Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Ameliorating Vintage Replacements

No one wants to be replaced in someone's heart or cubicle. Still, getting a pink slip at work or from a sig other is like a chocolate cupcake made of pizza compared to the sense of replacement I recently spotted in a New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert.

Kolbert discusses Svante Pääbo's efforts to map the Neanderthal genome, along with plenty of other subjects, including the discovery of Homo sapiens/Neanderthal hootchie-kootchie. Less romantically, Kolbert writes, "As they moved north and east, modern humans encountered Neanderthals and other so-called 'archaic humans,' who already inhabited those regions. The modern humans 'replaced' the archaic humans, which is a nice way of saying they drove them into extinction."

Nice. We romanced 'em and replaced 'em. Not a great line on humanity's resume. Well, before I'm replaced, I'd better get to this month's round-up of out-there, underused euphemisms, which make me feel a little better about my species. Even if we kill everything we touch, and most alien civilizations call us "the cockroach of the universe," we do have a tremendous talent for euphemizing. People are known as the hairless apes, but we're really the rebranding bonobos.


I've been reading former Boy Scout AND choirboy Keith Richards' biography Life, and I don't think I could possibly be enjoying this book more: it is a wealth of info on Mick Jagger's personality flaws, intra-band girlfriend-stealing, and knife-fighting strategy, among other sleazy topics. Also, I feel like co-writer James Fox deserves some kind of prize for giving shape to what I suspect were some pretty out-there rambles from Richards, while making the whole thing sound authentic and distinctly Keefish. Thankfully, I found a euph or two in these pages too: "You could get hold of speed at any truck stop; truck drivers relied upon it. Stop over here, pull over to some truck stop and ask for Dave. Give me a Jack Daniel's on the rocks and a bag. Gimme a pigfoot and a bottle of beer." In that last line, Richards is quoting a Bessie Smith song, and though pigfoot looks like another fishy phrase, it is actually a type of fish.


Here's another milestone in malarkey that that would fit right into the Keith bio. The word girl has had a vibrant life in the language, including its surprising beginning as a word for girls or boys, back around 1300. We all know boys will be boys and girls will be girls, but did you know girls can also be cocaine? That meaning is shown in two Oxford English Dictionary examples from 1967 ("She had taught me to snort 'girl'") and 1985 ("Diz wouldn't even think about the hard drugs but the 'girl'..the 'girl' put you in another frame of mind"). Clearly, those aren't the kind of girls who wear pretty ribbons and go on to write scholarly articles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

vintage details and charm

I hate to pick on the apartment building I live in again, but another of their ads is cruising for a bruising. Last time, I was dismayed at the term vintage elevator. As I mentioned at the time, "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." This time, another ad went even vaguer, hyping the building's vintage details and charm. Great Odin's beard! What a transparently sleazy way to discuss things as long in the tooth as cavedudes and Keith Richards. I just wonder, why restrict it to buildings? On my dating profile, I could spin grey hairs as vintage follicles. Senior moments could be vintage moments. Even the ancient Druids might feel like tween heartthrobs if we called them by the more respectful title of vintage Druids.

finish the check

Since I am from Buffalo, NY, I should find hockey quite scintillating. I do not. I guess I never drank enough Tim Horton's coffee, because I find this icy sport as dull as a soccer match played during a drizzle of dishwater. Still, I'm broad-minded enough to appreciate a hockey term that may be new to other non-hockeyheads. Cam Cole used it in a Vancouver Sun article on hockey violence: "It is a league in which the minimum expectation of all but the most skilled players is to 'finish the check' — a euphemism for 'punish the guy who just had the puck with as hard a hit as possible.'" Warning: if you finish the check anywhere zambonis do not roam, consult a lawyer immediately.

Finally, have you tried to ameliorate a situation lately?

I sincerely hope not, if you are using that phrase the way meth cook Walter White (spoiler alert) recently did on Breaking Bad. Concerned that druglord/chicken maven Gus Fring was going to kill him, Walter asked scumbag attorney Saul Goodman for the number of "Someone who can ameliorate the situation." Walter's not blazing a totally new trail, since the murder game is known for its tricky language, like mechanic and push a button on a guy. This is understandable. In some circles, murder is considered quite gauche.

Ameliorate has meant "to make better, to get better" since at least 1767. Of course, I wouldn't be much of a word nerd if I didn't mention amelioration, which is how words take on pleasanter meanings over time, like how terrific lost its terror and awesome became more full of "Dude!" than awe. Some words just wear down, lose their bite, grow stale, pick your metaphor. In any case, lexical amelioration is far more gradual and organic than the whacking proposed by Walter.

With this meaning in mind, we could take our replacement of the Neanderthals to an even vaguer, creepier place. We didn't just replace our ultra-close relatives: we ameliorated them! In fact, we're ameliorating everything on this planet, and we'd probably ameliorate the moon if we could. Sigh. If any invasion-happy Visitors, Martians, Cylons, Klingons, or Reptoids ever get the same idea about us, even the robo-clone of Johnny Cochran might not get us off the hook.

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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 5th 2011, 6:48 AM
Comment by: Jack C. (Altanta, GA)
What a delightful, whimsical read! You're my new hero, Mark.
Wednesday October 5th 2011, 10:36 AM
Comment by: Constance M. (Waverly, IA)
Wednesday October 5th 2011, 7:12 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
I was about to turn off my computer, and then I found you.
Just like a super magnetic attraction, I read the entire article to remove all dust particles from my feelings and depression of mind. A perfect medicine at the right time. We like to clone another Mr. Peter.
It will be considered as another "amelioration" work I believe. For the sake of displeased humanity we need you forever. You know why? Because,you generate smile on our face.
See you soon.
Wednesday October 5th 2011, 8:27 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I agree with those above: you are only one hair's width from Ben! Loved you humor!
Thursday October 6th 2011, 2:49 PM
Comment by: Tru D.
Yes the charming "Victorian elevator" aka the death trap!!! sounds like the one I used to ride to see my lover in San Francisco.
Wednesday October 19th 2011, 9:34 AM
Comment by: OldFox (Smoky Mountains, TN)
This word is itself derived from a euphemism. Amelia Earhart became the most famous female aviator and so the notion of elevating, moving higher, soaring, flying to a more exalted, welcome, favored, cultured state, with a dollop of feminine charm and softness gave birth to the words "Ameliafy" and "Earhartorate" (puff up with more air), which was soon morphed into "ameliorate" as we know it today.

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"Push a button on a guy" and other euphemisms.
A Charles Bronson movie redefined "mechanic."
"Vintage elevator" sounds a lot better than "death trap."