Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

2012 Meets Mr. Mayhem

2012, the year of the Mayan non-pocalypse, has passed away, joined the heavenly choir, bit the big one, bought the farm, joined the heavenly choir, taken a dirt nap, joined the majority, and croaked.

Let's bury it with terms of an appropriate nature: euphemisms for death. The following death-related terms aren't as common as kick the bucket, but they are useful ways to dodge the most depressing, dismal, and therefore dodge-worthy topic of all.

meeting Mr. Mayhem

In 2012, one of my favorite TV shows was Sons of Anarchy, the violent saga of a gun-running motorcycle club that doubles as a Hamlet-inspired family drama. Club members frequently betray and murder each other, and sometimes those dirty deeds are discovered, brought to the club's table, and debated parliamentary-style. A member can be voted out, and an ex-member can be murdered if there's a unanimous vote. That bloody decision is discussed with a memorable phrase: "All in favor of Frankie Diamonds meeting Mr. Mayhem?" In other words: "All in favor of killing Frankie Diamonds?" Presumably, this euphemism is a psychological buffer, as well as a precaution against listening devices or rats. I love this alliterative term and think it should be adopted by many organizations, from the Elks Club to your local knitting circle.

ending the subject's reanimated state

I've also been absorbed in The Walking Dead. This zombie show — which mows down showrunners as callously as zombies — recently introduced a post-apocalypse community called Woodbury, led by a whacko who calls himself the Governor. (If whacko sounds like a harsh term, bear in mind the Governor keeps severed heads in fish tanks.) Anyhoo, the Governor also keeps his zombified daughter alive, presumably hoping to cure her at some point. To that end, he had a guy named Milton doing experiments with people who were near-death to see if they retained any identity or memories once they turned zombie. In a memorable episode, Milton had sharpshooter Andrea on hand, waiting for some poor guy's death and zombification. Milton — a dweebish schlub — quaveringly told Andrea that once the experiment was over, "I need you to end the subject's reanimated state." So this is another term for kill, or perhaps slay is a better translation. I wonder if Buffy the Reanimated State Ender would have been as successful.


I saw movies this year too, and while I didn't dig Looper quite as much as Argo and Skyfall, its title did provide a euphemistic term. The word looper has had a few uses over the years, including an aeronautical one that's explained in an Oxford English Dictionary definition so circular it almost demonstrates the term: "One who loops the loop, or who has done so; a machine specially adapted for looping the loop." Green's Dictionary of Slang has examples of looper meaning a bullet, a punch, and (not surprisingly) a crazy person. In Looper, the term has a darker meaning: assassin. Specifically, it's a kind of assassin who kills folks sent backwards in time by time-traveling mafia guys. Eventually, one of the looper's victims is his own future self, thus completing the loop and inspiring the name. I had never considered the possibility of murdering my future self until this movie, so I guess I should thank director/writer Rian Johnson for inspiring my new retirement plan.

dark tourism

During the times I've visited Dallas, I've gained a little insight into this term. If you've never been, downtown Dallas feels like more of a memorial than a downtown area, with landmarks and memorials of the JFK assassination everywhere. That's not my cup of tea, but I can somewhat fathom the weird, train wreck-ish appeal of dark tourism, which Paul McFedries defines on Word Spy as "Tourism that involves travelling to places associated with death, destruction, or a horrific event." In this case, dark is a euphemism for death-obsessed and kinda creepy.

green-on-blue violence

The military deals in death and therefore has many occasions to euphemize it, including this term, which describes one element of the ongoing chaos in Afghanistan. As Tom Engelhardt wrote in Mother Jones: "In 2012 — and twice last week — Afghan soldiers, policemen, or security guards, largely in units being trained or mentored by the US or its NATO allies, have turned their guns on those mentors, the people who are funding, supporting, and teaching them, and pulled the trigger." This situation is known as green-on-blue violence, which has a nicer ring than "The dudes we're training are attacking us."

Speaking of green, did you give or get the green weenie in 2012?

To get the green weenie is never a good thing, and it hasn't been since it was first recorded in 1944 as military slang for "anything bad." The OED found it used in 1977 to suggest a romantic ending: "Jack. Well, she gave him the green wienie. Bob. The what? Jack.The green wienie. She broke up with him."

It also means death. A 1993 example states a sad truth: "I figure we're all on this earth to get the green wienie." The following 2004 use obviously came before the real death of Osama bin Laden: "If bin Laden has bitten the green weenie, it is more likely because of kidney failure than from thermobaric bombs at Tora Bora." You have to like a euphemism for death that would sound at home in a Dr. Seuss book, naughty limerick, or description of rancid hot dogs.

When I'm on my deathbed, I hope I remember this term. I'd be proud if my last words were, "Don't be sad. It's just my turn to get the green weenie."

