Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Compelling, Artisan Euphemisms

Do you prefer artisan malarkey, artisan-style poppycock, or artisanal mumbo-jumbo?

All three are readily available these days, as it seems every grocery-store aisle, bakery, coffee shop, and restaurant is selling artisan cheese, artisan sandwiches, or the bizarrely labeled artisan-style bread. Even Dunkin' Donuts is, preposterously, selling artisan bagels. If a remake of Soylent Green were to be released — and it probably will, since every movie ever is constantly being remade, rebooted, reimagined, or recombobulated — it would surely be called Artisanal Soylent Green. Artisan-mania, which Nancy Friedman dissected in her Candlepower column last year, makes me want to eat paint.

Though the Oxford English Dictionary reminds us artisan has been "in extended use" since at least the late 1500s,  this trend sure feels like part of a particular gullibility of the moment, when so much food seems designed to sustain our images as much as our bodies. But I can't figure out if the word is really a euphemism or not. It may be more of a buzzword, since artisanal cakeballs are mainly just cakeballs. Mmm, cakeballs. I just learned they existed recently. Anyway, what was I talking about?

For a linguistic sugar rush, please enjoy this month's euphemisms, which I assure you have been collected and analyzed artisan-style. I hope you enjoy them, though they aren't for everyone. Truth be told, they contain enough gluten to choke a horse.

heritage donkeys

In the spirit of sea kittens, this term has been cooked up by well-meaning animal activists who, once again, have created some unintentional comedy. As Cristina Costantini wrote in The Huffington Post, "'Burros' are small donkeys typically found in Latin America and in the borderlands of the United States. Activists have coined the term 'heritage burros' for Southern California's wild donkey population." Like legacy, the word heritage is building quite a legacy of hooey. Soon, a shady landlord may explain away bedbugs as heritage critters.


To most people, an amateur is merely a non-professional, like an Olympic athlete or a student. Often, the word is used disparagingly for someone who may be getting paid but sure doesn't deserve it. That's the meaning used by Walter in The Big Lebowski, who refers to what a character in a less obscene movie would call "Bleepin' amateurs!" However, in the words of one cartoon spy — Sterling Archer — the term has another meaning that is worth recording for its preposterousness. As sleazy Archer puts it in his book debut: "By 'amateurs,' I don't mean women who are less-than-adept in the ways of love: I just mean non-hookers."

repatriation holiday

I spotted this one thanks to a mention by Shawn Ryan (creator of The Shield) on Twitter, and it is what veteran euphemism watchers call a doozy. As Charles Duhigg and David Kocieniewski wrote in The New York Times, this isn't the type of holiday that involves tanning or drinking tropical elixirs with little umbrellas. Rather, a repatriation holiday "would permit American businesses to bring money home (from abroad) without owing large taxes." In other words, this would be another huge tax break for job creators and Moneyed Americans, God bless their Swiss bank accounts.

summer complaint

As summer gets closer and closer, I hope none of you are suffering from the summer complaint. This term — courtesy of the magnificent Dictionary of American Regional English — is as tastefully vague as they come. At first glance, I thought this sounded a little menstrual, until my brilliant mind remembered that Aunt Flo comes a little more often than annually. The truth is, a summer complaint also has nothing to do with women, sunburn, or humidity: it means "A severe gastrointestinal infection esp of children in summertime; broadly, diarrhea."  This term is found in various regions and bathrooms.


In Henry Hitchings' fantastic book The Language Wars, a few euphemisms were mentioned, most notably diseases of indulgence (venereal diseases) and guide (a spy). The Oxford English Dictionary records this meaning, defining it as "One employed or forced to accompany an invading army, in order to show the way, give information about the enemy's country, position, etc." The term dates from the 1500's and is elaborated further in this 1802 use from a military dictionary: "Guides, are generally the country people in the neighbourhood where the army encamps: they are to give you intelligence concerning the country [etc.]." Since betraying your country is considered gauche in some circles, I can see why the euphemism was needed. A guide is so helpful when you want to find the best local restaurants, hiking trails, and top-secret military assets.

