Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Ethically Aggregating for Old Ned

Are you an ethical cheater?

This term — which may be more of an oxymoron than euphemism, so sue me — came to light after the Ashley Madison hacking hubbub. In a New York Times article by Katherine Rosman, OpenMinded.com founder Brandon Wade is given credit for the term/concept of ethical cheating, which involves "...telling a spouse that you are going to be unfaithful, or including the spouse in new, outside-the-marriage relationships."

Now I don't mean to make fun of people who have thoughtfully chosen a polyamorous lifestyle. OK, maybe I do. Sorry. To me, one relationship seems hellish enough. Why in the name of Odin's ravens would anyone want two or more? Anyway, you have to love the idea that you're an ethical cheater if you tell someone you're cheating first. By this logic, there could be ethical murderers, ethical stabbers, ethical thieves, and ethical perverts in the park.

Rosman's article contains several examples of what language experts call "doozies." I learned new terms such as sapiomantic (or sapioromantic) which apparently describes someone attracted to intelligence. The great news is people who call themselves sapioromantics are definitely not pretentious sociopaths. Then there's biromantic, which involves a preference for cuddling and other mega-innocent behavior that seems more appropriate for teddy bears than other adults. After reading this article, I bleached my brain, and I suggest you do the same.

The following terms are far from ethical, but I haven't cheated: they're all real euphemisms, pulled out of the sewer of English by the gloved hand of yours truly.

sick passenger

If you've ever seen Airplane — and if you haven't, you've been living life wrong — you know the trouble a sick passenger can bring, as some bad fish nearly caused a plane to go down while driving the plot of a comedy classic. But a list by Lenore Skenazy of some apparently new New York City slang takes the concept in a new yet still humorous direction, defining sick passenger as a "Joking euphemism for lame excuse. E.g., 'I wanted to get to your opening, but there was a sick passenger.' Or, 'A sick passenger ate my homework.'" What a great term for avoiding anything — especially giving someone a ride to the doctor.


Now there's a word with a fancy — though toilet-y — air. Turns out this word is equally literary and bathroomicular: it's a euphemism for graffiti, which is how old folks like me used to express our deep thoughts before Twitter. The always wonderful Michael Quinion discussed the term in a recent World Wide Words, giving folklorist Alan Dundes credit for coining the term. Quinion describes how Dundes "...showed that folklore isn't found only in ancient ritual, fables and superstitions but in contemporary cartoons, poems and lore such as urban legends." That's kind of beautiful, but anyone who finds folklore in Internet comments should be locked up.

holistic admissions

Few words in English are more dubious than holistic, a catch-all term that can be used as a cloaking device for virtually any shenanigans. The best-ever such euphemism is probably holistic practitioner: a bonkers term for a prostitute. But as Sara Harberson recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times, holistic admissions is "a policy based on the idea that a test score or GPA does not completely reflect who a student is and what he or she can bring to a college community. It allows a college to factor in a student's background, challenges overcome, extracurricular involvement, letters of recommendation, special talents, writing ability and many other criteria." Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, it often means something not so great, like admission policies that are racist — or ridiculously in favor of alumni. Sometimes holistic admissions means there's no admissions policy at all: it's a scammy way of avoiding the term open admissions.

joke aggregator

On Twitter and Instagram, one of the most blatant joke thieves is Josh Ostrovsky, who goes by the charming handle of the Fat Jew. This corpulent Semite has built a massive following on the backs of lesser-known writers whose work he steals. But stealing is such a strong word! As Natalie Jarvey puts it in a Hollywood Reporter article, "In early August, comedian Davon Magwood wrote an open to Ostrovsky, who aggregates jokes from around the Internet on his Instagram feed, for posting one of Magwood's jokes without attribution. Ostrovsky later credited Magwood for the joke." Jarvey also refers to Ostrovsky's "aggregation practices." Joe Vallero wonderfully pointed out this lexical insanity on Twitter: "I like how @THR calls him a 'joke aggregator'. Like bank robbers are other people's money aggregators."

Finally, have you talked to Old Ned lately?

I hope not, because Old Ned is the devil, and he prefers to text.

Religious entities, whether good or bad, have some of the most frequently euphemized names in English. There are oodles of euphemistic variations of God and Jesus, and plenty of alternate names, euphemistic or not, for the devil. Besides proper names such as Abaddon, Beelzebub, Lucifer, Mephistopheles, and Satan, there are terms such as arch-foe, warlock, and wicked one. Those are fairly honest labels, but others are on the vague side, such as old boy, old gentleman, and old one. There's also Old Nick, Old Roger, and — yep — Old Ned.

Old Ned sounds more like a kindly fellow than the lord and master of the underworld, but since the 1800s, it's been an alternate name for Satan. A 1991 book by William Davies Robertson uses the term in a way not exactly recommended by parenting experts: "The only way to bring up children is to beat the Old Ned out of them whenever He asserts himself."

I guess any name could work as a devil euphemism. Old Bob. Old Thaddeus. Old Kal-El. Old Mark.

Old Mark? Now let's not get crazy. Some names are sacred.

Click here to read more articles from Evasive Maneuvers.

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.