Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Bladder Spasms and Other Containment Anomalies

We're in the middle of one of the most important transitions in a democracy: from one Batman to another. But as the era of Ben Affleck (Batfleck) rapidly approaches, former Batman Christian Bale recently offered wise words to his successor: "Be able to take a piss by yourself… I found it to be ridiculously unheroic between takes when I said, 'Excuse me, I need to pee, could somebody undo me please?"

Bale's sage words provide a smooth segue to a euphemism that came to my attention during my careful, scholarly study of Batman comics. Though the Dark Knight has generally been portrayed as a badass, clown-punching paragon of cool, he has occasionally revealed a less suave side, like in an unfortunate story discussed by Brian Cronin. In this comic, Batman reveals to a goofball named Baphopmet that, during a classic moment of criminal-terrifying during his early career, the Caped Crusader made a no-no. As Batman himself put it — in the Christian Bale voice, please — "I had a…bladder spasm." Oh boy. Well, at least he had Alfred to change his Bat-Diaper.

Bat-incontinence aside, I've found plenty of other euphemisms that leaked around the edges of the English language. As the Boy Wonder might say, "Holy dishonest language, Batman!"

maternal wall

This term is a baffler at first. It sounds like either a medical term I don't want to think about or perhaps a barrier that is somehow nurturing. But the maternal wall is something even creepier: it's a variation of the glass ceiling. Like the glass ceiling, the maternal wall prevents women from progressing in their careers as far as non-moms. Let's hope we tear down the maternal wall soon: the last thing we need are baby walls making a mess in the workplace.

containment anomaly

I haven't seen the new Jurassic Park movie, but a little birdie told me about a euphemism from the film. I don't want to spoil the movie for you or myself, but it seems like a safe bet that the dinosaurs escape and create havoc. Apparently, such a breakout has a gentle, soothing name:containment anomaly. Ah, anomaly is always so helpful when lying. But I suppose containment anomaly sounds better than, "Holy crap, the dinosaurs are loose!"

courtesy disconnect

Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf's Spinglish: The Definitive Dictionary of Deliberately Deceitful Language is a wonderful look at sketchy language, including a metric truckload of euphemisms. Here's one I didn't mention in my recent review: the diabolically named courtesy disconnect. While this has the potential to be an almost honest term-it could mean a breach in courtesy or disagreement about courtesy-it means nothing of the sort. A courtesy disconnect is when you're on the phone with some awful robot, praying for human contact, and the robot hangs up on you. The IRS uses this term, as seen in a New York Times article about everyone's favorite agency. This is a bold term. It's nearly as brazen as if you gave the bird to a lousy driver and called it a courtesy gesture.


Now there's an important sounding word. We all want to plan for contingencies, don't we? But a contingency faculty member is, sadly, little more than a whim or dream, As the American Association of University Professors puts it: "Who are 'contingent faculty'? Depending on the institution, they can be known as adjuncts, postdocs, TAs, non-tenure-track faculty, clinical faculty, part-timers, lecturers, instructors, or nonsenate faculty. What they all have in common: they serve in insecure, unsupported positions with little job security and few protections for academic freedom." In other words, this is a sketchy slice of jargon for those low-paid grunts of the academic world who actually do most of the teaching, while the tenured professors collaborate with Lex Luthor, I assume.

pop-art productions

The top euphemism for a comic book has to be graphic novel, a term that gained ground in the 1980s with the artistic and commercial success of The Dark Knight Returns, Maus, and Watchmen. But here's an even battier term that's much older and less successful. For a brief period in the 1960s, the surging Marvel Comics universe (which is now so lucrative in the movies) got a little pretentious when Stan Lee decided he wasn't making comic books anymore, but pop-art productions. Sorry, Stan. Alliteration isn't the answer to everything.


Getting older is one of the top subjects for euphemisms, because I hate to tell you, you're not getting better: you're getting deader. The word old isn't the only ancient term that people want to avoid: even some euphemisms, like senior, have been around so long that their euphemistic-ness has gone flat, like an old pillow. In an article about a program for 50-plus folks, executive director Cris Braun said, "Many respondents wanted to avoid the word 'senior' and broaden our appeal to the 50 and up age group. The word 'next' evolved as the concept we wished to convey, the idea of 'What is your next adventure? What would you like to do next?'" I suppose that's good branding (ugh) but the reality-denial is painful. No one wants to admit the Grim Reaper will eventually be next too.

Eat any cicadas lately? No? What about a land shrimp or tree lobster?

Those are some euphs suggested by Matan Shelomi, who wants you to eat bugs. Well, he at least wants to remove the stigma from eating insects, and one of those suggestions is through euphemisms-er, marketing. Apparently, bugs are just as nutritious as a lot of other stuff we eat, and they're readily available. Hey, if people can con themselves into eating kale, insects can't be far behind.

Maybe soon at Trader Joe's or Whole Foods, we'll see the following displays:

  • Buzz artisans (bees)
  • Sleep disturbers (crickets)
  • Teacup white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (wasps)
  • Ant-Man associates (ants)
  • Kafka enthusiasts (cockroaches)
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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.