Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Holding Minimum High Regard for Passion Statements

Even the most kind and gentle soul can probably think of dozens of people to loathe, despise, disrespect, scorn, condemn, resent, pooh-pooh, or simply hold in contempt — the unkindest cuddle of all. But it's difficult to discuss the objects of our hatred in language that captures the despicable-ness of the named while keeping the namer clean of the mud being slung.

Thankfully, our elected congress-creatures have done us a solid, using and possibly creating a term I noticed in a recent Vanity Fair article on John McCain. While discussing McCain and President Obama, Todd S. Purdum describes their relationship as "hold(ing) each other in what legislators used to describe with faux courtesy as 'minimum high regard.'"

Sure enough, this seems to be an oldie, at least as old as this 1959 use from Time: "A willing, two-fisted debater, McCormack once spoke on 200 different subjects in a single year, had a memorable moment when he demolished Michigan's acidulous Republican Representative Clare Hoffman in the House's own florid parliamentary language: 'I'm one of the few men in the House who still has a minimum high regard for the Gentleman from Michigan.'"

I guess there's just something about being in Congress that breeds ill will and silly words, maybe because it's the most underwhelming, downstanding group I can think of, a group routinely sinking lower than mole men. Even sewer rats bring something to the table, while congressrodents just sell the table to lobbyists. Sigh.

We'd best move on: my doctor and spiritual advisor both insist that thinking about Congress too long is bad for my blood pressure/soul. Please enjoy the following euphemisms, harvested from sources far and wide and near and narrow. May you and yours forever evade the first one.

horse-nightcap

While I was skimming through the OED's massive entry on horse, I spotted this term, defined as "grimly humorous for a hangman's halter". Here's a use from 1593: "His very head so heavie, as if it had beene harnessed in an *horse-nightcap." As I was watching the pilot episode of The Walking Dead recently, I got a good visual sense of where this term came from: when the hero slipped a horsey-thingy over a horse's head pre-ride, the doowhackey (A bridle? Help me, horse-lovers) sure did look like a noose. Horses in general deserve more respect: I get several kicks out of equine euphemisms such as horsefeathers, horse apples, and horsepucky, and that's no horse hockey.

gentleman's intermission

It occurs to me that I might be including too many 30 Rock witticisms in this column. My conscience tells me I should be examining dictionaries of the past and time-traveling robots from the future for terms that are limboing lower under the radar. Noted. But since the 30 Rock writers don't stop making up incredible euphemisms, and I can't stop watching and rewatching the show, I'm afraid 30 Rock euphs will continue to be a staple of this column, as much as Cheesy Blasters are a staple of Liz Lemon's diet. Anyhoo, a recent episode featured the term gentleman's intermission — a sad, sad cloak for the would-be adulterous activities of Lemon's dad. Like the gentleman's club, the gentleman's intermission is a gentleman-free zone, as good ol' Liz Lemon proved when she tricked her poor-visioned pappy into hitting on her. Thankfully, that Elektra-fied nightmare did not proceed far down the Appalachian trail.

the Oppenheimer technique

Speaking of gentleman, here's a term that applies to the gentleman region: it's a South Park euphemism used in the season-three episode Tweek vs. Craig. As you can see here, the technique consists of little more than what concise folks call a low blow. South Park has appeared so seldom in this column, for reasons of weapons-grade inappropriateness, but I think I can sneak in one other euphemism from the fertile minds of Trey Parker and Matt Stone: Roshambo. Though that term refers to "Rock Paper Scissors" in most of the civilized world, it has a nastier meaning to Eric Cartman and co. Their version, signaled by the phrase "I'll Roshambo you for it," means, "I'll give you a low blow with my foot, then you give me a low blow with your foot, and whoever remains vertical wins."

Finally, I have to confess how much passion I have for making fun of people who use the word passion.

The scene of my most recent passion plague was Argo Tea, where I do a lot of my important work, such as writing, online teaching, and bubble-tea-imbibing. At some point, I noticed a quirky little euphemism on their wall, above the tea paraphernalia. The words passion statement are emblazoned right in front of these words: "We are passionate about bringing teas directly from growers around the world and blending them into unique and delicious blahdy-blahdy-blah..." From the evidence, it appears that a passion statement is nothing more or less than a moist, self-aggrandizing mission statement.

I'm not the only one to notice that corporate claims of passion are more than a tad self-congratulatory. As VT contributor Nancy Friedman nicely puts it: "Who's passionate? We are! Who has the passion? We do! Yay, us.... Oh, and you customers out there? Nice of you to show up. Feel free to bask in the warm glow of our deep, abiding passion. Now excuse use while we return to our weekend values-affirmation retreat."

Still, I can't help but wonder what the passion statement of this column would be. Maybe: "I am so passionate about these euphemisms that I bought them dinner and introduced them to my parents."

Or: "My passion for language is so out of control that I am legally married to 4,565 different words and 87 dictionaries."

Nah, I would have to go with: "I have minimum high regard for passion. If passion were a person, I would Roshambo it back to the stone age."


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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 8th 2010, 2:28 AM
Comment by: Sue B.Top 10 Commenter
I'm willing to allow for almost anyone's peculiarities of ignorance, but I find it difficult to take seriously someone who doesn't know what a bridle is. How can a "collector of words" (fanciful, per his bio, or otherwise), and who looks, from his pic, like an adult of respectable years, have failed to have added such a basic word to his ordinary vocabulary?
Wednesday December 8th 2010, 7:44 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)Top 10 Commenter
I think what Mark meant was a halter, and the only kind I can think of which resembles a hangman's noose is the basic neck-tack for a hackamore or the kind of cowboy neck rope that is carried along on the ride with the idea of later using it to tie out the horse for grazing while you both rest. - And the reason for the long knot in both cases is not to throttle one's equine partner, but the opposite; a slip knot can cut off his or her wind.
Wednesday December 8th 2010, 12:12 PM
Comment by: word on Jo (West Brookfield, MA)
Those takes were really fun to read and I got several fun kicks out of them. Not much on technical skill but that doesn't stop this right-brained whimsical word visionary from dabbling. Words have eternal energy that can activate latent knowledge. I have found that to orbit words in my consciousness brings an astral understanding. It is as though I know all the original meanings and usages instinctually and the etymology confirms much of this. The multi-dimensional meanings of words may appear to be used in a callow and shallow way in mainstream culture but it is no different than any other form of evolution. I have to remind myself of this hearing "it's like so like amazing - like I mean, like you know what I mean?" Peace out. (tic)
Wednesday December 8th 2010, 1:34 PM
Comment by: Mary Katharine S. (Sherman, NY)
Thoroughly entertaining, ever so precise, and hitting the nail on the horsehead, as always.
Wednesday December 8th 2010, 2:07 PM
Comment by: jeannie K. (Scottsdale, AZ)
I enjoyed your article! Thanks!

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