Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Disposable Doomsday Daisies and Other Freaky Phrases

Recently, at the vibrant dog community in Chicago's Lincoln Park, a two-pound, three-month-old malti-poo puppy was engaged in a rigorous, Pepe le Pew-like program of incessantly humping every dog in his path. Well, not every dog. He did stick to pooches that were somewhat in his "league," such as my own 12-pound rat terrier, who thankfully didn't bite the preposterous puppy's head off for taking such liberties.

One amused onlooker said that the puppy — who seemed to have no interest in chasing, fetching, or digging, only humping — was exploring his world. I guess that's the kind of exploration Mark Sanford made famous when hiking the Appalachian trail.

Perhaps you too would like to explore your world, but we can't have any of that funny business here. This is a language column, and a family column, not a public park or town hall meeting. Cool your jets and get ready for a sample platter of euphemisms I hope will tickle your funny bone, enhance your knowledge bone, and make your what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation essays as mystifying and cryptic as an ancient prophesy that never made sense in the first place, even when yore was the newest thing. 

disposable mucus recovery system

I'm as gullible as the next guy, maybe even more so, since I just spent $800 on baldness cures, despite my tremendous mane of locks. Hey, maybe growing hair on the bottom of your feet will come back in style, and I'll be ready. But even with my weak sales resistance, I was skeptical of disposable mucus recovery system, a euphemism for tissues that sounded like something a writer, specifically this writer, made up. However, since the term also appeared in a piece on billing for medical professionals and suppliers who might actually be buying the damned things, I am giddy to conclude that this is a real euphemism, and the world is a more wonderful place than I imagined. Booyah. This will make my life as a snot-nosed punk so much more enjoyable. 

complementary players

Barring choice episodes of 30 Rock, Breaking Bad, and Lost, the highlight of my television year is the NBA playoffs, which have provided me with hours of coach-potato bliss since I was a wee lad. I think I could have made the NBA myself, if only I had better size, strength, athleticism, court vision, work ethic, shooting ability, and experience playing basketball, or any sport (not to mention the intangibles, which I also lack). Anyhoo, last spring, after a game in which LeBron James scored 37 points, 14 rebounds, and 12 pounds, while his Cleveland Cavalier teammates did their best impression of me, James referred to them as his complementary players after the game, a term reminiscent of Michael Jordan's dubbing his teammates the supporting cast. I don't know if the other Cavs took offense, but mother Mary in a motorboat, they sucked more eggs than a dog in a Johnny Cash song. They're just lucky James didn't follow the lead of some writers and call them the LeBronettes

doomsday enthusiast

Enthusiast is a euphemism that does a bang-up job of tastefully and goofily describing kooks, fanatics, and freaks of all sorts. But the original enthusiasts put the current batch of sci-fi enthusiasts, yoga enthusiasts, toy-train enthusiasts, and soccer enthusiasts to shame; my overweight friend the Oxford English Dictionary defines the original sense as "Possession by a god, supernatural inspiration, prophetic or poetic frenzy; an occasion or manifestation of these." So, doomsday enthusiasts — who I started reading about in stories about the cuckoo-for-apocalypse-puffs folks who think the world is ending in 2012 — are traditionalists in terms of lexical meaning as well as armageddon-ish crapola. Nice to see someone's getting back to basics, though I would like to point out that a person being a doomsday enthusiast makes about as much sense as a pig being a BLT enthusiast. 

paper daisy

The life of a park ranger is full of linguistic circumlocutions, since these seemingly innocent public servants are responsible for the care and training of those secret government talking bears who the powers-that-be are grooming (literally) to replace mankind, if "things" ever "go wrong". Besides laying the pipe for a terrifying planet of the bears, park rangers must maintain their cover by performing less glamorous and unholy tasks, such as picking up toilet paper left by campers. Such littering does nothing to make the rangers rethink their commitment to a new post-human, bear-led regime, but they try to make light of this icky duty, by calling the discarded TP paper daisies. Nature's wonders never end, do they? 

to be a gentleman

Back at Lincoln Park, I ran into my friends Danielle the person and Luigi the Jack Russell/wiener dog mix recently, at about 1:30 in the afternoon. I mentioned that only the freelancers were out. "And the unemployed," added Danielle — I noted that many are both. If I ever find myself in the park scavenging in garbage cans rather than walking my dog, I spotted an old euphemism that I shall cling to, like the warm coat I probably won't have: to be a gentleman. The OED has only one use, but it has an impressive pedigree, since it was used by Charles Darwin, who may have meant he was simply retired, not destitute, but what the heck: "Now I am so completely a gentleman, that I have sometimes a little difficulty to pass the day." 

Gentleman is a word with a euphemistic resume indeed: the gentleman in black velvet is a mole, and the old gentleman in black is the devil, and the gentleman in brown is a bedbug, and the gentleman who pays the rent is a pig.  

So if your gazebo is being ransacked daily by moles and wild pigs, and your sheets are lousy with bedbugs, and your dreams are plagued by devils, all is not lost! You are a real gentleman magnet. That's got to count for something.


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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 September 2nd 2009, 7:32 AM
Comment by: Edita K. (Eastbourne United Kingdom)
Thanks for this one, it indeed tickled my funnybone. I find blanket terms the most annoying thing on earth language-wise and always wonder what the heck people are thinking when coining them. Fair enough, there might be a use for them in certain situations; yet obstinately veiling the meanings like that, we'll end up in a linguistic fog where nobody knows what they are talking about and what others are trying to say.
Wednesday September 2nd 2009, 10:04 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
This was a highly entertaining and amusing essay!

I grabbed the bit about the missing "intangibles" for my personal quotes page ( http://donhuntington.com/quotes/), which you should regard as a high compliment, since I limit the list to quotes that are actually (in my opinion, of course) great.
Wednesday September 2nd 2009, 11:38 AM
Comment by: Christine D. (Halifax Canada)
Since we're being dog-centric, let's not forget "the gentleman in the grey flannel suit" or, my sister's Weimarainer.
Wednesday September 2nd 2009, 11:58 AM
Comment by: Rocket
Ha Ha! My compliments. I didn't know there were coaches in the potato league. Forget the LeBronettes. It's James LeBron and his Homefries (... or is that homies?).
Wednesday September 2nd 2009, 10:40 PM
Comment by: Mark P. (Chicago, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks all for the nice words and links! "The gentleman in the grey flannel suit" is a keeper! As you can probably tell, I like dogs as much or more than I like words.

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