Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Inappropriate and Uncertain Difficulties with Personal Deportment

I hate inappropriate and uncertain events. Don't you?

So does the American College of Cardiology.

An article about that group reveals a lame-o lexical band-aid: "The cardiology group replaced the 'Inappropriate' label with 'Rarely Appropriate.' Another category—cases in which there's medical doubt—will switch from 'Uncertain' to 'May be Appropriate.'"

On the upside, this litigation-focused flummery suggests new fiddle-faddle for many fields.

Is hazardous waste mutating your children and dog? Replace it with rarely hazardous waste. Having trouble explaining civilian casualties to the press? Talk about may be civilian casualties instead. Diagnosed with a fatal illness? Maybe you'll feel better with a rarely fatal illness. We could even prevent the zombie apocalypse. A may be zombie apocalypse sounds much more survivable, doesn't it?  Even if the zombies bite you, you'd only wind up rarely undead.

Drooling monsters aside, here's a fresh roundup of euphemisms old and new, weird and whacked, funny and frightening. Shout them from a rooftop!  Sing them in the shower! Whisper them to your dog. In fact, you can use them to do anything in the world—except communicate honestly and clearly.

chicken of the caves

I'm an Anchorman-holic, so I was excited but cautious for Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, hoping for the best but fearing the sequel would never live up to the whacko genius of the original. I thought the movie might not even be as good as some of its marketing, like when Ron Burgundy interviewed Peyton Manning, comparing the star quarterback's mustache-less face to a "succulent baby lamb." Happily, I enjoyed the movie, which isn't perfect but honors the battiness of the original. Speaking of bats, I noticed at least one euphemism in the film. As Ron reassembles his news team, he finds sportscaster Champ Kind running a fried chicken joint that actually serves fried bats, which Champ calls "chicken of the caves," in a beautiful variation of the term "chicken of the sea," which is itself a fishy term for tuna. Stay classy, mystery meat.

ultimatum

I like few things more than a euphemism for the bippy, the wazoo, the gazoomba, the fourth point of contact: in other words, the body part you may know as the badonkadonk. While perusing the Oxford English Dictionary, I learned that ultimatum has occasionally been used as a term for the fundament: the oldest known use is from 1823: "Old Brummagem and the fat lady being thrown head downwards, formed an excellent step-ladder with their ultimatums for the purpose." This 1824 use is pretty gross: "He..at the same time felt his spinal extremities and his ultimatum covered by a shower of slimy material of a very offensive odour." And in 1825—before the term died out completely?—ultimatum as keister popped up in a sentence with two euphemisms for the price of one: "As for the inexpressibles they hung round his ultimatum like petticoat trousers."

wolf tickets

I was rewatching The Wire recently, and I noticed an idiom that's a little euphemistic and a lotta awesome. The scene: Major Cedric Daniels is explaining to Deputy Commissioner Bill Rawls that Detective Freamon thinks there are dead bodies being hidden in abandoned houses (because that's the kind of thing that happens in the city known as Bodymore, Murderland). When Rawls expresses some skepticism, Daniels says, "Lester Freamon is not in the habit of selling wolf tickets." I never heard that one before, and apparently, neither had many in the cast. In the commentary for this episode, writer George Pelecanos explains "It means he don't play, he don't lie." The expression appears to be a creative elaboration on crying wolf. When someone sells wolf tickets, the buyer will be lucky to see a malti-poo.

ride the sweet zebra

The Onion is America's most consistent source of satire, and their talented comedy writers sometimes come up with a damn good euphemism. In a recent American Voices piece, fake folks on the street were asked their opinion about a study that revealed rats are as addicted to Oreos as cocaine. Jeff Wetzel, Electric Razor Assembler, responded, "I've done some things I'm not proud of to hitch a ride on the sweet zebra." Gluttons of all ages can relate. The same issue featured another euphemism I enjoyed, as Joe Biden alluded to the inevitability of his death by remarking, "Just gotta get a handle on some stuff before I wake up in a pine condo."

wetlands-challenged mutant

I wrote about my favorite Gary Larson comic in McSweeney's recently, so I've got The Far Side on my mind, which is a good thing. Another Far Side fits better in this column. In the comic, an amphibious-looking dude is seated at a table with a normal-looking woman in a swamp. He says, "Well, actually, Doreen, I rather resent being called a 'swamp thing.' ... I prefer the term 'wetlands-challenged mutant.'" Larson had a way with euphemisms. In another comic from the same collection, the judgmental term evil eye is replaced with corneal corruption.

Mutants and zebras aside, how's your personal deportment?

On the American Dialect Society website, Laurence Horn noted that Tom Brokaw used a memorable, convoluted turn of phrase during a Nelson Mandela tribute. Brokaw recalled how Mandela once visited the Clinton White House, providing a nice distraction "after Bill Clinton had had some difficulties with personal deportment."

Since this is a PG-rated column, I can't explain those difficulties with personal deportment in any detail, but they're the kind that your spouse will take very personally and find very difficult. In other words, they involve hiking the Appalachian trail.


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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:

Monday January 6th, 5:26 AM
Comment by: carlos C. (miami, FL)
Thanks Mark for your great inputs to the English language.
Please add me in your reports.

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