Finally, do you like compelling things?

While at Trader Joe's recently, I noticed these words: "Our buyers travel the world in search of new products w/enticing flavors & compelling prices." While Trader Joe's prices aren't compelling like a Christopher Nolan movie, I have to admit they're usually low. However, "Low prices!" doesn't scratch the right itch at Trader Joe's. They don't want customers to feel like money-grubbing bargain-sniffers. They want customers to feel like connoisseurs of fine foods, who just want a scintillating yogurt at a compelling price.

It would be odd if this meaning caught on elsewhere. If it did, we might describe the Smurfs as a compelling race, or 5"3' Mugsy Bogues as the most compelling player in NBA history. In winter, the days would get more and more compelling. Not to brag, but my bank account would be very compelling. I'd tell you why, but I'm out of room, and it's not a very compelling story (though it is an artisan story in the sense that I'd like to charge you a ridiculous fee to hear it).

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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 June 6th 2012, 9:04 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
I enjoyed very much the Artisan topic, a new adjective I believe! Chinese robot minded people deserves the credit for frequent use of the word. But did not get compel very much to use in my everyday conversation. I think Moneyed Americans are out of context for compelling business
Summer Complaints is also a nice introduction of funny word. Thanks for the column anyway.
Wednesday June 6th 2012, 9:37 AM
Comment by: Tamara H. (Indianapolis, IN)
My current favorite euphemism is "Encore Performance", which our local public radio station uses often when in fact they mean "Repeat". I've heard it often used on TV as well, especially on networks like the Hallmark Channel, where everything seems to require a smidge of grandiosity. Maybe networks can start referring to repeats as "Artisanal Encore Performances". Great article!
Wednesday June 6th 2012, 10:24 AM
Comment by: William C. (Carbondale, IL)
Tamara, the other PBS euphemism I hear a lot around here is "celebration," meaning fund drive. During the celebration, one is likely to hear many encore performances. Only PBS (which I wholeheartedly support both philosophically and financially) can serve leftovers, hit you up for money, and call it a celebration.
Wednesday June 6th 2012, 11:22 AM
Comment by: Elizabeth C.
I have from time to time had to correct copy where writers wrote "artesian" when they really meant "artisanal." I've been waiting for that fun mistake to creep into a major ad campaign sometime, but I haven't noticed it yet. I've always heard that the secret to great New York bagels is the water, though. Maybe that's what Dunkin' Donuts really means.
Wednesday June 6th 2012, 5:54 PM
Comment by: Ivan's Institutional Account (New York, NY)
I couldn't agree more with you, regarding "Artisan". Over and seemingly oddly used to the point of having no meaning. It conjures images of Leonardo da Vinci or Michael Angelo making your bread/coffee/etc. Pretty silly.
Wednesday June 6th 2012, 7:52 PM
Comment by: Melissa M. (Hillsborough, CA)
I am also on the absurd artisanal bandwagon. Between the limited edition collectible breakfast cereals and the artisanal muffins one hardly needs the Renaissance.
Something from the 1% corner: while a repatriation holiday is a ridiculous phrase, it would actually deliver more tax revenue to the US. Right now, as a U.S. company, if you have factories or a store in England, (for example) you are taxed there on profits and then would be taxed again, at an even higher rate, for bringing any of that cash back to the U.S. to invest in the American side of the business. As a result no U.S. company brings the profits they make abroad back to the U.S.; they reinvest them in the foreign operation, even if that would not be their inclination. i.e. I have $200,000 pounds profit from a London store, I don't really want another, I'd rather open a store in Miami, but I'll pay double taxes if I try to bring the English profit home...so I'll expand my London store. Kind of a bad incentive.
Thursday June 7th 2012, 12:21 PM
Comment by: Susan C.
Anyone who can work cakeballs, bedbugs, Sterling Archer, Aunt Flo and the Smurfs into one funny article has my vote! It's a compelling, artisanal, gluten-filled celebration of euphemisms~

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