Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Finding (or Inventing) Euphemisms in the Latest OED Update

For a veteran word nerd like moi, there's no greater seasonal event than the quarterly updates to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Even if climate change renders the Earth an eternal blizzard or endless dessert or bottomless pit, I hope we'll still receive these lexical bounties on the reg.

Speaking of the passage of time, it’s been 11 years since I started doing this column, and I could use a variation on the theme. So this month, I'm going to look at the OED's latest update to see if there are any euphemisms. If not, I'll suggest how some of the terms could be euphemisms. This column, like all of them, is an offering to the Malarkey Gods.

If you want to call some slacker lazy, this is the word for you (and me, much of the time). Amotivational has been around since at least 1966, while the related amotivation is recorded since 1969. Both words are tremendous potential euphemisms. For example, if you're a teacher writing a report-card note about a slothy student, you probably want to say, "Your child is a lazy lump." Now you can be accurate and kind by writing, "Your child is an amotivational lump."

If you're ever accused of flirting, and you want to deny it, maybe you could say, "I was only chirpsing." That word for flirting should be meaningless, and you can run away in the confusion — unless you're in England, in which case you will be busted like a trust. I dig this word, which is apparently related to chirp, a lot. It’s been around since at least 1997, and I found this 2018 tweet noteworthy: "Have I really just chirpsed the deliveroo guy, yes I have."

Now here's a restaurant-quality euphemism I don't have to overheat in the oven of my mind. As the author of a book about BS, I was familiar with the sense of hockey that doesn't involve a puck, and I was thrilled to see the OED dig so deep into the reservoir of rot. The primordial beginnings of this word were strictly scatological, as seen in the OED's first example, from 1886:

Hockie is used in East Tennessee among little children, which may be connected with the original word ‘cacky’, as also the exclamation of disgust used by an older person to a child that has befouled itself.

Though old-fashioned, that sense still pops up in recent times, including Charlotte Hubbard's 2008 novel Gabriel's Lady: "Princess Lily turned up her pretty little nose as though I'd stepped in some horse hockey." The second and equally euphemistic sense has been around since the early 1930s and is synonymous with BS. You can call a bunch of bull a lotta hockey, and you can also say bull hockey and horse hockey. My apologies to NHL enthusiasts.

Hockey, as mentioned above, is possibly a variation of cacky. The lexical fossil record shows pucky made a reverse journey, first meaning figurative crapola and later meaning the kind you can step in. This commentary on westerns, from 1970 in The Atlantic, feels appropriate in all ways: "I think Bonanza is a bunch of bull-pucky. Now if you want authentic stuff you ought to watch Gunsmoke." I can relate to a 2011 example from Twitter: "Almost done with laundry and done vacuuming! Oh and picked up dog pucky!"


One of the classic words for nonsense — and one of many reduplicative words in the language of bunk — is mumbo-jumbo. But that term is so common that it can feel worn out. So I welcome a synonym: simi-dimi. The OED defines this Caribbean term as "Elaborate or meaningless ritual; superstition; mumbo-jumbo. Also: fuss, rigmarole." Simi-dimi has been around since at least 1970, and one of the example sentences includes the phrase "hullabaloo and simidimi." When a word is partnered with hullabaloo, you know it's a bunch of hooey.

angel pie
This term, which sounds like a bizarro devil's food cake, is really a term for a sweetie pie: a significant other with extra lingonberries. But, it could also prove useful euphemistically when you're not sure how to refer to such a person, and the terms boyfriend, girlfriend, and partner all feel inadequate. Angel pie is sugary yet vague — and pairs well with chirpsing.

summum malum
Summum malum sounds like a bunch of simi-dimi, but it's a Latin borrowing found in English since 1600, and it means, "The greatest or supreme evil; that which is most reprehensible, harmful, or undesirable."

"The greatest or supreme evil?" Now that's a term. I don't know how this could be a euphemism, but I feel, deep in my cold heart, that it needs to be used early and often.

Never time I step in dog pucky, I shall say, "People who don't pick up after their dog are summum malum!"

My go-to Yelp review for atrocious restaurant food will be "Summum malum! Summum malum! And my tummy hurts."

When I'm on my deathbed, shuffling off the mortal coil, I hope my last words will be, "Death is the summum malum…and the summum malum is a bunch of horse hockey."

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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.