Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Farmyard Confetti and Other Blonde Situations

A few months ago, New Yorker cartoonist and SXSW attendee Drew Dernavich wrote a tweet so full of euphemisms it made me fall out of my sitting tool. Sitting tool? Here's the tweet:

Just sat in chair whose creator said it was a "sitting tool" with a "learning curve" which stimulated the "conception vessel."

Egads! For a euphemism-collector like myself, this was like Indiana Jones finding the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, and a new fedora all at once. Sadly, Dernavich doesn't remember the name of the genius/madman responsible for these terms, but privately he let me know there were even more euphemisms spewing from this fountain of flummery, noting: "he also said he's an 'ecotecht' and that it stimulated the 'elimination engine.' no joke."

Double egads! Elimination engine is the most whacked-out synonym for the buttockial region since the military's fourth point of contact. I live for such mega-malarkey, so thank you, nameless ecotecht. Thank you.

This column has nowhere to go but down after such top-drawer tripe, but down we must go, into the depths of hooey, hokum, and horsefeathers. Enjoy these euphemisms. They are all real. I did not pull a single one of them out of my conception vessel.

blond(e)

I just finished Bossypants, the even-better-than-I-expected-and-I-expected-a-lot memoir/humor collection by Tina Fey. In this tremendous book, Fey discusses the beauty standards of the seventies: "Cheryl Tiegs, Farrah Fawcett, Christie Brinkley. Small eyes, toothy smile, boobies, no buttocks, yellow hair." Fey explains, "Why do I call it 'yellow' hair and not 'blond' hair? Because I'm pretty sure everybody calls my hair 'brown.' When I read fairy tales to my daughter I always change the word 'blond' to 'yellow,' because I don't want her to think that blond hair is somehow better." Fey's campaign against "the Yellowhairs" reveals a euphemistic sense of blond(e) I never considered. I'm definitely reconsidering my plan to die my black-and-gray locks platinum yellow for the summer.

farmyard confetti

Last month's column was devoted entirely to euphs found in the enormous and wonderful Green's Dictionary of Slang. Here's another term collected by Mr. Slang, Jonathon Green: an Australian softening of BS that's at least as old as 1973: farmyard confetti. I understand the farmyard part quite well, but the confetti aspect is a puzzler. I guess BS and confetti both end up on the ground, but confetti is so much less fragrant and healthy for the soil. The Australians seem to have a talent for the silliest BS euphs, since another is meadow mayonnaise. Ew.

differentiated beings

I kind of hate myself for making fun of people who want to protect animals—like the scholars who contribute to The Journal of Animal Ethics—but I can't pass up a preposterous euphemism, no matter how well-intentioned. Besides, I hate myself anyway, so what do I have to lose? Anyhoo, a recent issue called for the term animal to be replaced by differentiated being or non-human animal. The hope is that those terms might inspire a more humane attitude toward our fellow critters, much like the PETA crowd thought sea kitten might foster fish-friendliness. In reality, the only thing these tone-deaf terms bring is ridicule and a prominent spot in this column. Here's a brilliant thought for PETA and all animal ethicists: there might possibly be more urgent fronts in the war against animal exploitation than the dictionary.

unidentified aerial phenomenon

The term UFO inevitably brings to mind UFO buff, which is synonymous with cuckoo for alien puffs. Sorry, UFO buffs, that's a fact, even though I can't argue with the idea that there must be intelligent life out there somewhere, and it probably implanted a chip in my brain. Due to the besmirchment of UFO and the likelihood that something is going on up there, some have suggested a new term, discussed by skeptic supreme Michael Shermer in Scientific American: unidentified aerial phenomenon. That euphemism is almost perfect. It's a transparent dodge of UFO that also fits under the "Three words = three metric craptons of euphemism" rule. Speaking of crap, I applaud this coinage of Shermer's: "Completely Ridiculous Alien Piffle (CRAP)." That covers even less plausible signs of alien life, "such as crop circles and cattle mutilations, alien abductions and anal probes, and human-alien hybrids." I assume that covers canine-alien hybrids too, like the adorable Martian-doodle.

