Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Evolving Explanations and Other Non-Fatal Events

As a resident of Chicago and citizen of the great state of Illinois, I feel as though I am in the center of the political cosmos, whence all good and bad things emanate.

Where else has given you, in such a short time, the first black President and the first disgraced former governor with a giant rodent living on his head? You're welcome.

The groundbreaking achievements and sleazy shenanigans of Illinois-propelled politics have also added some euphemisms to the world, for which I am thankful. When Gov. Blago-whatsit filled Obama's senate seat with Roland Burris, who later started changing his tune faster than a jukebox on crack, newspapers struggled to tastefully describe Burris' lies, since lie is the kind of word that makes frail readers cancel their subscriptions, like when Marmaduke fails to appear in the Sunday funnies.

Thankfully for us all, an alliterative acorn of awesomeness has fallen to the ground in several newspaper articles, including a Feb. 24 Chicago Tribune piece, italics mine: "In addition to calls for resignation from an array of fellow Democrats including Gov. Pat Quinn, Burris is facing two investigations into his evolving explanation of whom he contacted and what he did prior to being appointed by Blagojevich to replace President Barack Obama in the Senate."

I can certainly relate to the concept of an evolving explanation. For example, I used to claim that, in my precious free time, I was a vampire-hunting software developer who founded 67 animal shelters across North America. Under threat of perjury, I was forced to admit that I am only a steroid-enhanced secret agent who occasionally saves puppies from drowning. Finally, in the interests of full disclosure, I now acknowledge — more in sadness than in anger — that I am merely a time-traveling pirate who rescues labradoodles from bounty hunters. Whew! Evolution is painful, but the truth feels good. It feels good.

Thankfully, I've compiled other pain-relieving euphemisms to ensure we all feel good, bounty hunters be damned. Enjoy these wonders of language evolution before a rabid English teacher mauls them in their sleep.

fatal event

I don't know if this term truly meets my rigorous obscurity requirements — it does get almost 50,000 Google hits — but I can't resist such a classic matzo ball of malarkey in the soup of language. A fatal event is death, and I must admit this euphemtastic term rattles the birdcage of mortality somewhat less than the dreaded d-word. That bastion of BS, the airport, seems to be one major user of the term, and some can boast that they don't need to use it often, as shown by a list of "Airlines With No Fatal Events Since 1970." Non-fatal event is used in medical contexts, and since I am a lifelong admirer of activities and recreations that do not result in my basting the formaldehyde turkey, I may even update my online personal ad to include these seductive words: "I enjoy long walks on the beach, huge buckets of ice cream, and other non-fatal events."

pervasive language

As a wee lad, I remember debating another tyke who insisted swear itself was a swear word. What rubbish! It was my first argument ever about words, and I was already on the path to being a language columnist/jerk. I suspect the path of my fellow argument-haver led to a career in a motion-picture warning-label factory, if the warning pervasive language is any indication. Did I miss the moment when the words filthy, obscene, adult, and naughty actually became filthy, obscene, adult, and naughty? Taken literally, pervasive language means language is everywhere, which describes Bible study groups and children's birthday parties as well as raunchy movies. And yet, pervasive language isn't totally useless. I'm reluctant to give marauding Martian warlords any ideas, but I think pervasive language would be an appropriate warning label for the human-infested parts of planet earth, if those regions are ever scooped up by an interplanetary melon-baller and put on display at one of the finer Martian-warlord museums.


If you've ever told friends or neighbors to go to heck, Hallifax, blazes, or h-e-double-hockey-sticks, then you're familiar with some euphemisms for hell. But Ballyhack doesn't appear often in Twitter feeds, so it deserves a lift up from its hidden heckpit of obscurity. The OED traces this mainly New England term back to at least 1843: "It was just the easiest thing in the world for him to blow all Sammy Stonestreet's cherished notions to Ballyhack." Ballyhack was probably too non-catchy to have caught on nationwide, since even the sweet sound of alliteration can't make "going to Ballyhack in a bucket" sound right.

Carlin Conservation Camp

By his own estimation, the soul of the late George Carlin now resides in a garage in Buffalo, NY.  I don't know if that garage has wifi, but if it does, I hope the patron comedian of all word-lovers is paying attention. The Carlin Conservation Camp — which sounds a tad like an ecologically minded comedy workshop, full of laughter and recycling and memories that will last a lifetime — is, in fact, a minimum security prison in Carlin, Nevada. Carlin may be the greatest euphemism collector of all time, and it is synchronous — or do I mean horrendous — beyond words that such a weapons-grade euphemism bears his name.

