Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Euphemism of the Year? Spreading Freedom Pucky

To a euphemism columnist like moi, certain events caused an unbridled joy that civilians cannot completely share nor understand.

(FYI, if you're reading this column, you're no civilian: you're a licensed twaddle trooper and deputy evasive maneuverer.)

One of those blessed events is the viewing of a George Carlin routine. Another is the discovery of a new dictionary, since virtually any word book contains a euph or two or twenty.

But then there are newsy gifts from the Gibberish Gods like this recent headline from Slate: "The Department of Energy Is Now Calling Fossil Fuels 'Molecules of Freedom' and 'Freedom Gas'."

Freedom gas? Molecules of freedom? Let me breathe them in. When you're in the euphemism-hunting game, such globules of gaga are sweeter than a chocolate bar dipped in honey wrapped in a million-dollar bill.

In appreciation of these insane terms, I’d like to look at some past terms that freedom has spawned in the cesspool of English. Much like untrustworthy enhanced, freedom is a red flag alerting the world to an overload of rubbish, horse apples, and hooey.

The most famous such term is probably freedom fries, an alteration of French fries that popped up during the second Gulf War. As discussed in The New York Times by Sheryl Gay Stolberg in 2003, "The French may have Champagne, Brie, croissants and even kisses. Americans, at least in the cafeterias of the House of Representatives, now have freedom fries and freedom toast."

These cockamamie coinages were in response to France threatening to veto a UN resolution regarding war with Iraq. These terms were an insult to the French but a godsend to comedians. And they spawned others. When reality becomes a joke, the jokes tend to multiply.

Famously, conservative executive Jack Donaghy — played by Alec Baldwin on 30 Rock — braced himself for a freedom search in the 2008 episode "Cooter." That search, it was implied, may have involved multiple freedom orifices. Other coinages, though not as successful, achieved dubious immortality on the marginally reliable Urban Dictionary. These include synonyms for freedom search such as freedom frisk and freedom grope, plus others such as freedom beer, which the site defines as "A patriotic American term for après ski drinks, meant to show disdain for the French. Used by the same people who say freedom fries, pardon my freedom, freedom toast, and freedom mistake. Means a beer consumed after a day of skiing or snowboarding."

Similarly, a croissant is a freedom biscuit. An amuse-bouche is a freedom bite. You can figure out freedom kiss. One of the weirder such terms is freedom neck — allegedly preferred by alleged rednecks who dislike the communist connotation of red. There's also a listing for freedom nuggets, because chickens are un-American, I guess? It might be time to get off Urban Dictionary.

Most of these terms are jokes, but reality is the best comedian. Grant Barrett's defunct but far from irrelevant Double-Tongued Dictionary is as associated with careful lexicography as Urban Dictionary is with borderline balderdash. Barrett spotted a term in 2007 that I only wish were an attempt at humor:

freedom bag n. — «A range of see-through bags aimed at commuters left nervous by the London bombings was launched yesterday. It is claimed the "freedom bags" will make passengers feel more at ease on the Tube, on buses and in public places.» — "See-through 'freedom bags' offered to Tube commuters" by John Innes Scotsman (Glasgow, Scotland) Aug. 23, 2005.

But none of these terms can top the recent coinages of our own goldarn government, whose gasbags have rebranded natural gas most gaseously. As undersecretary of energy Mark W. Menezes put it in a news release, which is a euphemism for a press release: "Increasing export capacity from the Freeport LNG project is critical to spreading freedom gas throughout the world by giving America's allies a diverse and affordable source of clean energy."

Menezes may have been topped by Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy Steven Winberg, who later added, "I am pleased that the Department of Energy is doing what it can to promote an efficient regulatory system that allows for molecules of U.S. freedom to be exported to the world."

You can't make this stuff up, except I guess you can, which is good for my job security as a euphemism columnist, less so for the future of humanity.

Freedom is a shield, but I suppose we can be thankful it’s such a transparent one. If you believe that everything — or anything — labeled with freedom is making anyone freer, I'd like to sell you a freedom bridge.

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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.