Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Quench Your Thirst! (Within the Defect Action Levels, Of Course)

I've been embracing my adopted city of Chicago by reading a collection of Chicago Tribune legend Mike Royko's writing — namely, Sez Who? Sez Me. I haven't read Royko since I was a mere tyke (or at least a small dweeb) who was too young to fully grasp the awesomeness of Royko's hilarious, sharp, wide-ranging columns. They hold up great, and one piece on the end of the Vietnam war could pretty much be reprinted verbatim right now, at the (sorta) end of the Iraq war.

Like any master writer, Royko loved language. He spent several columns insisting on the proper meaning of the word clout, a much-used word in Chicago that was beginning to be misused nationally. (Royko was insistent that clout helped one bend the law and gain favors, not enforce the law and grant favors.) In another column, he poked fun at the sterility of relationship, which was gaining currency while smothering romance with a pillow of formality. Royko was also an expert at identifying euphemisms. One that he discussed at length in a 1978 column was defect action levels — a grade-A, weapons-grade, restaurant-quality dumpling of doublespeak that refers to the amount of "natural defects" that find their way into food, such as rodent hair and insect heads. Yum!

Much like beetle noggins in your Fruit Loops, this term hasn't gone away. I looked at the current rules and regulations for defect action levels, and I quickly learned the true meaning of "gag me with a spoon." The glossary alone is horrifying. I'd never even heard the word copepod, and I certainly never dreamed it refers to "Small free-swimming marine crustaceans, many of which are fish parasites. In some species the females enter the tissues of the host fish and may form pus pockets." How romantic!

But you're not here to read about insect fragments, insect filth, rodent filth, and mammalian excreta, or at least I hope not, because ew. You're here for the under-the-radar euphemisms, which will now begin. Rest assured, they meet with the full approval of the FDA, the CIA, and the NFL player's association.

de-lifed

Death is just about the worst part of life, and I refuse to think about it, except in the form of linguistic ten-foot poles. One is provided by The Arcata Eye's Police Logger Kevin L. Hoover, whose colorful tales of Arcata, CA scroungeloids (to use one of Hoover's many neologisms) are as witty and inventive as the crimes are lame and predictable. Here's the entry that caught my attention: "3:04 p.m. A rabid raccoon on Union Street was de-lifed with a bullet. Public Works was called to remove a grate in the street and extract the diseased corpse." Don't you agree that de-lifed sounds kinder and gentler than killed? It even implies the possibility of a re-lifing, which means I may be doing the right thing by insisting on cryogenic freezie-pop-ification in my will.

working a lot

In a recent Entertainment Weekly (a publication that I somehow married for life after saying "yes" at the wrong time at Best Buy), I read an interview with Morgan Freeman in which the interviewer commented. "You work a lot." Am I too suspicious to sniff a whiff of euphemism here? It seems as though "works a lot" could be a soft, pillowy way of saying that Freeman will say yes to any script, even in suspect genres such as hobosploitation and crap noir. Elsewhere on the net, a comment on Ben Stiller uses the same phrase and meaning: "Stiller works a lot but maybe he should work less and just wait for the better scripts to come his way..." Be selective, actors of America! Or keep giving us stuff to make fun of, whatever.

indoor washroom for dogs

I have to tip my hat to Jessie Young for spotlighting this term in her blog. It's one of those ludicrous canine pee pads — in this case, kind of a litter box for pooches. When I adopted my dog at four months old, his previous owner was using pee pads, and that system worked so well that he immediately christened my apartment seven times. But back to indoor washroom for dogs: that four-word pile-up makes the airport's animal relief area seem frank and almost scandalously graphic. It sounds like a place where Marmaduke and Snoopy can not only see a man about a dog (or should that be "a dog about a man"?) but fix their makeup and fluff their tails.

thirsty

When I want to turn my brain off and relax, that on/off on the back of my neck is so helpful. But when that doesn't work, I read books about basketball, like Phil Jackson's The Last Season, about the 2003-04 Los Angeles Lakers. Of course, that wasn't Jackson's last year after all, but given the Shaq-Kobe-Phil hate triangle that was exploding, making this book an All My Children-quality soap opera, who cares? Drama aside, Jackson — who now has won eleven NBA championships — showed that the right euphemism may be a secret ingredient of his success. Sez Jackson, of a hypothetical player: "The use of the word 'selfish' would indicate something fundamentally wrong with him as an individual, which would only cause resentment. Instead I'll say, 'You were a little thirsty out there, weren't you?' Being 'thirsty' for individual glory is why he abandoned the concept of team ball."

As we all know, such "thirst" exists well beyond the basketball court, and so few people anywhere are capable of playing "team ball," it seems. Not that I would know anything about that.

As a freelance writer and only child, I only thirst for ginger ale, iced coffee, carrot juice, smoothies large enough to drown a polar bear cub, and the whole world to bow down to me as its supreme beloved leader. Is that too much to ask?


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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 October 6th 2010, 1:43 AM
Comment by: Lawrence A. R.
In fact, some Japanese apartment buildings that allow pets, have indoor washrooms for dogs, where owners take their pets to wash their feet in order to avoid their trampling mud onto the clean indoor areas of the building after their daily visit outdoors to take care of the animal's poop and pee needs.
Wednesday October 6th 2010, 9:22 AM
Comment by: Sheila W. (San Antonio, TX)
Very enjoyable read--UNTIL I got to the way-too-common incorrect possessive "it's." Even if it was a typo, how did both you and your editor let it slip by?

Repeat after me: "it's" means it is; "its" indicates possessive

[We are duly chastened! Thanks for catching the error, which has been fixed. —Ed.]
Thursday October 7th 2010, 1:13 PM
Comment by: soledad (IL)
I must echo Sheila's (or it might be Shella, it's hard to tell) astute observation. I mean, Yada, Yada, DOH! How could you? There is not enough Kleenex in the supply cabinet for me to temper my reaction to your lachrymatory-inducing prose.

Whereas SW uses concise kindergarten instructional technique (proven btw, to work wonder in learning the alphabet) to reprimand your illicit grammar usage, I have chosen to use hyperbolizing irony. (I think I may have have invented a new genre! Thank you Mark.)

Your errant apostrophe just shows how we all, even the best writers, editors, lexicographers, lay prone to fallibility. And I proofread thousands of pages of stuff at my job and yet the tiniest slip that gets by I have to hear about it from either a coworker or my boss; so I'm gonna give you some slack. Keep ut the gud wworck, Mark.
Saturday October 9th 2010, 8:37 PM
Comment by: Frank G.
Had to share a delightful acronym-cum-euphemism, from a story by the science fiction writer Cordwainer Smith: One of his characters directs another to the AWEF (Animal Waste Evacuation Facility)

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