Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Gadswookers! Catastrophic Euphemism Failures

So... Turns out the American Dialect Society callously disregarded my selection of conscious uncoupling (Gwyneth Paltrow's cuckoo-bananas term for divorce) for Euphemism of the Year.

Instead, these linguists, lexicographers, word mavens, and rogue wordanistas selected EIT: an abbreviation of enhanced interrogation techniques, which is a euphemism of a euphemism.

Good call. That Paltrowism is bizarre and amusing, but after further review, EIT is genuinely evil and historically euphemistic. It deserves all the scorn and scrutiny we can muster. Sarah Butzen has more on the horrors of EIT here. I dig her assessment of the relative euphiness of the two terms: "To get from divorce to conscious uncoupling, you have to traverse a few time zones of silly self-delightedness and delusion. But to get from torture to EIT, you have to cross the Sahara carrying your own camel, then turn yourself inside out and teleport to the moon."

Speaking of lexical gymnastics, here are some euphemisms, mostly leftover from last year, plus a few gems plucked from my lair, which is a lot like the Batcave, but with more dictionaries. Also, my Batmobile is pocket-sized.

catastrophic longevity

In Ben Schott's roundup of terrible terms from 2014, he mentioned a euph for the ages that comes to us from the dubious realm of the insurance business. Catastrophic longevity is, in a jargon-y nutshell, when people live too long. I reckon this is why insurance agents are loathe to provide insurance to vampires and the denizens of Asgard. This reminds me of another odd term: catastrophic success, which is useful for people whose vocabularies literally don't include the word failure.

pavement failure

Speaking of the f-word… I'm not crazy about groups like the Plain English Foundation, which get on way too high a horse about language for my tastes. Still, they are good at collecting euphemisms at times, and I thank them for alerting me to pavement failure. Here's the term in use: "When a recent Qantas flight was delayed by an hour, the explanation was as baffling as it was frustrating for passengers. There had been a ‘pavement failure', which meant that a pothole on a runway had to be filled-in before the plane could take off." Since potholes are a perpetual complaint of motorists, this term is custom-made for city officials and pothole technicians who want to dodge the blame. However, this term may be offensive to the pothole community. May I suggest catastrophic pavement success?

showing some signs

The sports world is a smorgasbord of cliché and euphemism, and a few are quite subtle. One idiom that barely pinged my euphemism-dar is showing some signs, as in "Dwight Howard is showing some signs!" Does this mean the player in question is flashing gang signs or displaying harbingers of the apocalypse? Nah. It means the player has hit a shot or made another good play: the phrase is a shortened form of showing some signs of life. Until that point, the player was in a dormant state, so this phrase is a nice way to say a professional athlete is belatedly starting to earn their exorbitant salary.

go for an oatie

It wouldn't be a euphemism column without a little toilet-centric twaddle. This New Zealand term is apparently named for Captain Lawrence Oates, whose last words were neither elevated poetry nor sophisticated philosophy: he said he had to go to the bathroom. A 2003 use collected in Green's Dictionary of Slang indicates the term refers to dropping the kids off at the pool rather than watering the garden, just in case you were thinking of using this expression during your next job interview.


In addition to bodily functions, people love to coin euphemisms for heavenly beings. There are a ton of euphemisms, mostly on the old side, that replace Jesus or God. You've likely heard the term gadzooks, as in "Gadzooks! My foot is on fire!" But you can also say "Zooks!" The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as "An exclamation or minced oath, expressing vexation, surprise, or other emotion." Here's an OED use from 1634: "Zookes thou art so brave a fellow that I will stick to thee." After finding zooks, I started look at gad, and it turns out this euphemism for God has been part of a helluva lot of words that are hard to find these days, including gadsbodikins, gadsbud, gadsookers, gadsprecious, and gadswookers. I love these words. At times like this, I understand how an arachnologist feels when discovering a new spider or meeting Peter Parker.

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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:

Thursday February 5th 2015, 8:06 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
Brilliant. Hilarious. I choked from laughing.
Thursday February 5th 2015, 9:45 AM
Comment by: David Lee R. (Charlottesville, VA)
Learnèd. Incisive. I gagged from chortling. DrDR
Thursday February 5th 2015, 10:15 AM
Comment by: David Lee R. (Charlottesville, VA)
Tweak: the first word of my comment is learned with a grave accent over the second e. As printed, the it is just this side of unspeakable. DrDR

[Fixed, using è as the HTML code. —Ed.]
Saturday February 7th 2015, 8:56 AM
Comment by: Alison T. (Charlotte, NC)
More columns from Mark Peters, please.
Sunday February 8th 2015, 10:57 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
"Catastrophic Success"--this one is a real nice euphemism for many of us like me, who feel shy to talk about "failure."
I'll definitely propagate the phrase.
Thanks for Mark always.

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