Dear readers, I hope yours truly won't experience such ironies directly, in Cell Block D of a local conservation camp, because my current situation in sweet home Chicago grows ever more corrup— er, evolved, by the moment.

Not that I'm bragging, but no less than four local politicians tried to bribe me whilst I composed this column. Two more will bribe me as you read it. And eight of you will bribe me after reading (hint, hint).

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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:

Friday April 3rd 2009, 8:05 AM
Comment by: Samuel F.
The new senator's last name is spelled B-u-r-r-i-s. "Burris," not "Burress."

Fixed! —Ed.
Saturday April 4th 2009, 3:59 PM
Comment by: A. Z.
All I can say is, "WEIRD!"
Saturday April 4th 2009, 4:37 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.
Does that mean that all airlines on the list had a fatal event in 1970?
Saturday April 4th 2009, 5:35 PM
Comment by: A. Z.
Does that mean that all airlines on the list had a fatal event in 1970? Or am I mistaken? Interesting, but weird. And I agree, the new senators name is spelled Burris, not Burress.
Sunday April 5th 2009, 3:39 PM
Comment by: ron M. (jupiter, FL)
Mission accomplished. Entertaining and informative. And no...am not one of the eight.
Sunday April 5th 2009, 7:35 PM
Comment by: Harry H (Melbourne Australia)
I really enjoyed that; I think your column is a great feature of this website.
Sunday April 5th 2009, 8:24 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I love the sense of fun you portray in your writing. When we lose the humor in language it's a sad day.
Monday April 6th 2009, 2:32 PM
Comment by: Thomas P. (Shrewsbury, MA)
Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think (as my peevishness evolves to pedantry) that assonant , being more at the repetitive use of vowel sounds than alliterative, is a more suitable modifier for "acorn of awesomeness".
Monday April 6th 2009, 2:43 PM
Comment by: Ginger C. (Callaway, VA)
Delightful. A welcomed comma in my run-on sentence of a Monday.
Monday April 6th 2009, 3:30 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Thomas P.: Here's what a couple of dictionaries have to say about alliteration:
American Heritage: The repetition of the same sounds or of the same kinds of sounds at the beginning of words or in stressed syllables, as in "on scrolls of silver snowy sentences" (Hart Crane). Modern alliteration is predominantly consonantal; certain literary traditions, such as Old English verse, also alliterate using vowel sounds.

Random House: The commencement of two or more stressed syllables of a word group either with the same consonant sound or sound group ( consonantal alliteration), as in from stem to stern, or with a vowel sound that may differ from syllable to syllable ( vocalic alliteration), as in each to all.
Monday April 6th 2009, 11:04 PM
Comment by: Thomas P. (Shrewsbury, MA)
Mark Peters in his April 3rd column

"Not that I'm bragging, but no less than four local politicians tried to bribe me whilst I composed this column."

Here Mr. Peters employs one of the more grating, and common solecisms: the use of less with a plural noun. Few grammatical faux pas are more jarring, and though the Compact O.E.D. is less emotional in its disapproval, this is what it has to say in its definition of "fewer":

"USAGE - Fewer, the comparative form of few, should be used with plural nouns, as in there are fewer people here today; use less with nouns denoting things that cannot be counted, as in there is less blossom on this tree. The use of less with a plural noun (less people) is incorrect in standard English."

Though the error does not threaten civilization, it seems odd that a lexicographer writing a language column would choose to substitute the erroneous usage, less, for the standard, fewer. After all, even the signs at the supermarket express checkouts read "12 items or fewer". My experience is that, even in conversation, educated people continue to use fewer in reference to things which can be counted.

The use of whilst for while is another matter and on that I shall forbear comment.
Wednesday April 8th 2009, 5:22 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.
Now that explains a lot, I've seen many different renditions of the "x number of items" lanes, some use the word "fewer", some use "less". Perhaps the ones that use "less" are the cause of people being unable to count the "more than x" items in their cart.
Wednesday April 8th 2009, 10:15 PM
Comment by: Lynne S.
I loved this article! Thank you for sharing. I'd give it a #5 rating; I presume that 5 is as high as this page allows. Oh, let us be pedantic.
Precocious, perfect pedants. Sounds worse than it is, as alliteration litters the keyboard.

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