Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Euphemisms of Interest

As the most ravenous euphemism-hunter in North America, I sometimes have to act quickly and without mercy. Euphemisms are cunning — always hiding under rocks, burrowing themselves in dictionaries that fell into ravines, or appearing on wavelengths blocked by the tin-foil hat that nice man from Mars helped me assemble into a Helmet of Awesomeness and Security.

So when I see a euphemism, I have to strike. I don't have time for the luxury of the full word euphemism. Instead, I say euph, as in, "Come here, little euphs! I won't hurt you or your families!"

My friend Heather, who knows what a euphemism-hound I am, shared a sense of euph with another meaning: "A high school friend's father used to refer to the bathroom as 'the euph.' As in, 'Excuse me for a moment, I need to visit the euph.'" That makes euph a family word, the type of term Paul Dickson has so admirably collected. As a licensed euph-ologist, I can say with authority that "I need to visit the euph" is a fine addition to our lexicon of expressions such as, "I need to see a man about a dog," "I must perform some necessary functions," and "It's time to do some government business."

Euph is a great euph, but it isn't the only doubletalky dumpling on the dinner menu. Let's get to the main course. These euphs won't make fun of themselves, you know.

resurrection pudding

I usually associate quarterly events with the horrors of estimated taxes and the relentless changing of the seasons, two merciless phenomena that remind me I am mortal and broke. Thankfully, the quarterly updates to the Oxford English Dictionary Online have the opposite effect, never failing to warm my cocoa. The latest batch — which immortalized arf, technicolor yawn, and other terms — brought a fine euphemism to my attention: resurrection pudding, which I first assumed was the holy grail in the form of a pudding cup. Not quite. As the OED puts it, the dramatically named resurrection pudding is merely "a pudding made out of the remains of previous meals." Here it is used back in 1846: "He wouldn't answer for his Saturday's *resurrection puddings, consisting of all the odds and ends of the week, being safe." Egads! That weakens the whole concept of resurrection, which can normally brighten an afternoon, inspire a religion, or cheapen the dramatic death of a comic book heroine. (I'm looking at you, Jean Grey.)

life friend

Since I only watch reality shows featuring Ozzy Osbourne, my knowledge of them is a little thin (and probably a little arrogant too, much like a grad student). Still, when you're on Twitter as often as I am, you're bound to pick up some reality residue, as I did when I noticed this tweet of Jennifer Weiner on March 1: "'You'll always have a life friend.' I believe that's the official motto of Dumpsville. Population: Tenley. #bachelor." I haven't the willpower to watch The Bachelor, but it's evident that "You'll always have a life friend" is the equivalent of "Let's just be friends," the ever-popular evasion of "I am fleeing this relationship like a crime scene."

let imagination take hold

Quote collectors are still mourning the end of the reign of George W. Bush, whose Bushisms led to so many shelves of books and gales of laughter. Who knows when we'll see such a giant of unintentional comedy straddle the world stage again? We're definitely not seeing it in F-bomb-dropping Joe Biden, though there are a few gems in The Collected Bidenisms. I thought this was a crafty euph, so crafty I don't completely understand it: "I have not bent the law, but I have let imagination take hold in some places where I think it's consistent with the spirit of the law... Is that the best way of saying that? Yes ... I should stop." A note explains that Biden was "attempting to explain the administration's efforts to foster cooperation between states and municipalities in applications for stimulus funds." We've all been there. Anyhoo, letting imagination take hold is an evasive maneuver I will note for future use. It may even enable me to add "experienced ninja" and "assistant regional emperor" to my resume.

sentient property

You know the score on sentient property if you've ever had a toaster tell you last night's NBA scores — and about what a jerkface the coffee maker is. Actually, sentient property is just a mouthful of mumbo-jumbo meaning a pet. The idea was put forth by attorney Carolyn B. Matlack and discussed in an article by R. Scott Nolen in 2004: "The designation would allow courts to recognize that pets are a unique type of property; they are thinking, feeling creatures valued highly by their owners, she said. And though they are not the same as tables or chairs, pets classified as sentient property are not entitled to the same rights people enjoy." I guess the term is accurate-ish, but when I called my dog sentient property, he just barfed on the carpet. Everyone's a critic.

Finally, have you ever thought of taking an interesting vacation...to a country of interest?

After the Christmas undiebomber attack got our collective nethergarments in an uproar, a euphemistic term reared its head, as shown here in a Jan. 4 Washington Post piece by Carol D. Leonnig, which mentioned tougher security "...for all people who are citizens of or are flying through or from nations with significant terrorist activity. TSA officials declined to name all the 'countries of interest' on Sunday, but confirmed that the directive applies to the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism."

This is derived from another euphemistic wonder — person of interest — which the OED defines as: "a person subjected to inquiry or surveillance in connection with a criminal investigation or security operation, esp. as a potential suspect." So headlines like "Pursuit suspect is person of interest in disappearance" and "Police ID person of interest in crime spree" mean the persons in question are renowned for something more sinister than their card tricks and winning personalities.

"X of interest" is a heck of a euphemistic snowclone that could be quite useful locally and intergalactically. I imagine the Star Wars saga would have been resolved with fewer clone armies, blown-up planets, hurt feelings, Oedipal nightmares, and cheesy one-liners if poor misunderstood Darth Vader had presented himself as a Dark Lord of the Sith of Interest.

The dark side is supposed to be powerful. Hasn't it heard of rebranding?

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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.