Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

A Moderately Pleasant-Looking Legacy

If you feared the end of the Bush administration meant there would be no more preposterous government-propelled euphemisms to keep us warm and confused in these dark nights of the soul, fear not! And while you're non-afraid, how'd you like to buy some legacy assets?

That's the sea-kitten-like rebranding of the stuff formerly known as toxic assets, which were frankly enough named that even a financial doofus like myself understood the concept, and knew not to touch them with a ten-foot accountant. Legacy loans and legacy securities are other rechristened turds in the punchbowl of finance.

Even before this basket of econo-poppycock arrived, legacy was building a great legacy as a euphemism. Why be an oldies act, like the Steve Perry-less Journey, when you can be a legacy act, as such colostomy-conscious combos are called? I recently saw American, Continental, Delta, and United referred to as legacy airlines, which means... old airlines, I guess. And the Post Office has spoken of legacy issues, issues that seem to encompass every financial hellhound that mail-folk are dodging like rabid dogs.

As a childless columnist, these euphemisms and criticisms are my only legacy, so we'd best get on with it. Here are more euphemisms that are the lexical equivalent of a Slanket, but without the blanket and sleeves, since times are tough.

moderately pleasant-looking people

If you are so ugly that your parents needed to tie a live squirrel around your neck and/or give you a Hamburger Helper shampoo just to get the dog to look your way, then I must regretfully report that this term applies to you. It was used by Alec Baldwin's Jack Donaghy on a recent 30 Rock, following a discussion of the bubble of adulation, lust, forgiveness, and praise that morbidly gorgeous people live in. The bizarre part is that the moderately pleasant person was Liz Lemon, played by Tina Fey, the object of a bazillion and three crushes worldwide. If she's moderately pleasant-looking, then what hope is there for the rest of us? None at all, I'm afraid. None at all.

cosmic disease

As a small boy (and gangly teen) immersed in comic books, I loved how Marvel characters Galactus and the Silver Surfer Yoda-ishly referred to their version of Red Bull, the power cosmic! As a big, superstitious yokel who can rarely resist knocking on wood or throwing innocent villagers in raging volcanoes, I religiously pay attention to cosmic portents when they appear in a horoscope or slice of cinnamon coffee cake. So you'd think I would enjoy the cosmic disease above all other diseases. Unfortunately, as the OED tells us, cosmic disease is merely a euphemism for syphilis, which I'm cutting down on this year.

vintage elevator

Speaking of all that is cosmic, let me share with you a case of cosmic, karmic vengeance wreaked by... well, someone, perhaps a collaboration between Zeus, Odin, and the law of averages. A few weeks ago I was gobsmacked to read an ad for my apartment building that listed, as a perk,the vintage elevator. Ay caramba! I guess that does sound better than The Death Trap, as The Vintage Elevator is more commonly known, since on the rare occasions when it "works" this paleo-doojigger has been known to trap tenants for hours. In a delicious case of sweet justice, just days after the proclamation of the vintage elevator, that very elevator was adorned with a bright orange biohazard-y DO NOT REMOVE THIS SEAL sign declaring that it was condemned by the city and will be out of order for at least a month. Let this be a lesson! Most euphemisms are fun and games, but when you go too far, mysterious forces and nasty jinxes will pee in your cornflakes.

rational money-maximizer

Being timely isn't usually my forte — my forte, for the curious, is training polar bears to be helper animals for the elderly — but this next item should make me seem at least semi-aware of the world outside my carefully cultivated bubble of dictionaries and Battlestar Galactica reruns. Rational money-maximizer is an economics term that isn't usually a euphemism, but it made my doublespeak-dar go off like a car alarm in hell when I spotted it in a Scientific American article about piracy. Here's John Watson interviewing economist Peter Leeson:

Watson: "Your central thesis seems to be that pirates are not the roving ruthless barbarians that they've been portrayed as but instead are very conscious and rational money-maximizers."

Leeson: "That's right. Piracy is an employment, and I think that we should think about sailors' decisions to enter piracy as opposed to, say, the legitimate merchant service as an employment decision just like anybody else's. The same features that are driving pirates' behavior drive our behavior when we think about employment options. And they are rational again in the traditional economic sense, which is that they respond to incentives and they consistently act to achieve their goals."

This is the most self-esteem-boosting event in pirate history since the invention of the eye-patch. Unemployed pirates are already updating their resumes by replacing ruthless roving barbarian with rational money-maximizer. Voila!

But why stop with pirates? Being a rational money-maximizer could significantly improve the legacy of non-sea-dogs as well; it sure sounds better than crook, hustler, Ponzi artist, organ harvester, scammer, senator, and supervillain.

Perhaps bank robbers like the Irreconcilable Differences Bandit would be more properly named as the Rational Irreconcilable Differences Money-Maximizer. That's gonna be tough to fit in a headline, but I'm a euphemism connoisseur, not a headline monkey. I can't do everything for you people.

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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 May 6th 2009, 10:08 AM
Comment by: Paul S. (Boulder Creek, CA)
You need a sign in your building: "Vintage Elevator is out of order. Please use the aerobo-vator (stairs) to the left."
Wednesday May 6th 2009, 3:19 PM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
I have not laughed out loud in a long time. Where have you been? I think you need to talk to Jon Stewart. Loved it!!!
Wednesday May 6th 2009, 5:43 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
The "tone" of your post is perfect! Somehow there has to be a way to rid the world of "serious" thought and you certainly have a heads up on that!
Thursday May 7th 2009, 11:16 AM
Comment by: Clarence W.
Burglars must be rational capital-maximizers.

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