Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

French Pastry and Other Limits-Exceeding Lunacy

The NBA playoffs have long been the highlight of my television year, and like so many other boob tube productions, they produce their share of euphemisms.

One I've been noticing for years is the term active, which is more notable when discussed in its absence, like when announcer Jeff Van Gundy recently attributed a drop in Dwight Howard's rebounding and defense to the huge center being "not quite as active." In the same vague vein, during the Boston Celtics' first-round series against the Miami Heat, Kenny Smith said, "Rasheed Wallace doesn't bring the activity that Kevin Garnett brings." When an announcer or coach says a player is "active tonight," it's an agreed upon, socially acceptable, BS-marinated way of avoiding the truth: that they play most games as though they missed their nap, or might be in the middle of one mid-game.

I like this euphemism very much, and I hope all my critics — including past teachers, girlfriends, jai alai coaches, and gym teachers — will at last realize that I am not slothful, lazy, sluglike, or coma-y. I'm just not as active as some of my peers, including some of my plants.

I'll tell you, writing this column is an active task, so active that I can feel my couch calling. See if you can finish reading about this month's batch of under-the-radar euphemisms while I try to find my blankie, and I'll meet you at the conclusion.

overhead intelligence systems

There's something about spy satellite that sounds so clandestine, so sneaky, so...spy-y. Maybe that's why the term is avoided by our spy-satellite overlords, as I discovered in Gregg Easterbrook's terrific Tuesday Morning Quarterback column a while back, where the football maven and Brookings fellow wrote: "The mere existence of the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates spy satellites, was denied until 1996. Today the NRO, which insists on calling what it launches 'overhead intelligence systems', even has a kid's website complete with Ollie, a smiling cartoon spy satellite." I checked the NRO website, which includes inspiring words such as "Our Vision: Vigilance From Above" and "Our Mission: Innovative Overhead Intelligence Systems for National Security." Thank God that vigilance — which "plays a primary role in achieving information superiority" — only includes adorable Ollie and no spy satellites, which could only cause trouble, such as barbecuing the wings of our better angels.

enhanced pension offer

While visiting my parents on the snow planet Hoth — er, Buffalo, NY — I spied this passage in a Buffalo News article by News Editor Margaret Sullivan: "Eight journalists — along with 19 circulation, accounting and advertising employees — retired from The News on Friday, taking advantage of an enhanced-pension offer by News management." Call me crazy (or call me a dude who watched too many episodes of The Wire season five, which was a partial obituary for the journalism game) but that sounds like a buyout to me. You don't need a secret decoder ring to think the article's subhead doth protest too much: "The News continues to have a strong, solid staff that will carry on the tradition they helped to create." It sounds a little like the farmer who grimly assures the chickens that he still has a strong, solid foot after the tractor chewed up all his toes.

having a moment

In a column for Babble, I recalled an ultra-euphy usage by a friend: "When visiting my friends Mike and Coleen, their daughter — though generally a pleasant young citizen — had a full-blown, code-orange, restaurant-grade hissy-snit during a bath. Afterwards, Coleen dryly said their daughter was 'having a moment.'" This remains one of the greatest euphs I've ever heard — a deep-dish,  five-cheese, ultra-nifty way of saying your child or fellow congressperson is having a snit, tantrum, or cheddar-cheese meltdown. This parental sense is very much like an OED-recorded sense meaning "a dangerous incident; a narrowly-missed accident." Parents who have lost control of their spawn should sympathize with this 1990 sentence about a driver losing control of their wheels: "Had a moment today. Over a ton on the clock when the brakes went... Hung half the car out over a cliff."

exceeded the limits

In New Yorker demigod Malcolm Gladwell's collection What the Dog Saw, a passage on panicking and choking caught my eye — and not just because my nerves of spaghetti make me prone to both. Gladwell describes a flight in which a pilot is trying to simulate conditions of the crash that killed JFK Jr.: "I asked (William) Langewiesche how much longer we could have fallen. 'Within five seconds, we would have exceeded the limits of the airplane,' he replied, by which he meant that the force of trying to pull out of the dive would have broken the plane into pieces." So exceeding the limits means, in soon-to-be-dead-man's terms, smashed to smithereens. You don't need a degree in smithereens-ology to like this expression, since any situation involving the smithereens is bound to hurt some feelings and torsos.

Finally, let's return to the bouncing world of basketball for a euphemism that isn't a euphemism in the primary sense: it doesn't soften any blow or disguise any chicanery. Still, this expression is so awesome that I'm going to shoehorn it into my column, euphemism police be damned: a little French pasty.

I noticed this one in an article that quoted Boston Celtics legend Bob Cousy on Celtics legend-in-the-making Rajon Rondo: "What more can this kid do? He sees the floor extremely well... He's even starting to put what my old coach, Doggie Julian, would call a little French pastry on a play, going behind the back."

I'm just glad we're past the era in which patriotism would've demanded I turn French pastry into Freedom pastry. I haven't been active enough for that kind of verbal gymnastics since Christ was a coffee shop.

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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:

Wednesday June 2nd 2010, 9:40 AM
Comment by: Arlene J.
Here is a 1783 use of "active" as euphemism, quoted by Kenneth Scott, FASG, in "Runaways, Excerpts from The Pennsyulvania Gazette, 1775-1783," National Genealogical Scoiety Quarterly, 67 (June 1979), 128:

William Hart, of Plumstead Twp., Bucks Co., offers reward for recovery of runaway Negro named Cuff, age c. 23, "an active fellow with horses"; reward will be paid by the master or by John Hart, living 3 miles from Phila., on the old York road. (12 Mch. 1783)
Wednesday June 2nd 2010, 10:10 AM
Comment by: Mark P. (Chicago, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Arlene--that's excellent!
Friday June 4th 2010, 8:30 AM
Comment by: Paul G. (Collegeville, PA)
I'll have to try these out on my team's shakedown cruise to see if they help us hit our stride...
Tuesday June 8th 2010, 8:17 AM
Comment by: Annie G. (Gladwyne, PA)
For the child "having a moment", I would like to suggest something I heard from my sister about my niece: namely, that the little girl had had a "zoodie", which is apparently an offshoot of "episode", as in episode, epizoodie, zoodie. Is this original with her or has anyone else encountered it? I use it all the time now. It's our family's version of "having a moment". Thanks for your wonderful column, as always.

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