Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Clean Eating, Horse Cookies, and Other New York Values

As most word-watchers predicted, the American Dialect Society picked Netflix and chill as 2015's Most Euphemistic term. It was an obvious and strong choice, even though it makes me want to Netflix and take my own life at this point. But just because I'm sick of reading 800 bazillion Twitter jokes about the term doesn't mean it's not a worthy selection. I'm sure my nomination of fun-sized terrorists got lost in the mail.

Among the runners-up, I was charmed by swipe left/right. Just as dating app Tinder uses swiping (left for hell no, right for ooh yeah) those gestures have become symbolic of rejection and approval in general. So I guess you could say I swipe right for Bruce Campbell in bonkers horror comedy Ash vs. the Evil Dead, while I swipe left for Jesse Eisenberg's Chihuahua-like portrayal of Lex Luthor in the Batman/Superman movie. I'm not sure swiping is all that euphemistic, but it is useful.

Meanwhile, a top contender for 2016's Euphemism of the Year has emerged: Ted Cruz's not-as-sneaky-as-he-thought term New York values. As many folks have noted, the term is a transparent way of bashing (at the very least) liberals and probably Jews, gays, feminists, and other heathens with the audacity to not be straight white males who live on a farm or some other wholesome locale.

Whatever your values, I hope you'll swipe right for the euphemisms I've spotted in the past month. I wouldn't say they're lexical hotties, but they are full of hot air, guff, and bloviation.


In the pop-art sci-fi series Silver Surfer (written by Dan Slott and illustrated by Michael Allred) the spacefaring lead character and Earthling Dawn Greenwood explore the universe. Such exploration leads them to plenty of weird alien races, and those races share a word in common: flark, a substitute for the f-word. It's common for sci-fi to include invented swear words, since using real words would take the material out of children's markets, and new words have an appropriately alien feel. Flark is also similar to frak, the Battlestar Galactica obscenity that's been a hit in the geek world and beyond, if any part of the multiverse exists outside geekery anymore.

clean eating

Now there's an appealing term. Who wouldn't want to be a clean eater? George Costanza aside, few of us would eat out of a garbage can. Not to brag, but I never eat food that dropped on the floor—unless I really want to and am within the cleansing limits of the 5-second-rule. Unfortunately, clean eating and similar terms (such as raw) are being used, particularly by so-thin-they're-nearly-invisible celebrities, to cover up eating disorders. Clean eating = not eating. If this repugnance only involved celebrities, I wouldn't give a crap, but celebrities tend to spread their batty beliefs among the normals, especially women who are bombarded with oodles of body-image insanity already. But I shouldn't worry about the female population. Now that Barbie is making fatter dolls and using the popular euphemism curvy, I assume women no longer live in an insanely toxic culture. Hooray!

horse cookies

On OUPblog I was recently promoting the book I wrote but can't name in this family-friendly column. In that piece, I listed a bunch of horsey terms—like the well-known horsefeathers and horse apples—for nonsense, bunk, and twaddle. This lexical barn is large, but I think my favorite stud is horse cookies, maybe because it's both euphemistic and nauseating, a rare combination. The term was used vividly in the Toronto Sun in 2013: "So in other words we're stuck with the same pile of horse cookies that have been moved from one side of the corral to the other; just like during the prior regimes." As Cookie Monster or Kim Jong-un could tell you, few regimes are horse-cookie-free.

parted company by mutual consent

No area of the vocabulary, other than death, is as oft euphemized as getting fired. When a soccer coach recently got sacked, his team reached deep into the euphemistic abyss for a phrase to describe the event: "Chelsea Football Club and Jose Mourinho have today parted company by mutual consent. All at Chelsea thank Jose for his immense contribution since he returned as manager in the summer of 2013." Sadly, in the workplace, consent is hardly ever mutual: the only real consent is to lie about whatever really happened.

unhappy group

There are a lot of unhappy groups in the world, such as the depressed, morose, sad, angry, petulant, and miffed. But this odd term doesn't refer to the zillions of types of unhappy campers that exist on this toilet of a planet: it refer to people who are racist—or propelled by some other bigotry. Unhappy groups are hate groups, and I guess the term exists because hate sounds too judgmental or something. I learned this evil evasion in Spinglish: The Definitive Dictionary of Deliberately Deceitful Language by Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf, who wrote the book on twaddlesome terms that are also sneaky.

Finally, are you a snowflake?

I learned this term thanks to a friend who is a dog walker, and it names one of my most literal pet peeves: dog owners who stroll around on the sidewalk or elsewhere with no leash on their damn dog. Apparently, professional dog walkers are told to avoid snowflakes, a name chosen because snowflakes believe their dog is the one perfect dog in the multiverse who will never, ever cause problems for any other dog or person.

My dog-walking friend also shared a few unfortunate terms related to dog "training," meaning methods that are old-fashioned at best and barbaric at worst, like spraying stuff in your dog's face or yanking on a collar full of sharp prongs. As the jerks behind such awfulness put it, inflicting pain "gets your dog's attention" or "gives information" or "provides a correction." If you can't already see how horrible this is, imagine such terms being used to mask child abuse. "I wasn't hitting my kid, your honor! I was only providing information."

Ugh! I wish I could "provide a correction" for dog owners who think their pets are feeling-free vessels of robotic behavior. This is "information" I would be happy to "provide." "Getting the attention" of such jerks would even make me swipe right early and often.

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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 February 3rd 2016, 9:31 AM
Comment by: Constance M. (Waverly, IA)
Thanks Mark - you are on top of your game, as usual!
Friday February 5th 2016, 12:42 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
As a liberal yourself (and projecting your unexamined prejudices about the troglodytes outside the blue urban enclaves), I think you are missing the point about "New York Values".
The targets are the leftish elites: limousine liberals, celebrity socialists, Democratic machine politicians, etc. (some of whom happen to be Jews, gays, etc, but that's not the point--well, maybe about feminists, and certainly about SJWs). The bonus is it applies to Trump as well without having to mention his name again.

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