surprised the U.S. government hasn't taken to calling drones goodwill robots.

Finally, let's discuss the f-word.

Not that one, gutter brain. Failure.

Failure is a harsh word that describes, sadly, almost everything. In a recent article about Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, Charles Crumm notes the omission of failure in statements like the following: "In terms of things that didn't get accomplished, probably the No. 1 would be on transportation."  

That's an extremely useful, if not pithy, turn of phrase that I'm going to start using immediately.

Mom, I didn't fail to get married and produce grandchildren. Grandchildren just didn't get accomplished.

Dad, I didn't fail math. A passing grade and numerical literacy were three things that didn't get accomplished.

Mr. President, the NSA isn't spying on all Americans, monitoring all email and phone activity, and probably implanting brain chips! Privacy simply didn't get accomplished.

Just kidding, NSA! We're good. I was kidding. I'm a kidder.

Please stop zapping my brain.


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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:

Thursday February 6th, 9:30 AM
Comment by: Ron S. (TX)
Your reference to drones as 'goodwill robots' reminds me of a favorite episode of "Yes, Prime Minister":

Hacker (PM): The defence secretary seemed to think 800 fully armed paratroopers was an awful lot to send on a goodwill visit.
Israeli Ambassador: No, it is just an awful lot of goodwill!

And later -

Hacker: Oh, this is nice. The Americans are delighted by our little visit to St. George's Island. That's good, isn't it?
Sir Humphrey: [resigned] Excellent.
Hacker: They say they have got a whole airborne division ready if we want reinforcements.
Sir Humphrey: [sharply] Reinforcements of what?
Hacker: Reinforcements of goodwill, Humphrey!

Euphemisms endure!
Friday February 7th, 6:06 PM
Comment by: Marie P.
Great post and good way to wrap up my weekend.
Wednesday February 12th, 8:16 AM
Comment by: Cheryl H.
Is "hitting a lick" in any way related to the phrase I grew up with, "hitting a lick at a snake," as in "I didn't hit a lick at a snake today." Or "I didn't hit a lick today Or "He is worthless and never hit a lick at anything."
And this is related to giving the kitchen floor "a lick and a promise" with the broom, I presume?

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