Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

A Decade of Drivel: Happy Column-versary to Me

Back in the days of yore historians call 2008, I started writing a little column about euphemisms: this column. Every month since, I've turned in a roundup of soft, flabby, shabby, horsepucky-infused terms from the present and past, fact and fiction.

Over that time, I've written a lot of other stuff: a book, articles, reviews, jokes, humor pieces, comedy sketches, comic book scripts, trivia calendars, columns about Jack Kirby, white papers about data visualization, names for various products, and ad copy that appeared on socks and oven mitts. But I haven't enjoyed writing anything as much as this column, and I doubt I ever will.

I have not lacked for material. As mentioned in my review of Maggie Balistreri's terrific book The Evasion-English Dictionary, I consider human beings Evasion Sapiens. And it's never been easier to throw a butterfly net over our horse cookies, whether widespread or obscure.

So thanks to current Wall Street Journal language columnist and former Visual Thesaurus big cheese Ben Zimmer for giving me the gig—and to current grand poobah Kristin Eckhardt for sticking with me.

In the spirit of my tenth anniversary, here's a look back at 10 euphemisms from previous columns that I particularly love—I mean, loathe! Loathe, obviously.

I would never want you to think I actually like humanity's persistent proclivity for dancing around the truth like no one's watching. Perish the thought!

scooping technician
This term appeared in my first column, and it's still a gem—or should I say a turd? A 2008 Augusta Chronicle article used the term: "On this run, the 'scooping technicians,' as they call themselves, have netted a fair amount of dog poo. This niche job has been a successful venture for Mr. Roberts, who owns Doggie Biz Pet Waste Removal with his wife." I've had my dog longer than this column, so at the risk of bragging, I'm quite a scooping technician myself. I reckon this term is also a fine synonym for euphemism columnist.

This would be a fine name for a Jimi Hendrix fan, but it's just a weird word for a self-professed alien abductee.

My favorite euph from a movie is probably this gem from Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. As Ron tries to persuade colleague Veronica Corningstone to revise her policy of not getting romantic with co-workers, Ron says, "For just one night let's not be co-workers. Let's be co-people." Unlike Sex Panther cologne, Ron's rhetoric is positively co-seductive.

cosmic disease
No, this isn't what made half the universe go poof in Avengers: Infinity War. It's syphilis. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the name comes from its commonality. I guess alternatives would be universal condition or everybody-has-it bad thing.

diabetes of the blow-hole
In other medical news, here's a dysphemism, the euphemism's loud-mouthed, trash-talking, too-blunt sibling. I've always been fond of slipping a few dysphemisms in among the euphemisms, and this one's a doozy. Diabetes of the blow-hole, recorded by the ultra-folksy and uber-rigorous Dictionary of American Regional English, means diarrhea. FYI, so does the any-go-flum-bums.

designer pig
It just sounds better than genetically modified pig or mutant pork.

Overall, I think the show Sons of Anarchy kind of stunk, which is a shame, because it had the potential to be as great as The Shield or Breaking Bad but ended up closer to a dud like Dexter. Still, I can't fault the show for its creative euphemisms, such as one self-applied by Jimmy Smit's character Nero Padilla, who proclaimed: "I'm a companionator. I bring people together. I'm all about the love." Translation: he's a pimp.

gentleman turkey
Few words amuse me more than gentlemen, particularly in gentleman cow, a preposterous evasion of bull. The OED records a similarly bananas term in The Wonderful Adventures of Captain Priest, an 1855 book by Samuel A. Hammett which makes reference to "A pugnacious gentleman turkey." This euphemism could be of further use, especially if we need an alternative to the much-used toxic masculinity. Maybe someone will try to soften that term by calling it poisonous gentlemanhood.

electronic person
This euphemism for a robot turned up in a European Parliament Committee on Legal Affairs report: "The most sophisticated autonomous robots could be established as having the status of electronic persons with specific rights and obligations, including that of making good any damage they may cause." Welp, as a lifelong fan of Battlestar Galactica, I have always felt robots have the right to exterminate my species.

Finally, let's remember a euphemism I spied on the back of a cereal box, where I get all my news.

"Fiber One cereals help you to achieve your fiber goals by bringing unique flavors and fiber together for a delicious, satisfying taste experience."

I've had a blast doing these columns, and I hope to do many more. If the gods allow it, I would welcome ten more years of twaddle. But however long I mine for malarkey, I hope that the results, in some small way, help you achieve your fiber goals.

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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 October 11th 2018, 5:12 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Apropos "electronic person" there seems to me an interesting legal argument around the question of obligations. If the robot has rights, then it must have matching responsibilities. When it causes damage, does it admit liability? How does it pay? Does it have a bank account and from where does the money come? Perhaps it's paid for work? The debate continues.
Wednesday October 17th 2018, 10:35 AM
Comment by: Sam T. (Tucson, AZ)
Congratulations on your anniversary. Yes: May you have delight in the continuation of this column for another decade or so.
Sam Turner, Tucson, Arizona
Wednesday October 17th 2018, 11:38 AM
Comment by: Deborah A.
Congratulations on your anniversary!
Wednesday October 17th 2018, 4:48 PM
Comment by: Rain
Congratulations, and we wordies need another ten years of your columns. When it comes to robots, I stand with Isaac Asimov, who wrote that robots must abide by three laws concerning humans. I won't list them, but they all clearly concern the high regard artificial intelligence must have for humanity. So, no extermination allowed.
Thursday October 18th 2018, 7:50 PM
Comment by: Gail B. (Budgewoi Australia)
Thanks Mark, these and all your work always puts a smile on my face! Some of these are so strange - thanks again for keeping us "honest" in our understandings of weird ways of saying things!

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