(For more on the lexicon of dying, see Ben Zimmer's 2011 Word Routes column.)

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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 January 2nd 2013, 8:20 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)
Fascinating! I must admit I'd never heard of any of those terms, so thanks for that, Mark. It's interesting that even believers in an afterlife refer indirectly to death, saying a person has, for example, "passed on" or "crossed over" instead of "died".

My least favourite euphemism for dying is "passed away", which is so bathetic - it sounds as if the person has slipped through a side exit. That's why I'm most impressed with meeting Mr Mayhem, for it suggests that death is just as chaotic and explosive as life - which it surely is, at least for the loved ones left behind if not for the deceased.
Wednesday January 2nd 2013, 8:35 AM
Comment by: Judith C. (Newport, OR)
My husband, who is ex-law enforcement first used the term 'green weenie' (probably mid-70's) to describe 7-11 hot dogs, Usually, at that time, they were considered bit risky to eat on the late shift.. Never eat a geen weenie.
Wednesday January 2nd 2013, 10:43 AM
Comment by: pthorpe (Plano, TX)
Transition: "She made her transition peacefully last night".
Wednesday January 2nd 2013, 10:43 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Nice survey of these terms. It Calls to mind a couple of things:

1) I notice more and more that people now say "passed" rather than "passed away". What's that about?

2) I'm sure your sense of decorum kept you from mentioning another great euphemism for "die," one of my favorites, which is "sh*t the bed."
Wednesday January 2nd 2013, 11:45 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)
Orin, I think it's because the 'away' implies a fading [away], a passive mode of departure, whereas 'passed' on its own has an active, almost vibrant tone, as when a bus or a train passes.

"passed" is also open-ended, leaving the listeners to finish it how they wish and according to their beliefs: "passed into oblivion"; "passed over to the other side"; "passed into the bosom of Abraham"; etc.

"away" confers a finality to the expression that people are possibly reluctant to suggest. Compare these two replies when you knock on a door and ask for Mr Jones: 1. "Oh, he's gone." and 2. "Oh, he's gone away." The first gives you some hope that he's simply gone to the shops or to work or whatever, so if you call back sometime [it may be a long time, but no matter], you will see him again; whereas the second suggests you have less chance of ever seeing him again. Think what "away" does to verbs like "put" and "do". When St Paul wrote, "When I became a man, I put away childish things," he meant for good. And if I "do away with" someone, I'll need a good lawyer.
Wednesday January 2nd 2013, 12:13 PM
Comment by: Becky C.
Personally, I don't like "passed". My deranged mind always finishes the sentence with "mashed potatoes"!
Wednesday January 2nd 2013, 1:48 PM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)
Not out loud, I hope, Becky!
Wednesday January 2nd 2013, 2:09 PM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
Dear Mr. Peters,

I have no objection to anyone's 'Gothic' attitude, and am also fascinated by people's frantic avoidance of the word 'dead', but I am disappointed by any linguist's choice of TV programs which include those you mentioned. It's the sheer lack of style. Try "The Mentalist" before it's over, or get back videos. The word-play in that is equally macabre but far more elegant and it can also stretch your mind. It's one of the few mystery shows (I'd say police procedural, except no police department has ever put up with a brain as diagonal as Mr. Jane's) where I can rarely guess the bad guy, and the patter is lovely. And of course, there is Bones, though in that the grue is mostly visual.

I say these things not to hurt,(I grant you all the stars, thumbs and whatever for an excellent article,)But to . . . er, help you get a richer value out of your energetic morbidity.

And here I drink to you 'the parting glass', where I may rise and you may not. (Old Irish for green weenie.)
Wednesday January 2nd 2013, 2:32 PM
Comment by: Kathleen B. (Plano, TX)
As a Regency novelist, I've come across several interesting euphemisms for death from jolly old England. The most notable is: "stuck his spoon in the wall", and the one of my favorites "cocked his toes up".
Wednesday January 2nd 2013, 3:29 PM
Comment by: bob E. (plano, TX)
Uh-oh. From the lede: ... **joined the heavenly choir,** bit the big one, bought the farm, **joined the heavenly choir,** She's not only really dead; she's really most sincerely dead!

Also, Bill Murray as Carl Spackler delivers the one true definition of
"looper" in Caddy Shack. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9fipSc02HE
Friday January 4th 2013, 4:36 PM
Comment by: Margaret M. (Henley on Thames United Kingdom)
From the Antipodes, 'carked', 'croaked' or simply 'bought it'.
Here in the UK, 'game over' surely earns a few stars for stark simplicity.
My favourite is Scotland's 'gone away up the Crow Road'.
Friday January 4th 2013, 5:28 PM
Comment by: Becky C.
How about "belly up"?

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