Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Good God, Lemon! A 30 Rock Euphem-palooza

Pardon my all-black clothes. I'm in pre-mourning because one of my favorite shows ever — 30 Rock — is on the verge of ending. I'll dearly miss this show for its potent satire of TV, the (literally) blue hallucinations of Tracy Jordan, the narcissistic psychopathy of Jenna, the performance of a lifetime by Alec Baldwin, and especially Tina Fey's role as star and creator.

I'll also miss the words. Among its other virtues, 30 Rock has provided a vigorous stream of new terms and turns of phrase, much of them euphemistic. That gives me the perfect excuse for an all-30 Rock euphemism column. Here's to you, Liz Lemon.

negative synergy dynamics matrix

In the spirit of synergizing backwards overflowanother creation of the show that might be my favorite euphemism ever — 30 Rock hit the corporate euphemism jackpot again with the batty yet realistic term negative synergy dynamics matrix, coined in "The Beginning of the End," the seventh season premiere. Mind-bogglingly, this term does have some real-world cousins, such as "Incremental Non-negative Matrix Factorization for Dynamic Background Modelling," the title of a conference paper by Ozan Gursoy that I presume is on the floor of Jack Donaghy's bathroom.

God finger

In the season two finale, Jack Donaghy leaves NBC for the Department of Homeland Security, where a hapless bureaucrat proposes that dam — which sounds so gosh-darn damnation-ish — be replaced with a more pleasing term, such as God finger. This is a fantastic spoof of real-life euphemizing, partly because God finger sounds a bazillion times more questionable and inappropriate than a dam. Also, this is not far from reality, at least the reality of a small Texas town that once tried to replace hello with heaven-o.

hill people milk

Kenneth the page has been portrayed as the rube's rube, the hick's hick — and, for some reason — some type of immortal being. Immortality aside, this resident of Stone Mountain, Georgia frequently refers to the hill people, and he once referred to hill people milk: a euphemism for liquor that was used in the episode "Sandwich Day." Thanks to Kenneth's familiarity with hill people milk, the gang was able to win a drinking contest against the teamsters. We've all been there. This term is doubly fun, because not only is hill people milk a euphemism for liquor, hill people is a euphemism for hillbillies.

President Inter-Bush

As a conservative cartoon, Alec Baldwin's Jack Donaghy is without peer, spoofing and satirizing the right side of the aisle (much as Liz Lemon's character pokes fun at the left). Jack's inability to utter the name of Bill Clinton was demonstrated by the euphemism President Inter-Bush. Speaking of adultery, when Liz Lemon's dear old dad decided to troll New York City for a mistress, he rationalized his sleazoid behavior as a gentleman's intermission.

normaling

This is a term that's anything but normal. In "The Tuxedo Begins," when Jenna and Jenna impersonator/boyfriend Paul started engaging in non-pervy activities like falling asleep without drugging each other and shopping at Ikea, they feared they were becoming a normal couple. Since they couldn't face that reality, Jenna and Paul invented the concept of normaling: acting normal as a kink. Once the two realized they were normal, not normaling, they decided to test their relationship by going on another euphemism, one not fit to be defined in these pages: a sexual walkabout.

whuck

This exclamation means the same as the similarly euphemistic acronym WTF. Along the same lines, the second what in Liz's frequent exclamation "What the what!" is likely not an innocent word such as pancakes or gluten.

sun tea

While sun tea is usually an accurate term for tea warmed by the sun rather than a stove, on 30 Rock this term became a hideous euphemism for jars of pee filled by writer Frank Rossitano. Cringingly, this is apparently based on some pee-in-a-jar realities witnessed by Tina Fey when she worked at Saturday Night Live. As she wrote in Bossypants: "There is an actual difference between male and female comedy writers. The men urinate in cups. And sometimes jars."

Finally, what's on your mind grapes?

This term is a bizarre, unnecessary, and totally awesome add-on to mind. It debuted in "Tracy Does Conan," when Jack was preparing a speech to introduce Jack Welch. Not exactly a wordsmith, this is what he came up with: "Jack Welch has such unparalleled management skills they named Welch's grape juice after him, because he squeezes the sweetest juice out of his worker's mind grapes." While Liz and Jack agreed that this was gibberish, the next scene reinforced the point by putting it in frequent gibberish-spewer Tracy Jordan's mouth: "What else? What else is on my mind grapes?"

Weirdly, the term has been successful, at least among hardcore 30 Rock fans. Check out these uses:

"Val Kilmer as Mark Twain will Crush your Mindgrapes."
The Good Men Project, Nov. 27, 2012

"Speaking this week with Entertainment Weekly in their cover story surrounding The Future of Star Wars, Kennedy made dreams come true and shattered many mind-grapes at the same time with a 2-3 movie releases a year announcement."
Slash Gear, Nov. 16, 2012

"Information squeezed fresh from the mind grapes of the AOA staff, served to you courtesy of AOA advertisers."
All Over Albany, Nov. 9, 2012

I'll have 30 Rock on my mind grapes for a long time. Fare thee well, Liz Lemon. Long may you blergh.


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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 December 5th 2012, 6:46 AM
Comment by: Ingrid A. V. (Tel Aviv Israel)
As a linguist and having watched 30 Rock occasionally (thanks to my teenaged daughter), and although, as a non-native speaker of American English,I do not understand every nuance, I really enjoyed reading your linguistic analysis of 30 Rcok neologisms,great article!
Wednesday December 5th 2012, 1:10 PM
Comment by: Erin P. (Denver, CO)
LOVE this post and 30 Rock, thank you!
Friday December 28th 2012, 4:26 PM
Comment by: Susan C.
"Speaking of adultery"--you sly wag!

This article blows my mind grapes. Let's hope we don't replace 30 Rock with a reality show; I'd have to resort to hill people milk (that *was* hilarious, eh?) to get by.

Thanks for the memories.
Monday February 11th 2013, 3:17 PM
Comment by: Mark F.
The reference to "God finger" reminded me of a report I submitted to the National Institute of Health summarizing the results of a consultng engagement. The reviewer returned the report with a request that I revise two offensive terms and then resubmit, if I wished to receive final payment. I written "the thrust of the effort had been.." and "it was necessary to mount a campaign..." The reviewer felt the terms "thrust" and "mount" carried sexual innuendo.

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