Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Conscious Uncoupling With Possible Debt Adjustment

A few of my female friends have a fun hobby.

Not knitting. Not kickboxing. Not baking pies. Not vampire-slaying.

Hating Gwyneth Paltrow.

These friends I won't name (Alison, Laura, and Natalie) take great glee in making fun of the blonde actress, who, according to some, has made being a pretentious, out-of-touch harpy into an art form. My friends' hatred was in full flower when Alison and Laura gave Natalie an extraordinarily defaced and defiled Paltrow-penned cookbook as a birthday present. If future archeologists find this gift, they may think Paltrow was a euphemism for Satan.

I haven't fully grasped my friends' loathing in the past, but I'm beginning to understand, thanks to a humdinger of a euphemism Paltrow used to describe her impending divorce: conscious uncoupling.

My editor Ben Zimmer has already suggested that this self-help-y term is a candidate for Euphemism of the Year, and I can't argue. Breaking up, separating, divorcing, and even growing apart all sound so negative — and clear. Conscious uncoupling is obviously a better alternative: it consists of pretention wrapped in denial wrapped in mumbo-jumbo with a narcissistic glaze. For more on this term of twaddle, check out Misty Harris' article for Canada's PostMedia News, which contains some of the best Twitter jokes on the topic.

Anyhoo, it's time I consciously uncoupled from this introduction and got to this month's roundup of euphemisms, which prove Ms. Paltrow doesn't have a monopoly on malarkey.


That may sound like a rather un-euphemistic euphemism: but it's more family-friendly that the word it avoids, which has also been replaced by terms such as motor-scooting and melon-farming. I noticed monkey-fighting in a TV ad for that crapola classic Snakes on a Plane. For the TV version, Samuel L. Jackson's famous line becomes even more ridiculous: "I have had it with these money-fighting snakes on this Monday-to-Friday plane!" I much prefer absurd substitution to bleeping, which sounds too much like a car alarm for my tastes. Let's hope this fun term pops up in the next edition of Jesse Sheidlower's The F-word, thought I don't have much hope for Monday-to-Friday. That euphemism catching on would be un-Monday-to-Friday-believable.

emerging markets

Is your business trying to break into emerging markets? Then you've probably used this euphemism for developing countries, which, now that I think about it, is also a euphemism for the third world, which I suppose is a euphemism too, dagnabbit. Words like developing and emerging are useful verbal band-aids for describing countries with problems, but they could be useful elsewhere. For example, as an adult who enjoys pinball and comic books, I would say my maturity is emerging.

debt adjustment

No one likes to talk about bankruptcy, even though lots of people go through it, and the country as a whole is usually on the verge of it. The taboo of bankruptcy sometimes inspires euphemisms, like when a European Union report recently suggested bankruptcy be replaced by the less loaded and comprehensible term debt adjustment. This is a term that could prove useful beyond the financially strapped. I bet the morally bankrupt would enjoy thinking of themselves as morally debt adjusted.

curtsy mug

This term is a leftover from last month, when I looked at euphs from the newly digital Dictionary of American Regional English. A curtsy mug is a "utensil kept under the bed for use at night," and yesireebob, that would make it a chamber pot. Apparently, curtsy is a variation of courtesy. However, etiquette suggests it would be ill-advised to bring your curtsy mug on a first date.

business manager

Now there's a respectable title. What parent wouldn't be proud that their darling boy or girl grew up to manage a business? What title could possibly come with more respect and a healthier 401k? One problem: a business manager is a pimp, at least in an Urban Institute report discussed by Amanda Hess in Slate. That report is a doozy, and Hess' article is hilarious, including observations such as "Those interviewed project the image of a kinder, gentler pimp." Clearly, thinking of yourself as a business manager is part of that image projection, though I can't imagine anyone with a functioning brain would be bamboozled. I guess it's true: "Business managin' ain't easy."

Finally, have you recently prospected with possible stimulation?

Hydraulic fracking has gotten a bad name in recent years, due to its terrible environmental impact. The practice is blessed and cursed with the perfect name, because frack is, as Mark Abley puts it in the Montreal Gazette, "short, ugly and memorable." That article also contains a few euphemisms frackers are using to hide their fracking, such as prospecting with possible stimulation. That lengthy term is softer than a new pillow. Who could argue with prospecting, especially if the resulting stimulation is not inevitable, but merely possible?

If her acting career declines, perhaps Ms. Paltrow has a future as a fracker — at least as a public relations fracker. Even the most determined environmentalist would have a hard time opposing (or understanding) a practice that might be called conscious prospecting with possible geological uncoupling. That's grade-A goop.

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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 April 2nd 2014, 6:08 AM
Comment by: Brendan M. (suwon Korea (the Republic of))
I've sometimes use the term 'internetting'...is it a word or not?
Wednesday April 2nd 2014, 7:50 AM
Comment by: Robert E M. (Telford Pa, PA)
At 81 I've listened to teachers and preachers try to grab attention. Your view of the snobs trying to sound high phallooting was the funniest thing I read in years.

Robert the Old Guy
Wednesday April 2nd 2014, 10:31 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
As you probably know, Slate.com created a term generator to euphemize your relationship status--or as they call it, "Goopify" it, with a nod to Paltrow's website: link
Wednesday April 2nd 2014, 2:14 PM
Comment by: John E. (Mechanicsburg,, PA)
Also known as GIBBERISH, but perhaps polite gibberish. John E., Mechanicsburg, PA

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