Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Mischievous Euphemisms Lacking Longevity Thinking

Sometimes a euphemism is staring you in the face, blowing a raspberry, and insulting your mother, but you don't even realize it. That's how I feel about mischief — a word whose history I might be doomed to repeat, since I didn't know diddly about it till recently.

I have always equated mischief with harmless mischief — the word seemed no more serious than a pillow fight. (Apropos of nothing, did you know the earliest Oxford English Dictionary citation for pillow fight is back in 1850? Here it is: "They darted from bed and commenced in the middle of the chamber, a great pillow-fight amicable and hurtless." Too bad we couldn't have settled the Civil War this way.)

Turns out mischief originally meant "misfortune" or "bad luck" that took the form of "evil plight or condition; ill-fortune; trouble, distress" and "need, want, poverty," as my plus-size friend the OED says. Neither of those sound harmless to me, so evidently mischief has ameliorated like the dickens. Other meanings refer to various calamities and evil-ish occurrences, but the one that pinged my euphemism-dar was its use as a substitute for "the devil" from the mid-1500's to the present. This 1780 sentence is characteristic: "What the mischief could bring his boots into my lady's dressing-room?" Contemporary cold-havers will relate to this 1907 use: "I am coughing away like the mischief today." I don't know how the mischief I didn't know what mischief really meant in such sentences, but maybe it's the fault of the government, my parents, the Cylons, or the mischief himself.

All mischief aside, we have euphemisms to discuss, and by discuss, I mean I am going to tell you about them and make jokes. Those seem to be my main talents, at least until the Ultimate Fighting Championship accepts my application.

longevity thinking

In Esquire, Washington Wizard Gilbert Arenas gave a window into the mind of a prolific scholar — er, scorer — whose prolificness extends to collecting and displaying guns in the locker room, leading to his suspension from the NBA and a guilty plea to a felony gun charge. This part of the interview caught my interest: "Next practice I come real early, and I get word that Javaris is there. When I see him, my mind says, Boo yow! My guns, put them on the chair. That's where the problem came in — with the 'boo yow!' I wasn't using longevity thinking." I can personally testify to how a boo yow, booyah, whoo hoo, or heavens to Betsy can frighten and shrink brain cells, but I never would have thought of the preposterous expression wasn't using longevity thinking. Hereafter and forevermore I will use it on those occasions — those numerous, notorious occasions — when I am behaving as wisely as a box of rocks.

circumference measurements

I recently started working with a trainer, in an attempt to go from "skinny guy with fat" to "skinny, wiry, awesome guy with muscles and a harem." During the first session, as the simple act of moving a two-pound ball over my head was causing widespread systemic distress, the trainer mentioned that the gym could do circumference measurements if I so desired. I didn't desire because I didn't grok, but apparently these are body measurements — the kind of measurements you see in centerfolds. I declined having my circumferences measured, as it seemed presumptuous. Let's wait till I land my first centerfold gig and take it from there.

pass some eye water

When you're as manly as I am, you're quite capable of rescuing a damsel while crushing a beer can on your forehead and fighting terrorism with your feet. One thing the manly do not do is cry, except when we do, and maybe that's why expressions like "must be my allergies" and "it's getting dusty in here" are common coverups for a tear-splosion. On the ever-well-written 30 Rock (in the episode "Future Husband") Jack Donaghy is stunned to learn that his boss, mentor, hero, and god-on-earth Don Geiss has died. The bearer of grim news, Jack Welch, tells our hero, "Look, I know how much Don meant to you, and if you need to pass some eye water, I'll be happy to go out and get you some weakness tissues." Word evasion is the essence of the euphemism game, and pass some eye water is a hall-of-famer. It's also going to make it a lot easier to explain my behavior during Sandra Bullock movies. Just kidding. I would never watch a Sandra Bullock movie. I am far more impressed by the oeuvre of Kate Hudson.

banana

As a primate, I can't think of a fruit I support more than the banana, whether in its intact state or demolished into a delicious smoothie. Nutrition aside, it seems banana has euphemistic potential that could allow kindergarten teachers access to popular exclamations that would otherwise result in termination. My banana-awareness broadened at a Chicago diner when I heard the manager ask, "Ain't that a banana?" in a sentence that inquired about no long yellow fruits. Let's embrace the euphemistic possibilities and start saying "Son of a banana!" in the style of Lost's Sawyer immediately.

Speaking of Lost, I'm giddy as a schoolgirl for the series finale, though I will miss the series that brought so many polar bears, freaky electromagnetic occurrences, destiny-soaked non sequiturs, four-toed statues, and frozen donkeys wheels into my life. Many fans are ready to fling pitchforks at showrunners Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof if every last island mystery isn't addressed before the end of the series, but I'm hoping the finale opens a brand new bucket of questions to add to the 89,076 raised previously. I want something we can speculate about forever, because that's what the fun of the show is.

Anyhoo, I did notice that the series finale is being billed as a series finale event — that's a slightly silly exaggeration, but I guess I can cut some slack for a truly eventful episode. Much to my chagrin, Lost has yet to provide me with a restaurant-quality euphemism, but I still have hope.

Maybe in that final episode, the smoke monster will reveal he's no smoke monster at all, but a smoke enthusiast. Or a smoke whisperer. Or, perhaps, a smoke buff.

That would send an encouraging message to the future smoke monsters of America who are only tiny wisps today. They are the future, and the Jacks, Sawyers, Kates, and Gilligans of tomorrow won't terrorize themselves, you know.


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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:

Thursday May 6th 2010, 8:10 AM
Comment by: Katy P. (Bloomington, MN)
Euphemism-dar? What is that?
Thursday May 6th 2010, 5:06 PM
Comment by: Frances L. (Ballwin, MO)
". . .mischief has ameliorated like the dickens."


Got me wondering - What ARE the dickens, anyway?
Thursday May 6th 2010, 7:56 PM
Comment by: Daniel B. (Bozeman, MT)
Dickens in this case is probably a euphemism for devil. One can find numerous references to phrases using "dickens" as a substitute for "devil." Dickens was likely considered more polite than devil in Victorian times, and may have been a superstitious alternative.

Hence the phrase is really "ameloriated like the devil." I'll let someone else take it from here.
Friday May 7th 2010, 12:02 PM
Comment by: Mark P. (Chicago, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Euphemism-dar is a keen, radar-like sensory module Ben Zimmer implanted in my lobes to help me "get the job done".

To be fair, he does have a good bedside manner and didn't leave any surgical tools in there.

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