Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

One Man's Trash is Another Man's Service Item

Hillary Clinton put her foot in her mouth recently when she made some comments that made it sound like she and her family were inches from the poorhouse and perhaps down to their last mouthful of gruel. She tried to explain this gaffe by saying those comments were inartful.

Inartful? Huh?

I suppose Clinton meant to say her comments were clumsy, badly composed, or just dumb. But when I think of statements that are artful, my mind goes to artifice—and lowdown lies. In fact, one of the Oxford English Dictionary's main definitions of artful is "wily, cunning, crafty, deceitful." So is Clinton apologizing for not lying better? Or, bizarrely, for telling the truth so plainly? Either way, this was a weird way to characterize statements that are transparently bogus and politically insane. Inartful it would seem, is an inartful word.

Rest assured, there's nothing inartful about this month's roundup of euphemisms. They are stuffed to the brim with art, bunk, and horsefeathers.

service item

Some euphemisms are harder to decipher than others. If you hear about someone being downsized, rightsized, or fill-in-the-blank-sized, it's pretty clear they've been fired. But others are buried under a metric boatload of mumbo-jumbo and baloney: like service item. Service item is a euphemism so vague, so opaque, so gobbledygooky that it could mean almost anything. Turns out it means trash. As Rob Kyff recently observed, some flight attendants use the term service items when collecting stuff to throw out. Kyff observes, "According to a former flight attendant I heard on the radio the other day, this is partly because the request 'Your trash?' sounds too much like 'You're trash!'" Good point. I guess saying "Your garbage?" or "Your rubbish?" or "Your spoiled brat?" wouldn't help matters.

automatic amusement device

I recently wrote an article about Headquarters Beercade, a fantastic bar/arcade in Chicago where yours truly can often be found playing pinball. While interviewing one of the owners, I heard a term that made my euphemism sense go off like a car alarm: automatic amusement device. Apparently, this is a legal term for arcade games, pinball machines, and other stuff you stick a quarter in for a good time. Interestingly, a game does not count as an automatic amusement device is its set to play for free. I'm no lawyer—or gambler—but I'm guessing this provision has something to do with the fact that many such games are a form of gambling beyond betting a quarter you can get multiball. 

millennial engagement expert

I can't remember where I saw this term: perhaps in a Twitter bio or passage from the Book of Revelations. It seemed too preposterous to be true, but I've found it's actually quite common. What does it mean? The closest English term I can imagine is youth marketer—or just marketer, since most marketing seems aimed at whippersnappers. Whatever its closest synonym, this term is highly associated with malarkey. In fact, it led me to this article on millennial engagement that included some other befuddling terms: "I discussed the nature of creating generational silos and the importance of forging an emotional experience that creates long-term loyalty." Generational silos? Gag me with a glossary of soulless business jargon.

went to college in Boston

People who went to Harvard are notorious for never letting anyone in the multiverse forget about it for a nanosecond. But sometimes these overbearing alums let you know through a euphemism, as discussed in a recent Slate piece by L.V. Anderson. Anderson notes that this expression "functions as an elitist dog whistle" that will make you look like a schmuck, because you apparently think your conversation partners will melt upon hearing your alma mater, like Nazis beholding the contents of the Ark of the Covenant.

Texas funeral

Speaking of depressing things, I can't think of anything worse than a Texas funeral, which has little to do with Texas or funerals. This term, which I noticed while watching Kill Bill Part 2, refers to burying someone alive, a situation Uma Thurman's character is, fortunately, well-prepared for thanks to some amazing kung fu that allowed her to escape. Because language is amazing, there's a technical term for this: vivisepulture, which the OED records in this disturbing sentence from 1861: "They are a superstitious brood and have many cruel practices—human sacrifices and vivisepulture."

Finally, have you recently experienced an unexpected life event?

In a previous column, I mentioned one of my writing students blaming a late assignment on a life problem issue. That three-word victory for vagueness has never been topped, and it has had few close relations—until now. Turns out unexpected life event is a term someone thought was non-gibberish, and it has a more specific meaning: in the kase—er, case—of one Kourtney Kardashian, it means a pregnancy of the whoopsie variety.

What a glorious term! It could be used for so many other topics other than membership in the pudding club.

My toddler didn't rip off his diaper and take a dump in a fancy restaurant. He had an unexpected life event.

I didn't cheat on my wife with her sister. Our family had an unexpected life event.

The dinosaurs didn't get wiped out by an asteroid. They had an unexpected life event. Or unexpected death event.  Or, to be more accurate, a preposterous poppycock event.


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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 July 7th, 8:23 AM
Comment by: Lawrence P.
headline: grammar nazi, thinking to be funny, attacks woman of extraordinary accomplishment. he fails.
Monday July 7th, 10:32 AM
Comment by: Michael C. (Lansing, MI)
Calling out someone who told a whopper, i.e. in this case, speaking truth to power, isn't necessarily an attack. Sometimes the truth hurts, especially when one was caught bending it.
Monday July 7th, 1:34 PM
Comment by: kurt K. (Phoenix, AZ)
There is so much in this world's double-speak that I do not understand, so I ignore. This was an entertaining tour de force of the denizens of high class gibberish that I'm sure to put Mark Peters on my must read list. Anyway, one person's "extraordinary accomplishment" is another person's mediocre endeavor.
Monday July 7th, 7:05 PM
Comment by: Richard F. (San Diego, CA)
Thanks for an entertaining examples of euphemisms. The first example isn't really too extreme, though, as the "flight attendants" are actually collecting items that they earlier served to passengers during their food or beverage services. The fact that they will also take other personal trash is just a bonus, I suppose, even I you get a dirty look in return. Perhaps it would be too scary to ask for trash, as that might encourage articles of unimaginable grossness.
Tuesday July 8th, 11:48 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Great article! And then there are those euphemisms for 'naughty' words that themselves become naughty. For example, the euphemism of 'f***ing', 'fr***ing' becoming naughty itself. We need another euphemism!

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