Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Bald-Faced Factual Shortcuts

As a euphemism columnist, I admire the work of anyone who catches dodges, evasions, and Orwellian whoppers in their butterfly nets. So I was thrilled, during the Republican National Convention, to find The Week's list of ways the media didn't say veep candidate Paul Ryan was a liar.

This list contains enough horsepucky to fill ten barns, with terms such as misleading, distortion, doublespeak, factually shaky, and Wolf Blitzer's batty phrase, "fact-checkers will have some opportunities." However, the best term — and a strong candidate for Most Euphemistic Term of the Year — is factual shortcut.

This linguistic longcut was taken by the AP's Cal Woodward and Jack Gillum: "GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan took some factual shortcuts during the Republican convention when he attacked President Barack Obama." I love how this term makes the liar seem like a clever trailblazer through the fact-strewn weeds. Doesn't a factual shortcut sound tempting and practical? Fact-based roads are so clogged with pesky truths and uncooperative realities.

Anyhoo, I've taken the scenic route, but it's finally time to discuss the rest of this month's euphemistic rarities and wonders. I promise all these terms are real: real malarkey.


In the season five premiere of Sons of Anarchy, the pulpy cable drama about a gun-running motorcycle club led by a Hamlet-style family, there were probably three minutes out of ninety that are appropriate to mention in this column. Fortunately, those three minutes included a humdinger of a euphemism, used by Jimmy Smit's new character Nero Padilla, who said: "I'm a companionator. I bring people together. I'm all about the love." This might be the nicest euphemism for a pimp ever: it would look almost reputable on a business card. I like it almost as much as holistic health center, a Toronto euphemism for a brothel.

becoming more selective

I love when I rewatch a beloved movie and notice a euphemism that never triggered my Spidey sense before. That has happened with Anchorman, and it happened again while I was rewatching This is Spinal Tap, the legendary mockumentary that is nearing its 30th anniversary. During a scene where rockumentarian Marty DiBergi (played by Rob Reiner) interviews the band's paddle-toting manager, Ian Faith, DiBergi asks if the fact that Spinal Tap is playing smaller venues means "the popularity of the group is waning." The optimistic Faith denied it, saying "I just think that their appeal is becoming more selective." This euphemism is going to come in very handy when I explain to my mother why the chances of her ever getting a grandchild are not grim or slim: they're simply becoming ever more selective. 


A friend of mine (who I'll call Batwoman, for the sake of anonymity, and because I am obsessed with all things Batman-related) recently had two weddings to attend in one weekend, and she had euphemistic ways of describing both brides. Of the first, Batwoman said, "She hasn't gelled as a human being yet." After further questioning, Batwoman explained that this meant the friend was immature. For the non-geller, Batwoman predicted a two-year marriage and, eventually, a Jello-like firming. As for the second bride, Batwoman said, "She has a capacity for making out with other men." While capacity may suggest only a potential, Batwoman revealed that this bride has much reason to blush, since she makes out with dudes every time she is drunk, which is often. Batwoman wouldn't even rule out this happening during the capacity-haver's own wedding and reception. This paragraph has been brought to you by the sanctity of marriage.

one-comma salary

This summer, J.A. Adande used a monetary term I could relate to as an economic peon. In regards to mega-popular Jeremy Lin, who flew the coop from the Knicks to the Rockets, Adande mentioned "The stunning amount of money involved for a guy who had a one-comma salary last season and didn't play in enough games to ‘qualify' for rankings among the league's scoring leaders." One-comma salary is a neat way of saying Lin wasn't one of the NBA kabillionaires: he was only a mere thousandaire, as Stephen Colbert puts it.

Irish negotiating technique

In her terrific book Bossypants, Tina Fey refers to co-star Alec Baldwin's Irish negotiating technique, described in this parenthetical aside to the story of how she talked Baldwin into committing to 30 Rock: "(Alec and I like to joke now about what I call his ‘Irish negotiating technique,' which usually boils down to his saying ‘They offered me more money and I told them to go f*** themselves.')" That asterisked phrase reminds me of another euphemism recently mentioned by slang scholar extraordinaire Jonathan Lighter on the American Dialect Society listserv. Lighter wrote, "My grandfather would go only so far as, ‘Aaah, tell him to go chase himself!'"

Finally, are you an ape-leader?

No, that's not a reference to Tarzan, Koko the gorilla, or even the wonderful Jane Goodall. Rather, an ape-leader is an old maid. If you were thinking, "I thought old maids were more likely to collect cats than project-manage gorillas," well, you may not have heard the expression used in this OED example from 1605: "'Tis an old proverb, and you know it well, That women dying maids lead apes in hell." That proverb spawned the term ape-leader. Green's Dictionary of Slang has several uses, the oldest from 1632:  "His son irrevocably lost, my daughter resolutely bent to be an Ape-leader in Limbo."

Of course, the idea of stigmatizing women who don't marry is sexist and awful, but rarely does awful sexism come in such a vivid, preposterous package. I love the idea of ape-leaders, and since I'm unmarried myself, maybe I have a similar fate in store. That would be fine with me. I kind of wish I had become a zoologist or primatologist, so I'd be happy to spend eternity helping chimps or bonobos avoid the nastier hellhounds and lakes of fire.

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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 3rd 2012, 7:43 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
Re:"ways the media didn't say veep candidate Paul Ryan was a liar". Is it euphemistic when the "euphemistic-fizer" cannot factually demonstrate what the euphemism implies? It seems in the other examples the euphemisms are easily shown to stand in place of the implied.
Wednesday October 3rd 2012, 11:22 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Amen, Gordon! It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it. Anyone?

A useful more-than-one-word euphemistic phrase: "He has such a deep respect for the truth that he uses it very sparingly." Oh well, like my grandmother used to say, "Never let the truth interfere with a good story!"

The Happy Quibbler
Wednesday October 3rd 2012, 11:22 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Amen, Gordon! It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it. Anyone?

A useful more-than-one-word euphemistic phrase: "He has such a deep respect for the truth that he uses it very sparingly." Oh well, like my grandmother used to say, "Never let the truth interfere with a good story!"

The Happy Quibbler
Wednesday October 3rd 2012, 4:54 PM
Comment by: Rein T. (Eden Prairie, MN)
There are roughly equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats in the US. Did you mean to imply that half of your neighbors are liars, and it is okay to insult them?
Sunday October 7th 2012, 12:49 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Shha...,Peter found women again: this time to lead apes.
Well, we need constructive criticism from companionator and to some capacity from evolutionist, and also from one, two or three comma salary holders may join in this race.
Monday October 8th 2012, 1:35 PM
Comment by: Joann Z. (Rockford, IL)
Mr. Peters, by denigrating other's politics, you discredit your work. Define "lier". What exactly were Rep. Ryan's lies? Please list.
Tuesday October 9th 2012, 9:04 AM
Comment by: Rein T. (Eden Prairie, MN)
Joann-- I think I can help here. "Liar", this context, means someone presenting evidence to someone who has none. If Ryan's critics had a substantive argument, they would have made it.

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