Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

"Life Problem Issues" on the Softer Side of Language

In Napalm and Silly Putty, George Carlin wrote, "I don't like euphemistic language, words that shade the truth. American English is packed with euphemism, because Americans have trouble dealing with reality, and in order to shield themselves from it they use soft language."

Of course, Carlin was right, but...how would you like a soft piece of cake?

Or a soft pillow on a soft bed full of feathers and bunnies?

Or a vat of soft money you could cuddle and cavort in, much like my childhood hero Scrooge McDuck?

I long ago accepted Carlin as my personal savior, but I longer ago learned to appreciate soft things — like warm bread and euphemistic language — which provide soothing respite from sharp, jagged, and pointy words and events.

In celebration of softness, here are a few Charmin-quality, comfort-bringing terms that, sadly, are as rare as a mouse at a catnip convention.

disposable absorption containment trunk

Though quite earth-bound, I've written before about the maximum absorbency garment (MAG), an ultra-soft term for the astro-diapers of our space heroes. But MAG seems rather frank compared to a term mentioned in the New York Times (Oct. 31, 2008) by Henry Fountain. On a visit to the National Air and Space Museum, Fountain noticed "that bureaucratic love of euphemism is also on display in a nearby glass case, where an astronaut diaper is described as a 'Disposable Absorption Containment Trunk'" — DACT for short. I guess I can't blame our swaddling astronauts for demanding such impermeable jargon; even in Klingon, diaper inspires neither fear nor respect.

jack-you-know-what

As you might imagine, this is not a jackalope, a jackanape, or a jackapoo. A jack-you-know-what — as pointed out by Laurence R. Horn on the American Dialect Society mailing list — is a really a jack-fourth-point-of-contact. But what's the fourth point of contact? That's a military euphemism located by Grant Barrett in his terrific Double-tongued Dictionary, referring to the body part also known as the bippy, the booty, the bum, and — as my grandmother is fond of screaming across the gazebo — the badonkadonk.

rabbit

The Oxford English Dictionary isn't kidding when it calls rabbit — as in rabbit it, rabbit me, and rabbit thee — a "mild expletive". This regional sense of our hoppiest word is a relative of drat and rat that's used similarly to darn and damn, but with half the strength and twice the charm. Here it is used in 1831: "Rabbit thee, Will, but the luggage will break thy back," and 1892: "But rabbet me if I can guess what they were." Relatively speaking, this makes jack-you-know-what sound like something the FCC would fine back to the stone age.

to lack factual discipline

This year, Karl Rove said that some of John McCain's claims did not pass the 100% truth-test, which is a little like saying a deceased dude did not pass the 100% life test. But the standard for squishy softness in liar-labeling was set by conservative strategist Frank Luntz back in 2005, when he said members of the GOP "lack factual discipline". I already feel prouder of my secret life as an international basketball superstar who moonlights as a crime-fighting, Batman-esque heart surgeon, a part of my biography unkind companions have deemed a baseless lie. Maybe I just lack factual discipline. To compensate, I'm going to start teaching facts to roll over and sit pretty, starting now.

life problem issues

Problems are bad. Issues are bad. Life is bad. Just having problems, issues, or a life would be enough trouble to keep the average schlub in therapy indefinitely. But a select few unlucky sacks hit a trifecta of tragedy called life problem issues — a triply euphemistic expression that hides events so horrible I surely don't want to know about them. I tripped over this term in an email from a student who was turning work in late, and I was too shocked and shellacked to ask for an explanation, which may have been the whole idea. It does appear elsewhere, including a website that claims "mediation enlarges people's capacity to deal with life problem issues." Yay?

I don't use the words "Greatest Euphemism of All-Time" lightly, but by the hammer of Thor, I think we have a contender.

Life problem issues... A family of four could sleep comfortably on those three squashy, doughy, gooey words, with enough room for the dog, the cat, the ferret, and the wide-screen TV. Such words could excuse late schoolwork, workplace theft, overcooked dinners, rampant bigamy, light treason, bad hair...

But don't push your luck and claim life problem issue concerns. That's one noun over the legal limit, even in America, land of the softest, fluffiest euphemisms in the world.


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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 3rd 2008, 12:29 PM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
I didn't learn much, but that was a lot of fun, Mark!
Wednesday December 3rd 2008, 1:23 PM
Comment by: Mark P. (Chicago, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I'll take that as a compliment, Don!

I follow the same guidelines as Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld: "No hugging, no learning."
Wednesday December 3rd 2008, 1:41 PM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks for a great article. It got me thinking about the strong connection that exists between euphemism and the use of more general circumlocutions by institutions, especially the law and government.

My daughter-in-law was a civil servant for a while, and with each promotion her job title got longer - revealing the deep-seated belief that more words earn more respect.

But the prime motive behind the meandering prose of government and legal documents is not to earn respect but to hide meaning.

And here is the connection with euphemism, for *hiding* meaning (as opposed to merely softening it) can also be the motive behind the invention of euphemisms. For example, lovers, siblings or a whole family may have their own secret set of euphemisms to describe intimate body parts and functions, which may gradually spread to friends and other families until the euphemisms become general usage. All words begin life somewhere.

Since it's new to me, I thought the wonderful word 'badonkadonk' might be personal to your family, Mark, so I checked. Sure enough, it isn't listed in any of the dictionaries on onelook.com, BUT there are references quoted in Wiktionary. These suggest it started life (in 2004?) as racy student slang to describe specifically the curvaceous buttocks of girls - I wonder if your grandmother realises what she is shouting across the gazebo?!
Wednesday December 3rd 2008, 3:39 PM
Comment by: Mark P. (Chicago, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for the nice words, Geoff! I appreciate it.

You should check out Paul Dickson's Family Words (http://www.amazon.com/Family-Words-Dictionary-Language-Families/dp/1933338172) for more on how words spring up among kin. Great stuff.

As for Grandma, I think we're going to have to ban her from the gazebo henceforth.
Thursday December 4th 2008, 9:42 PM
Comment by: Magda Pecsenye
Geoff, you must not be familiar with the fine works of Trace Adkins, including his masterwork "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk" from 2005: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9VzEulip9Q

My discovery today is that it's badonkadonk, not ba-donk-a-donk. Who knew?
Friday December 5th 2008, 10:25 AM
Comment by: Mark P. (Chicago, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I believe Ned Flanders calls it ba-donk-a-diddly-donk.
Friday December 5th 2008, 11:04 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
And Homer Simpson calls it a ba-donk-a-ma-donk.
Saturday December 6th 2008, 12:16 AM
Comment by: Magda Pecsenye
Mark and Ben, you two are OOC.

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Euphemtastic!
- 7 Comments
Mark's first batch of under-the-radar euphemisms.
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Why say "funeral home" when you can say "life celebration home"?