Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Pass the Strategic Dynamism Salts

I usually tiptoe away from the gruesome side of life, preferring to read about kittens and puppies playing peekaboo with babies and bunnies. I avoid horrific, soul-numbing, existentially meaningless stories about topics such as catastrophes and Kardashians. However, one such story — the Florida face-eater episode — had one redeeming feature: the spreading of bath salts as a Euphemism of the Year candidate.

Before this disturbing story, everyone and their uncle would have assumed bath salts could only refer to lady-like concoctions used in freshening up the tub. I never would have suspected they're the kind of drug — specifically, methylenedioxypyrovalerone — that would make a fella go all Hannibal Lecter on someone (and, as toxicology later showed, they might not be, at least in this case). The drug is popular enough to get its own WebMD page, where I learned this dangerous designer drug is also called Ivory Wave, Purple Wave, Vanilla Sky, and Bliss, which sure sound like harmless (albeit goofy) new-age fun.

This is a candidate for not only Most Euphemistic Term of the Year, but Most Evil Term of the Year. Like when the military famously used sunshine unit as the term for measuring nuclear radiation, bath salts puts a pretty face on death. That's as wrong as letting a baby play with a scythe. On the other hand, it justifies my decision to never enter a Bed Bath & Beyond.

Moving on from morbid matters, let's get to this month's euphs, which I promise will make you feel better about life — or at least allow you to express your disgust, depression, dismay, and doomsaying more tastefully.

resurrection

Resurrection is the kind of thing usually associated with Easter Sunday or Cylons (if you're familiar with the most recent version of Battlestar Galactica, in which human-looking Cylons had second, third, and umpteenth lives). However, thanks to Green's Dictionary of Slang, I learned a sense of this term that is foreign to both Christianity and science fiction: body-snatching. Green has an example of resurrection man (a body-snatcher) from 1781, plus examples of resurrectionist and resurrection doctor. As Green explains, this euphemism refers to "the robbery of (usu. fresh) graves so as to sell the corpses to doctors for dissection." Thankfully, these terms have no relationship to resurrection pie, which is merely "any dish made from yesterday's left-overs."

relaxed

We all need to relax, right? Who could argue against relaxation? It turns out many could and should, because in the lingo of at least one family, this is a term for canine flatulence. As @justkristin tweeted: "Bjorn has 'relaxed' (the family euphemism for the release of gas by sleeping dogs)." This term would fit nicely in Paul Dickson's Family Words, which collects terms that haven't spread beyond a household. On the other hand, this term could be useful nationwide. In humans as well as canines, gaseous relaxing and relaxing relaxing are highly correlated. This term could even inspire a perfect, flatulent comeback to anyone who unhelpfully and obnoxiously says "You need to relax!"

embellish the contact

I'm sad the NBA season is over, but I'll console myself by documenting a euphemism used by commentator Jeff Van Gundy during the third game of the NBA finals. In reference to some wild contortions by the Oklahoma City Thunder's Derek Fisher, Van Gundy said, "Fisher embellishes the contact." That's a euphemism for something Van Gundy usually rails against: flopping, which is a little euphemistic itself. Flopping is when a player — often in soccer, increasingly in basketball — makes a tiny bump from another player appear to be a full-scale assault, putting on a performance worthy of Kenneth Branagh to wheedle a call from the officials. Flopping is Oscar-caliber stuff designed to bamboozle referees. In the NBA, Vlade Divac was perhaps the Rosa Parks of flopping, but Derek Fisher is so renowned for his flopping that he might be the LeBron James of embellishing the contact.

to get the big bird

We all know what it means to get the bird and give the bird, but have you ever gotten the big bird? I hope not, because it means you were hissed at onstage, just like geese hiss at anyone who gets in their feathered grill. The OED's oldest example is from 1825: "And the end of their folly marked by the attacks of the big birds (geese) driving them off the stage." An 1886 use shows that getting the big bird can be a sign of success: "To be 'goosed,' or, as it is sometimes phrased, to 'get the big bird,' is occasionally a compliment to the actor's power of representing villainy." From there, the term evolved to mean getting fired or dismissed in non-theatrical circumstances. This 1957 use shows it can convey the end of a romance: "She gave him the bird — finally and for good. So he came to Spain to forget his broken heart." Be cautious when using this term, because it is offensive to members of PETA and fans of Sesame Street.

Finally, let's end with another Euphemism of the Year candidate, which I spotted in VT contributor Nancy Friedman's Twitter feed: strategic dynamism effort.

Yes, you read that correctly. It's a big-time ball of BS that's as silly as the made-up business term (coined on 30 Rock) synergizing backwards overflow. What does strategic dynamism effort mean? In business jargon-ese, it apparently means something, but in reality it's a smoke screen for the firing of Teresa Sullivan as University of Virginia president, who was later reinstated due to the hubbub. The details of the term and the scandal are analyzed by Siva Vaidhyanathan in the awesomely titled article, "Strategic Mumblespeak."

Strategic dynamism effort is yet another example of how three-word phrases are as correlated with bonkers euphemisms as catnip is with cats. In past columns, I've discussed solar convergence phenomena, enhanced pension offers, life problem issues, taco meat filling, customer pain points, employee dialogue sessions, mobile unit classrooms, significant life events, youth development campuses, and other terrifying triads of twaddle. Beware the three-word term! It has three times the words but three thousand times the malarkey. It's a real enhanced euphemism phenomenon.


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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 July 5th 2012, 9:28 AM
Comment by: Ednamae M W. (Boerne, TX)
Mark seems to be a top-notch flopping word worrier. In my book nothing but good comes from making a word more than it can be. Thanks. emae
Thursday July 5th 2012, 11:44 AM
Comment by: Rain
"Terrifying triads of twaddle" is a good description of this "enhanced euphemism phenomenon." It might be funny if only the military weren't so fond of it.
Monday July 9th 2012, 2:35 PM
Comment by: Cody (Eugene, OR)
What a wonderful way to begin my work week (after five lovely summer days of relaxation (oops, better just say, "lying around doing almost nothing"). Your article made me laugh out loud, in particular at the thought of being brave enough to "relax" with pizzazz the next time someone admonishes me with the phrase "You need to relax!" I will never be able to hear that (usually unwelcome) advice without at least a small smile and most likely a good guffah. Thanks!

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