Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Associate Firewood and Other Fiddle-Faddle

Do you ever feel like firewood in the inferno of capitalism?

If so, you might relate to a manga (Japanese comic book) I’ve been reading called Fire Punch, which may not be appropriate for all audiences, or maybe any audiences, so, uh, read with caution or just forget I said anything.

Anyhoo, in this story of a post-apocalyptic, ice-age world, there’s a euphemism that hits close to home in the real world: firewood. Firewood refers to folks with special abilities or superpowers (kind of like Marvel’s mutants) who are used, abused, and thrown in the trash for the sake of the privileged few. Whatever your power—whether producing electricity or regenerating body parts like a lizard—that power is your ticket to a lousy life as a fuel source for powerful jerks and creeps.

Hard to think of a more relevant word to our reality, where the masses are chewed up and spit out to help billionaires get closer to being trillionaires. It’s apt. And yes, it’s more of a dysphemism than euphemism, so sue me.

As we all navigate the ongoing real dystopia, we don’t stop coming up with euphemisms to sugar-coat reality, thank goodness. I sure do have a sweet tooth.

light nutrition
This one is a doozy, and I have a high tolerance for dooz. On Instagram, someone posted a picture in which they looked so sunburned they resembled the Human Torch. Understandably, others made note of this. But this overcooked citizen took offense, saying:

“Please reconsider saying ‘you’re burnt or you must burn easily [sic] that is an unhelpful invocation that can make an unconscious mind feel vulnerable and fearful of the sun. This is not a burn, this is light nutrition.”  

Hey, if there’s one thing I hate, it’s an unhelpful invocation. But if there’s one thing I love, it’s a wacky, needless euphemism like light nutrition. I just hope this nutritious citizen isn’t a glutton for solar treats. If they stared into the sun during an eclipse, they might write it off as heavy light nutrition, which is not recommended by ophthalmologists.

safe technician
I assume safecrackers exist in real life, but I’m most familiar with them in fiction. There was a safecracker who appeared sporadically on The Shield, and good ol’ Selina Kyle (Catwoman) can crack a safe like few other thieves, spandex-clad or not. Perhaps due to the association with cat-themed anti-heroes and their ilk, some real-life practitioners have a different lexical preference, as seen in The Providence Journal:

[Francesco] Therisod prefers the term "safe technician" to safecracker, he said. He became a master at opening a safe by listening to the lock mechanism as he slowly turns the dial.

Hoo boy. Technician is one of those words that has been used in association with so many horse cookies that it emanates a steady and thick horsepucky scent, thanks to unappetizing terms such as sandwich technician. But hey, who am I to poke fun? I’m just a humble column technician.

associate chief
Continuing the theme of preposterous titles, here’s one from fiction, as mentioned in a review of The Takedown from Decider:

At this point in his career, lowly Lt. Monge is still a deputy, although he prefers the term “associate chief” despite the fact that denial of failure makes him look even more like a failure.

There’s the rub, folks. In fiction or reality, a gussied-up title only draws attention to that little thing we’re all trying to escape—reality. Please don’t let it catch me. I’m allergic to Penicillin and real life. 


Finally, do you have curly hair?


In Florida and other repressive regimes, that might mean you’re gay.

Thanks to the famously horrible “Don’t say gay” law in Florida, gay students such as graduating high school class president Zander Moricz have been muzzled. Before giving his graduation speech, Moricz was told if he made any reference to his sexuality, the school would cut his mic. So Moricz made a substitution:

“This characteristic has probably become the first thing you think of when you think of me as a human being. As you know, I have curly hair…There are going to be so many kids with curly hair who need a community like Pine View and they will not have one. Instead, they’ll try to fix themselves so that they can exist in Florida’s humid climate.”




I’m so used to euphemisms being used for evil, sneaky, or bonkers reasons, that I’m stunned to see one coined for good, clever, sane reasons. Moricz found a way to discuss his life honestly while pointing out the absurdity of this law and making his school, state, and homophobes everywhere look like the dopey fascists they are.

George Carlin said, more or less, that euphemisms are a way for people to place a fluffy pillow between themselves and reality. Moricz’s euphemism does the opposite—removing that pillow and forcing everyone to acknowledge reality, like it or not. That’s inspiring stuff we can all learn from, whether curly-haired, bald, or anywhere in between.
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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.