Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Real Euphemisms From the Pig Farm

I've gone theme-happy with this column in recent months, looking at euphemisms for death, pregnancy, 30 Rock, and angels.

Enough cohesion! It's time for a random roundup of terms that have crossed my eye, brightened my day, and befuddled my brain. Please enjoy these rare, wretched, ridiculous terms. They say a lot about how much people enjoy saying nothing.

real ingredients

While passing a Yogurtland, I caught a glimpse of their menu and saw these words writ large: "REAL INGREDIENTS." Presumably, this refers to ingredients that are organic, natural, or healthy in some way (and probably gluten-free, like everything and your uncle these days). Then again, maybe I should take the claim literally. What if it only means the ingredients exist as part of a verifiable, material world we can see, hear, touch, taste, smell, and pay ridiculous prices for? By that standard, toxic waste and old socks would qualify as real ingredients. I'll stick with imaginary ingredients, thank you, since I'm watching my girlish figure.

area

My friends John and Alison recently had a baby, and when the wee baby Oskar is on the changing table, he sprays urine wildly, like a rogue firefighter. Such unprovoked aggression is common enough that a product exists called a Peepee Teepee, which is described here: "This cone-shaped cloth product makes diaper changes dry and easy! It is the ultimate diapering accessory for boys. Just place it over your baby boy's area to prevent unexpected showers from making a mess during changing time!" That's how I learned area is a pretty common term for a, well, area — especially if it belongs to a baby. Adults use the term too, especially when referring to the swimsuit area.

buying a pig farm

One of the highlights of the week for word lovers is Michael Quinion's World Wide Words, where I learned the following idiom. In an email about euphemisms for getting in trouble or dressed down in the military, reader Anthony Massey mentioned "In the Royal Navy I'm told that the standard admission of guilt, again by an officer to his superior, is to say at the very beginning of the hearing, I'm thinking of buying a pig farm, sir." This is reminiscent of the classic "I'm going to see a man about a dog" as a cover for a trip to the bathroom. I wonder if buying a pig farm is code for admitting guilt — which could entail a professional death — because of the common idiom bought the farm. Note to self: stop one-click shopping on Amazon for farms.

creative director

This is a term for a position that involves very little creativity or directing. On the Vanity Fair blog, Juli Weiner wrote of "...a trend amongst deep-pocketed brands straining for sophistication and relevance. The gambit: appoint an indisputably hip cultural figure as the ‘creative director' of a company or product. "In reality, that celeb in question is a paid spokesperson, a title presumably avoided for its clarity, truthfulness, and lack of pretention. I find this euphemism particularly clever and diabolical since it's the name of an actual job, a job that has no relation to its meaning. That's some mighty potent poppycock.

throwing oneself a fastball

Speaking of potent, on the American Dialect Society listserv, Neil Whitman recently quoted his "What Your Poo Is Telling You" calendar as saying "... some people just love the smell of their own farts. These unique individuals are [said] to throw themselves fastballs. These people like to fart on their own hands and then put their hands up to their own noses and inhale deeply." Whitman said he "never caught a whiff of this idiom before" and sought further information. I have no further information, and I'm sad to report this condition is not listed in the DSM-5.

codfish aristocracy

This term is only kinda sorta euphemistic, but it caught my eye when writing last month's column on euphemisms from the Dictionary of American Regional English. In the mid-1800's northeast, the codfish aristocracy consisted of Massachusetts families who made their fishbones in the codfish biz. Later, it became a term for the upper class in general, whether they knew a codfish from a catfish. It seems to have especially applied to upper-class folks who weren't as upper (or rich) as they liked to appear. In my professional opinion, this wonderful term could be used more broadly to insult and baffle. Next time someone gets on your wick, don't call them a hater, troll, or other vague, overused pejorative. Accuse them of being a codfish aristocrat and enjoy their gobsmacked mug.

Finally, have you engaged in self-deportation recently?

I'm months late in mentioning this, but the American Dialect Society — which voted hashtag 2012's word of the year — also made a splendid, spot-on pick for Most Euphemistic. Self-deportation — a "policy of encouraging illegal immigrants to return voluntarily to their home countries" — is as preposterous, creepy, and weird as euphemisms get. When even Newt Gingrich thinks a phrase is "anti-human," it might be a candidate for the most pernicious euphemism ever.

What's next? Ghosts asking people to self-haunt? Dogs begging mailmen to self-bite? Maybe the government could convince terrorists to self-drone.

There should be a self-help book about this.


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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 March 6th 2013, 8:34 AM
Comment by: brian A. (Maple Leaf Canada)
enough cohesion indeed...thank you for the timing...this was my first LOLITEM of the day (laugh out loud in the early morning)...cheers from Maple Leaf
Wednesday March 6th 2013, 9:20 AM
Comment by: Chandru S. (Chaska, MN)
i have always wondered when i read all the film credits which list - Producer, Executive Producer, Asst Producer, Co- Producer, Joint Producer, and many such permutation and combination of such ilk. what do all these actually mean?
Wednesday March 6th 2013, 9:32 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)Top 10 Commenter
About the 'fastball':
First (and only previous time) I heard of this predeliction was when I was in high school and reading a book by Jean Genet. He did not, of course, use that euphemism, but as it was in a book about prison life, I thought it might be something like the strange eliminatory habits and obsessions of intelligent apes restrained to a life with little happening around them.

I'm still inclined to believe such obsessions are born in a mind (or in instincts) tortured by deprivation. But then I AM naive.
Monday March 11th 2013, 4:28 PM
Comment by: Daniel B. (Bozeman, MT)
"made their fishbones" puzzles me. What am I missing?
Monday March 11th 2013, 5:05 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Daniel: It's just a joke based on the slang expression "to make one's bones," roughly meaning "to earn one's reputation." (In the mob, it's used for someone who's become a "made man.")
Monday March 11th 2013, 5:14 PM
Comment by: Daniel B. (Bozeman, MT)
Thank you Ben. I knew there was a slang expression related to bones, but just couldn't bring it to mind. The knees aren't the only thing going bad.

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