Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Context Collapse at the Shoe Hospital

There are so many things that can ruin a friendship. Lying. Stealing. Lying about stealing your friend's baby. And context collapse.

Whuh?

As Katy Waldman discusses in a Slate article about unfriending, context collapse is cited by researchers as a reason friendships fall apart online, with only the Borg mind of Mark Zuckerberg to connect them. That certainly makes sense. If the only context we share is that we were in the same fourth grade English class, and the teacher tossed the same erasers at us for talking in class, and we didn't even like each other much then, our context is thinner than a supermodel.

I hope the context of this column can support our Internet friendship, dear readers. Since I know you're discerning readers, rest assured: all of this month's euphemisms are gluten-free, barrel-aged, and malarkey-soaked.

square

A guy recently stopped me to ask "Can you spare a square?" (No, I didn't stumble into a reenactment of a famous Seinfeld episode.) At first, I didn't hear square, so I said "What?" He repeated, and I still didn't understand, so he mimed smoking a cigarette. Ah! I said I didn't have one and had never heard that term, but he had given me a true gift: knowledge of a new euphemism. Actually, this one is slightly older than me: it dates from 1970 and the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as "A cigarette containing tobacco, rather than marijuana." The OED collects these uses from 1971 ("Why, why, he kept asking himself, as he lit a square, why do I keep having that dream.") and 1974 ("Light me up a square, baby.) respectively. This is kind of a weird term. I always thought smoking was hip and cool.

shoe hospital

On a recent trip, I noticed something suspicious at the airport: a sign for a shoe hospital. Before I could alert the TSA, I realized this was simply a fancy way of describing a shoe shiner's area, which may have been adequate to that task but would likely not pass muster with the American Medical Association. It's a shame shoe hospital is only a euphemism. I have a pair of sneakers who have been complaining of abdominal pains and dizziness for weeks.

waitron

While discussing words some like to loathe (such as supposably and irregardless) with my friend Colleen, the topic shifted to euphemisms. Colleen, a former waitress, mentioned the term waitron, which I had never heard. I might be in the minority, since waitron has been made fun of often, much like personhole, that alleged substitute for manhole. The OED has an entry for it, tracing the term to a 1980 song lyric, but this 1985 use is more explanatory: "A coffee shop at Cambridge, Massachusetts, has joined the feminist bandwagon by banning references to waiters and waitresses. According to a notice on the door the staff are henceforth to be known as 'waitrons'." That's certainly a ridiculous, unsuccessful term, but will it always be so? Maybe not. I've never been served coffee by a waitron, robo-waitress, or server-bot, but one can hope.

lawn sausages

This is more of a dysphemism — the euphemism's too-honest sibling — but whatever. I can't resist including this term for something that is a big part of my life as a dog owner: dog poop. I can't remember where I spotted this term, but of course it's on Urban Dictionary. It's also the name of a band. For more on a potential lawn-sausage-pocalypse in Chicago, read this piece about an impending plastic-bag ban in Chicago that might save/ruin the planet.

lunchin'

I'm an NBA fan, so I quickly inhaled this oral history of the immortal 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings. As tends to happen when I read anything, I spotted a euphemism, tucked into a footnote on remarks from referee Bob Delaney. Delaney claims Robert Horry said, "Don't be lunchin' on me out here." Delaney was apparently gobsmacked by that, so Horry explained, "That's my word, lunchin'. It means, 'Don't take a break. C-Webb fouled me."  Delaney interpreted this as being "...Robert's way of saying to me, 'You missed the first one (foul).'" What a fantastic term for being lazy: I love lunchin' — literally, figuratively, emotionally, and spiritually.

veteran team

While I'm in basketball mode, I might as well mention a term Reggie Miller used recently to describe the San Antonio Spurs: he called them a veteran team. The Spurs — who have been one of the best NBA teams for what feels like a jillion years — have many positive qualities that come with being veterans. They're smart, experienced, and savvy: while other teams play one-on-one, the Spurs actually play team basketball. But since Miller was talking about the amount of rest the Spurs players need, I suspect he meant something else: the Spurs are old as dirt from a caveman's wheel.

Speaking of ancientness, are you a gentleman of an advancing age?

That's the term legendary Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page has used to describe himself. Page is 70, and I can't blame him for not wanting to think of himself as a coot, geezer, or dinosaur.

After all, literally speaking, we're all ladies, gentlemen, or pets of advancing ages, but who wants to think about that? Age is only a number: a despicable, diabolical, damnable number I'd rather not discuss.


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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 June 4th, 1:22 AM
Comment by: julie B. (Austin, TX)
Hey Mark - great piece - however, I'm thinking that 'lunchin' is probably in reference to 'out to lunch' - i.e., not mentally present.

Just noodling.

thanks
julie
Wednesday June 4th, 8:06 AM
Comment by: Robert E M.
I try to take language seriously. This article is seriously out-loud funny!
Wednesday June 4th, 10:39 AM
Comment by: Susan C. (Irvine, CA)
This lady of advancing age has been laughing far too much this morning. Now back to work. But thanks for the laughs!
Thursday June 5th, 7:53 PM
Comment by: cath R.
Lawn sausages; hilarious! It reminded me of learning about dust bunnies about five years ago and I'm still laughing at that. Lawn sausages should keep me going until I'm a veteran. Here's a new one for you, a bit crude but what the heck. Can you figure out what "making mud" is?

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