For our final euphemism, let's turn to my favorite sport and its greatest coach ever: basketball's Zen Master Phil Jackson.

As his L.A. Lakers were swept out of the NBA playoffs in the second round, Jackson retired, prompting many tributes. In a piece in The New York Times, Howard Beck revealed that one of Jackson's quirks was a fondness for a certain word: "He has an almost-comical attachment to the word 'situation,' which he inserts frequently and haphazardly into sentences. An untimely turnover was 'a turnover situation.' Foul trouble became 'a foul situation.' Shaquille O'Neal's notorious shooting struggles were, of course, 'a free-throw situation.'"

Much like calling a weekend a weekend experience or a heart attack a cardiac event, the calorie-free addition of situation elongates a phrase while bringing nothing to the table, except amusement to attendees of Jackson's press conferences. I think we can forgive Jackson the repetition—after all, he's been the coach for a record 11 championship situations.

I just hope Jackson never finds himself in that nameless ecotecht's sitting vessel. Even I'm not ready to hear about a conception vessel situation.


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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 8th 2011, 9:06 AM
Comment by: Arlene T.
Road apples
Meadow muffins
Bush raisins
Wednesday June 8th 2011, 10:28 AM
Comment by: Margaret M. (Nashville, TN)
WhatI misread was "simulates the conception vessel," and I thought the chair somehow make you feel like you were back in the womb. (How cozy.) I still think "conception vessel" describes the womb more so than the brain.
Wednesday June 8th 2011, 4:48 PM
Comment by: Joanne B. (Costa Mesa, CA)
I agree that,in my mind, "conception vessel" equated to a female's nether region. However, I took the meaning to be the "sitting tool" gave the sitter a case of "hot pants".
Thursday June 9th 2011, 7:17 PM
Comment by: Holly S. (Marina Del Rey, CA)
I completely agree, Margaret. I thought the same thing, and what's more, as I skimmed the article, I mistakenly read it as "stimulates the conception vessel," thinking I really may need one of these "sitting tools," and I never should have moved out of austin.
Friday June 10th 2011, 12:15 PM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
sounds like a good read.

Re your hairstyling plans ("I'm definitely reconsidering my plan to die my black-and-gray locks platinum yellow for the summer."), unless you're getting suicidal about your appearance, I expect you meant "dye."
Friday June 10th 2011, 12:16 PM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
Bossypants sounds like a good read. (Bossypants somehow disappeared from my previous post).

Re your hairstyling plans ("I'm definitely reconsidering my plan to die my black-and-gray locks platinum yellow for the summer."), unless you're getting suicidal about your appearance, I expect you meant "dye."
Saturday June 18th 2011, 7:08 PM
Comment by: Seth Lee Abrams (Bigfork, MT)
Maybe you've heard this one before. But if not I don't think you would have missed it had you been listening to NPR the other day when I heard it for the first time.

The news-bit was actually about the Global Positioning System, and the growing ubiquitousity (I just made that word up) of GPS devices and the ever-growing, ever-changing use for GPS. The piece turned to the use of GPS in various agricultural efficiencies --- such as in crop-dusting.

NPR was in the act of interviewing a professional crop-duster. It appears to be the case that with an integrated GPS system, the crop-duster could pinpoint with great accuracy exactly where fertilizer needed to be sprayed on some farmland. "It's also very useful when we spray the fields with......our other crop enhancement products."

Well, now that you mention it, Mr. GPS-Using-Crop-Duster, just exactly what the freaking heck is in that junk you’re spraying on all the food and fruit and vegetables?

No, let me rephrase that; I’d like a detailed chemical analysis of your crop enhancement products, please? And after that I’ll probably want a detailed chemical analysis of some of the chemicals themselves, as their names are probably a lot less harmful sounding than poison.

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