Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Genderful, Neanderthal Joggers and Other Variants of Concern

My parents gave me this advice, which I follow to this day, in case I ever run into trouble: "Play dead. Drool if you have to."

Then they instructed me in the ninja art of slowing your heartbeat to near-stillness. Childhood was different in the eighties.

But playing dead, just in time for the terrors of the twenties, has gotten a rebrand. Check out this paragraph from The New York Times:

But with some creatures like antlion larvae — eaten by animals, like birds, that are attuned to movement — the key may not be fake putridity, but stillness, said Dr. Franks, who for this reason prefers the term "post-contact immobility." Perhaps they're not playing dead, but hiding in plain sight.

So next time your life is threatened or you have an awkward moment, just turn on the post-contact immobility. Even if no one thinks you're dead, I promise you'll look ridiculous.

Despite my best post-contact immobility efforts, my editor said I still need to write a column. So here are some of English's least mobile mouthfuls.

variant of concern
File this one next to person of interest, a law-enforcement euphemism for a suspect. Nothing's more suspect these days than covid, which appears to be mutating into enough strains to staff the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. But one expert pooh-poohs terms such as dangerous variant or even just plain 'ol variant, as seen in this article from Women's Health:

Technically, there's no limit on how many variants a virus can have, and that includes SARS-CoV-2. "There are probably too many variants to count," says David Cennimo, MD, an infectious disease expert and assistant professor of medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. That's why he prefers the term "variant of concern" to help describe strains you should actually worry about.

I suppose this term follows the rules of logic, if not conciseness. I just hope no one mimics this lingo. If you're allergic, a peanut is a shell of death, not a legume of concern.

Joggers drive me crazy — they seem all-too-willing to come within centimeters of plowing me and my dog over on the sidewalk, and they rarely wear masks, even as they're gasping for breath in my face. But I should save such comments for my other column in I Hate Joggers Quarterly. Anyhoo, this term refers to a less offensive type of jogger, as seen in an article on fashion nomenclature:

She did what so many fashion businesses did: She started selling athleisure wear, that marriage of comfort and fashion — think form-fitting leggings and joggers. (Some fashionistas say they prefer the term "joggers" because calling them "sweatpants" carries a negative connotation.)

I can't really blame anyone for eschewing the word sweatpants, which are known throughout the world as the official outerwear of those who have given up — the white flag of clothes.

As Mr. Potato-Head loses his gender and cartoon rabbits become less buxom, many products are becoming gender-neutral to keep up with society's slow realization that gender is more complicated than a Spy vs. Spy comic. So it makes sense that new terms would pop up, such as in this article on a new perfume called Boy Smells:

As terms including "gender-neutral" and "genderless" have taken off in beauty, [co-founder Matthew] Herman prefers the term "genderful." This marks the third new category for the brand, following candles and underwear.

I wouldn't say genderful has a ring to it, but I can't knock it. Language is always catching up to reality, and I imagine the gender words of the future will leave our current vocabulary looking like caveman talk. It's a genderful world, and that's a good thing.

Speaking of cavemen, are you a neanderthal thinker?

When the governors of Texas and Mississippi decided to lift all mask restrictions, even though we're (I flippin' hope) just a few months away from widespread vaccinations, many colorful terms came to mind. I for one thought, "What the bleep are those bleeping bleeps thinking?"

But President Biden had another term: Neanderthal thinking. Amazingly, Biden caught flak for this comment, since apparently the Neanderthal species is quite sensitive to mockery.

I for one think Biden could not have been kinder or more euphemistic, as more honest terms than Neanderthal would include: dunderheaded, nano-brained, peanut-brained, half-witted, dimwitted, chowderheaded, melon-headed, etc.

You get the idea — English is rich in terms for those with very few brain cells to rub together, and you can pretty much make your own with the suffixes, -brained, -headed, or -witted.

At least Biden was kind enough to suggest that anti-maskers just missed a few rungs on the evolutionary ladder — not that their brains are in a permanent state of post-contact imbecility.

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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.