Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Customers of Size? More Like Terms of Twaddle

White House security has been one of the most reliable sources of comedy for the past several years, with scandal and buffoonery becoming the norm. Finally, the buffoonery has produced something I can use in in my endless search for tasty euphemisms.

As Derek Wallbank put it, the White House fence will soon be equipped with “what the Secret Service calls a 'pointed anti-climb feature'—sharp half-inch steel spikes at the top protruding outward—to deter fence jumpers.”

Pointed anti-climb feature! The euphemism gods smiled when this one was coined. Or should I say, displayed an upward pointed facial feature?

One wonders what other terms could be coined in the future. Perhaps waterboarding equipment could be said to possess persistent anti-breathing features. Maybe a landmine will be advertised with explosive anti-leg features. Nuclear bombs surely possess comprehensive, holistic life-depriving features. Feature is an absolutely perfect euphemism ingredient, suggesting perks and bonuses, yet promising nothing specific. I can just see a White House prowler visiting the doctor, post-prowl: “Doc, do I have a huge spike in my hand?” “No, no. It’s just a feature.”

Fortunately, the English language has always been able to take the huge spikes in the hand of life and ameliorate them with bland, mystifying language. Here are a few such euphs I’ve spied since last month. Well, not spied. I merely participated in an advance force operation (see end of column for this sneaky term’s origin).

get amorous

This is an extremely romantic term—or it would be if it didn’t involve one of the most embarrassing dog behaviors. Headline writers generally steer clear of straightforward terms such as humping, and the result is “Scientists explain why dogs ‘get amorous’ with your trouser legs.” And here I thought getting amorous involved traditionally romantic stuff like flowers, chocolate, and Tinder.


Lauren Conrad — a former reality TV show star and current something-or-other—has an empowering mission for women: Stop trying to be thin! In fact, women should banish words like thin, skinny, and slim from their vocabularies. But don’t celebrate yet. As Laura Bradley noted in Slate, the replacement words are fit, toned, and healthy. Hmm. I reckon you can’t put lipstick on a giraffe-like supermodel — uh, bad phrasing. Better put: You can’t fool anyone with a brain bigger than a nickel into thinking that fit, toned, and healthy aren’t more synonyms for skinny.

greased rope

I still have diner lingo on my mind, and you can sample many more terms from Jack Smiley’s Hash House Lingo: The Slang of Soda Jerks, Short-Order Cooks, Bartenders, Waitresses, Carhops and Other Denizens of Yesterday's Roadside in last month’s column. Here’s a term for a greasy spoon (a diner) that’s failing: a greased rope just can’t seem to attract or retain customers. This is a pretty great term. Maybe click-happy editors all over the Internet should adopt it for articles that bomb.


This is one of several euphemisms I mentioned on a blog known for recording the opposite sort of lingo: Strong Language. Along with clusterboink, clusterfrak, clustersmurf, and cluster-naughty word, clusterfornication is a euphemism for cluster%*@#, which is the closest I can get to writing the actual word here. Let’s just move on. Nothing to see here.

customers of size

Fellow contributor Nancy Friedman points out so many euphemisms that I probably owe her part of my check. She recently drew my attention to customers of size, a Southwest Airlines term for fat people. I can’t blame the airline for concocting this term, since enormous patrons are a gigantic problem on planes. I’d rather sit next to a shrieking baby than a customer of size who’s spilling into my seat. A more euphemistic euphemism might be more useful, though. Perhaps customers with unfit features.


The New York Times recently published an amazing article on SEAL Team 6 — the unit that killed Osama bin Laden. I have trouble imagining the life of someone in the regular military, so it’s even more difficult to imagine being part of this elite squad, who are like real-life superheroes — superheroes without that pesky “no killing” rule, of course.

This article gives an in-depth look at the good, the bad, and the murky of SEAL Team 6 while sharing tons of lingo, including many euphemisms. The biggest one is probably operator: that’s what a member of the team is called, as opposed to the more honest commando. This makes me think I should be nicer to telephone operators, because they might have the capability to go all ninja on me, maybe even with tomahawks (a surprising weapon actually used by SEAL Team 6 members).

Other euphemistic language from this excellent article:

  • deniable operation: a super-secret mission, likely involving a lot of killing.
  • security rounds: shots fired at people they’ve already shot at, just to make absolutely sure they’re dead.
  • overassessing the threat: misreading a nonthreatening situation as threatening, which likely results in killing a lot of people.
  • profile softening: when a male operator and a female operator work together, making them look more like a happy couple than badass commandos.
  • advance force operation: spying — presumably espionage that is not going to lead to singing folk songs and eating s’mores around the campfire.

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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 July 8th 2015, 10:58 AM
Comment by: Tom W.
Great article Mark. I always enjoy these but this week's was particularly good. You had me chuckling the whole way.
Wednesday July 8th 2015, 12:09 PM
Comment by: James G. (Portland, OR)
clusterfornication: I looked up the actual word for "%*@#" (I will defer and also not type it here) and the visual thesaurus doesn't respond. I'm disappointed. Your thesaurus doesn't contain a word used thousands of times a day, perhaps millions of times a day, in the English speaking world. It should be included, if for no other reason, than to provide us with alternatives, which is what your thesaurus is for.
Thursday July 9th 2015, 8:10 AM
Comment by: Ginny A. (Tujunga, CA)
TWADDLE, by the way, was "coined" by one of my students, studying flute. We were practicing a particularly interesting acoustic effect when playing a low note and adjusting the embouchure (shape and size of the mouth of a player of wind instruments) to morph the tone from the fundamental to the 1st overtone (octave) so smoothly that en route to the octave. The flute was confused enough to provide both pitches in increasingly rapid alteration until perching on the octave tone. A fabulously intriguing sound, it's proof to the flutist that s/he is in exquisite control of the muscles around the mouth.

That's a long, if accurate description of the desired process and result.

So, I asked John to think up a term, perhaps somewhat onomatopoetical, to succinctly describe this.

He returned the next week, triumphantly offering "twaddle." The blending of Trill plus waddle...the rapid oscillation between octaves, produced by smoothly moving the air from traction on the fundamental to rest, with equal engagement on the 1st overtone, or octave.

Students who have studied with me since the early 1980s have this word in their vocabularies.
Monday July 13th 2015, 6:39 PM
Comment by: RIsa R. (Richboro, PA)
The article was interesting and well written, but notable for its disdain and body shaming of "people of size". Here is another word - "sizeism". Fat is the last bastion of socially acceptable discrimination. Is it naive to believe that someday in the not too distant future, we will evolve into a society that does not tolerate discrimination of any sort, even against those people who are not fit, trim or toned?

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