Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Frozen Popsicles and Other Gentleman Cows

Euphemisms, like bedbugs and zombies, never strike when you expect them; they're always lurking under a pillow or zombie master that seemed so harmless.

So imagine my delight when, right here in the pages of Visual Thesaurus, I read about one of the most delicious, audacious, egregious, preposterous euphemisms of my lifetime or yours — frozen popsicle as a synonym for homework.

Now, I don't want to hurl the hairy hammer of humor too harshly at Steven Kushner, After all, he is my VT brother, and he's well-aware of how kinda goofy and sorta Big-Brother-ish his project sounds. Plus, as a teacher, he does have a purpose far nobler than anything I manage to accomplish between collecting euphemisms and training polar bears to juggle shih-tzus.

But if I didn't poke a little fun, they'd take away my poking license. Despite Kushner's glowing tales of frozen-popsicle success, I imagine soon the chorus of joyous children will turn into a mob of torch-bearing house apes, as those lusted-for popsicles never appear. A lot of reasonable folk say that homework is a waste of time anyway, so why not ditch the whole tedious enterprise and actually give the kids some frozen popsicles, instead of "frozen popsicles" — or even oven-baked popsicles, which are popular in my country.

In the spirit of frozen popsicles, I've noticed the word euphemism sometimes causes a feeling not unlike gastric distress, and I am auditioning replacements. For now, please enjoy these juice boxes and water balloons.

gentleman cows

One of the battiest euphemisms ever euphemized recently got a new life in the pages of The New York Times, which means it may no longer meet my rigorous under-the-radar requirements. (I think I'll just tell my editors that my radar equipment fell in the tub, where a rubber duckie ate it). The article, "Gentleman Cows in Prime Time" by Adam Freeman, discussed the Supreme Court's ruling on naughty words and the FCC, and Freeman mentioned, "In the Victorian era, the word 'bull' was considered too strong for mixed company; instead, one referred to 'gentlemen cows.' Times change, notwithstanding the fervent wishes of prescriptivists to keep dirty words dirty." Times do change, and it is sad to know that in this era of decaying morals and pervasive language, only 12% of gentleman cows are true gentleman these days, according to a poll of lady cows, who weren't easy to find either.

to wash one's hands

Like "watering the garden" and "seeing a man about a dog," this expression is a cloaking device that conceals trips to the bathroom, though it isn't quite up to the standards of the Romulan empire. The OED first spotted it in 1938: "We are invited to wash our hands, or, if we wear dresses, to powder our noses." In truth, my sniffer detects more optimism that euphemism here. I hate to play the fussy card, but what is truly appalling and gross-outing is how little actual hand-washing ever goes on in the little boy's room, which should be permanently redubbed The Dirty Dirty Filthy Slob's Room. Based on a lifetime of bathroom attendance and informal research that mixed qualitative and quantitative methodologies, I'd say actual sink time is a priority for 50% of dudes, at best.


I've lived in Chicago long enough to know where to get mind-and-belt-bending pizza, wallet-engorging bribes, and world-altering cupcakes, but I haven't seen many pineapples. And yet the pineapple-free life is a good one, since the crime-soaked history of Chicago included this yummy, tropical nickname for an un-yummy, violent weapon, as mentioned in Time magazine back in 1928: "In Chicagoese, 'pineapple' is a euphemism for an ugly, black, egg-shaped object known elsewhere as a hand-grenade." The OED includes the term as pineapple bomb, explaining that the name comes from the grenade's similar appearance to the pineapple, not a similar taste when enjoyed with a tiny umbrella at a swanky resort. [And of course, grenades got their name in the first place because they look like pomegranates (from Old French "[pome] grenate" — also the root of "grenadine"). —Ed.]

stability contractors

There's always been something mercenary about the word mercenary; I'm not sure what it is... Oh well, I may never need to find out, if the campaign to eliminate this hurtful word succeeds. This article by Jeremy Scahill looks at the "rebranding" campaign by the International Peace Operations Association (kind of a Mercenaries Sewing Circle) to convince U.N. investigations of mercenaries to use language that is kinder and confusing-er. I must admit the term stability contractor does put a spiffy new spin on a disturbing profession. We'd all like more stability in our fancy new house or fragile mental state. Let's just hope someone who needs their gazebo reinforced doesn't end up with their entire family assassinated, which could put a damper on the summer.

Nonetheless, I applaud the notion of stability contractors — and not with one of those sarcastic slow claps either. I just wonder if it goes far enough. If I employed a murderous thug with a gun, and it was time to provide him with a tasteful business card, I don't know if stability contractor would pile quite enough gentleman-cow-number-two on the matter. Perhaps soldiers-for-hire would feel better about themselves if they were known by the title of frozen popsicle distributor. Who wouldn't welcome frozen popsicle distributors to their peace-loving nation or terrifying regime? That's a refreshing, summery profession we can all get behind, even as the bullets — er, popsicles — rain down upon us, God help us all.

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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 3rd 2009, 3:11 AM
Comment by: Jon K. (Seattle, WA)
mercenaries might be better termed as travistaries. maybe travistarians.or how bout exploitarians.a kind of long forgotten term 'value added' enterprise. Civility at a price. Market forces price.which side of the political spectrun dramatically influences outcomes that are wanted or the ones dictated as unavoidable
Friday June 5th 2009, 4:27 PM
Comment by: Lynne S.
I'd like a stability contractor with a pineapple bomb, to go please.
As to 'value added' the world famous cupcake would be nice to take to the Mercenaries Sewing Circle. Could you supersize that with a Kevlar vest, helmet and a 'leave premises by whatever o'clock?' Thanks. I lost my secret pineapple decoding ring.

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Steven Kushner explains how a little rebranding of "homework" worked wonders in the classroom.
Yesterday's obscenities are today's "pervasive language."
Read Mark's take on catastrophic coinages like "snow-mageddon" and "a-pork-alypse."