Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Orphan Poo and Other Significant Life Events

It's difficult to talk about our problems, isn't it? I know I'd rather drink a pitcher of lava than discuss an ounce of truth.

Maybe that's why, when troubles arise, we often bury them in a metric malarkey-load of poppycock, like a student of mine who once alluded to life problem issues: a trifecta of tripe for the ages. Recently, another student approached the same degree of drivel with — of course — another three-word whopper: significant life events.

As with life problem issues, this phrase excused late work and boggled my mind. What are significant life events? I'll never know the truth because I'm too cowardly — I mean, discrete! — to pry, but I'm pretty sure the student is either full of crap or dealing with genuine catastrophes. My best attempt at a translation or guess would be horrible bad disasters. But maybe I'm too pessimistic. Technically, inheriting a bazillion dollars, marrying Christina Hendricks, and moving to a private fortress on the moon would also be significant life events.

As my student proved, when you're trying to bamboozle, confuzzle, or gobsmack the people in your life, nothing does the job quite like a euphemism. Here's a smattering of lesser-known gems of gibberish. They are silly. They are devious. They are awesome.

internment acquisitions

While rewatching season five of Angel — the Buffy the Vampire Slayer spin-off that (blasphemy alert) just might be a better overall show than Buffy — I heard a euphemism that deserves as long a life as a vampire. It was used by a minor character named Novac: "What's this about you shutting down the Internment Acquisitions Division?" That department of the evil law firm Wolfram and Hart (which was diabolical in the sense of being run by demons as well being full of lawyers) was in charge of grave-robbing, which can look awkward on a business card. However, an Internment Acquisitions Specialist sounds classy and professional, not to mention more likely to have a 401k than an independent contractor such as Igor.

olive branch

While most euphemisms for children are a tad dysphemic — like ankle-biters, rug rats, and crib lizards — this one is a lot kinder to kids: olive branch. It dates from the 1600s, and is used here in a 1655 Oxford English Dictionary example that highlights the term's religious roots: "Their Saviour takes them in His Armes. These Olive-Branches, by His care, In Paradise Transplanted are." This use from 1864 is more botanical: "A whole plantation of olive branches may be tolerated in New England or Pennsylvania, but in the large cities it is rather mauvais ton to have more than two children." I love this term. Next time my mom asks why I have no olive branches of my own, I think I'll tell her I lack a green thumb.

Charlie work

There is very little about the show It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia that is appropriate to mention in this PG column, but I think I'm on semi-non-thin ice in bringing up Charlie work. That's the term used by Dennis, Mac, Dee, Frank, and Charlie Kelly himself for the nasty tasks performed by janitor Charlie in Paddy's Pub, the rancid bar owned by the gang. As Dennis once explained, "Cleaning the toilet? That's what Charlie does. I'm not doing Charlie work anymore." Changing fuses and killing rats are also part and parcel of Charlie work, as well as other unpleasant tasks mentioned by Dee, who had briefly suffered the misfortunate of switching jobs: "I'm going to go back to bartending, and you will go back to handling poopoo."

orphan poo

Speaking of poopoo, here's a silly term for unscooped dog business, used in a post from the lengthily named South Loop Dog Park Action Cooperative: "We are required to power-wash the two parks several times per year. In addition we patrol for orphan poo and litter, and maintain the park facilities." It also pops up in a story about a rogue pooper-scooper in Washington. Sadly, as a dog owner living in a canine-saturated neighborhood, orphan poo is something I see every day. I'll never understand the thought process behind poo-orphaning. Unless you're walking your dog across state lines, you're probably going to encounter the orphan poo again yourself, possibly with your shoe. It's like leaving an orphan-orphan on your own doorstep. I don't get it.

in a completely friend-only way

My friend Angie's Facebook page recently sported this odd message: "Hey lady nice to meet you online acquaintance and what not. Want to get to know you better in a completely friend only way you seem like a cool person and we don't ever really have the opportunity in class. So just know that." Am I an over-suspicious sourpuss or is your sleazeball-dar (not to mention horrible-grammar-dar) also going off like a car alarm? Methinks the dude doth protest too much. Ladies and gentleman, I can tell you that fellas who are truly interested in getting to know you "in a completely friend only way" will likely be able to say so in a less clunky and intention-revealing way. Also, "So just know that" lays tripe on top of flummery to finish off a steaming BS sandwich.

Speaking of shady, sketchy, skeevy pick-up lines, beware of movie stars offering to do gynecological detective work.

That's the term (mentioned on Twitter by Vanity Fair's @JamesWolcott) that once oozed from the lips of paleo-studmuffin Warren Beatty, at least according to Joan Didion's autobiography Joan. My own dating life is ever-floundering, so maybe I need to adapt or invent some cockamamie come-ons of my own:

"Can I interest you in a significant dating event?"

"Would you consider accepting a position in the relationship division of my home office?"

"Do you want to have olive branches together?"

"You have beautiful eyes. I would like to get to know you in a completely ophthalmologist-only way."


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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 7th 2011, 4:13 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Hey, Mark. I'm with you 100%.
Nothing like exposing the truth while skating on very thin ice!
I, too, live by that common thread.
Wednesday December 7th 2011, 11:16 AM
Comment by: Erik K.
A fun piece! I'm trouble by "1600's," however. Why the apostrophe?
Wednesday December 7th 2011, 11:21 AM
Comment by: Erik K.
And why no "d" on "troubled," Erik?
Erik
Wednesday December 7th 2011, 11:27 AM
Comment by: DoPhillips
Enjoyed the content and the charming style of your article. Thanks!
Wednesday December 7th 2011, 1:02 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Another winner, Mark! When I see an article by you, I'm pretty sure I'll enjoy reading it. Literally, that is a form of prejudice, I realize, but I give myself and others permission to use this form!

The Happy Quibbler
Wednesday December 7th 2011, 1:48 PM
Comment by: Susan C.
Fun article, as alway, Mark. But still wondering, "What are significant lift events?" (That's the problem with editors as readers; see para 3, second sentence.)
Wednesday December 7th 2011, 3:05 PM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
I must be pre-1600, as I thought "olive branch" meant "peace offering." But it is great to have the phrase "orphan poo" in my vocab. Thanks!

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