Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Hiking the Euphemistic Trail

Will the Appalachian trail ever be the same?

Environmentally, I think so. Linguistically? Not a chance.

I can't even look at websites like this and this without giggling like a schoolgirl who ate one of those four-foot-long Pixie Stix.

Let me put it this way... If you have a dog, and that dog ever made a no-no on something precious, like an $800 carpet, then you have some idea of the kind of impact South Carolina Governor (now known as "The Luv Guv") Mark Sanford has had on the Appalachian trail, specifically in the form of the atomic-wing-hot new euphemism hiking the Appalachian trail, which refers to sexual shenanigans, especially the adulterous kind that waylays political careers.

This euphemism keeps picking up momentum as it sails through the galaxy, like a virus with wheels, or a horse on fire, or a sentence with a better metaphor. My fellow word-herders on the American Dialect Society (ADS) mailing list have been keen observers of Appalachian developments. On June 27th, Alice Faber mentioned, "This morning I had my radio set to an XM baseball week in review show. At its open, one host welcomed the other back from his vacation on the Appalachian Trail, and both took great pains to emphasize that he really, really was really just hiking." Then, on the 28th, Barbara Need pointed out a Chicago Tribune editorial cartoon with a distressed woman saying, "I suspect my husband's hiking on me..." Elsewhere, Sanford is described as an Appalachian trail devotee. As befits the literal meaning, this idiom has legs, folks. It will be a contender (for the ADS's 2009 Most Euphemistic award, at least).

So even though I tend to focus on under-the-radar euphemisms in this column, sometimes you have to take your radar and throw it in the bathtub, rubber duckies be damned. Hiking the Appalachian trail is too good to pass up, and if we're lucky, it may describe cheaters far into the future, even during the long-prophesied era when the right to gay-marry Martians is hotly contested. 

Back on earth, the history of adultery euphemisms is as rich and lengthy and hilarious and painful as the history of adultery itself. Lapsing, straying, and the seven-year itch are commonly known, but Andrew Sullivan reminds us of Ugandan discussions, a Private Eye magazine-propelled bit of silliness. The omnipresent names of reality TV stars Jon and Kate have been linked to another infidelity euphemism, activities, as seen here in a Kate quote: "Over the course of this weekend, Jon's activities have left me no choice but to file legal procedures in order to protect myself and our children." And since I love dogs more than most mammals or celestial beings, you know that I'm a fan of an expression that was applied to serial cheater Bill Clinton: he has been described as a "hard dog to keep on the porch." If I had an appropriate joke about a Scooby snack, I would use it here.

But enough off-trail excursions... It appears that there were several sparks in the euphemistic blaze. On the evening of June 22nd, a blogger on Balloon Juice reacted to the early reports of Sanford's supposed whereabouts with a post winkingly titled, "Hiking the Appalachian Trail, so to speak." Then the following day, when it was becoming clear that the Appalachian-hiking thing was bunk but before we knew that Sanford was cheating on his wife in Argentina, this comment appeared on Talking Points Memo: "Whatever Sanford has actually been doing, he's just made 'hiking the Appalachian Trail' a euphemism for mysterious disappearances as a result of illicit activities.... Come home after a weekend blackout bender? Hey, honey, I was just hiking the Appalachian Trail."

Once we learned that Sanford was canoodling with a mistress and had not been eaten by a bear, the blogosphere started going ballistic with spontaneous declarations of the new euphemism, as bloggers and tweeters celebrated the phrase. I think no one said it better than Steven Hart, who wrote that this "...unintentional contribution to the English vernacular merits the highest praise. By helping make 'Hiking the Appalachian Trail' the instant preferred euphemism for adultery, Sanford may even have trimmed a few thousand years off his time in Purgatory."

Another blogger offered "Beyond 'Hiking the Appalachian Trail': 10 More New Euphemisms From The Mark Sanford Affair." I like "not disputing the authenticity of the emails" myself, but we hardly need any creativity to harvest more euphemisms, as Sanford's post-hike press conference provided a buffet on which word-lovers gorged themselves. Sanford said he and his co-hiker had incredibly serious conversation, plus incredibly intense conversation. They shared a remarkable friendship that, because they lived far away, existed in a zone of protectiveness. Their relationship deepened during that whole sparking thing and eventually went into — hubba-hubba! — serious overdrive. After coughing up more disclosures, Sanford — now the acknowledged euphemizer laureate — added crossing the line and letting his guard down.

Not every euphemistic flourish by the Governor was hanky-panky-related. Take this sentence, again from the press conference, referring to his staffers: "I let them down by creating a fiction with regard to where I was going, which means that I had then, in turn, given as much as they relied on that information, let down people that I represent across this state." Ah, creating a fiction! If only Sanford weren't the married governor of a state, such an act of creativity might earn him a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing — or at least a prize spot on mother's refrigerator.

Though I am grateful to Zeus above and the mole-men below for the comedic opportunities presented by all things Mark Sanford, the more mature part of my brain does think that making such hub and bub and fuss over cheating politicians is over-the-top, especially for one who seems more contrite than the usual politi-bozo. Then again, the much larger, fourth-grader-equivalent part of my brain thinks, "Maybe we haven't gone far enough..."

That's where you come in, dear readers. I'm sure my crystal ball and research skills have left enough gaps to make my editor weep like a disgraced politician, so let me know what euphemisms for straying I've missed, plus any other variations of our brave new idiom you've spotted or concocted in your private lair.

If you need me, I'll be "sweet summer hiking on Huckleberry mountain," which I just decided means I'll be cheating on my diet with a bag of potato chips bigger than a Volkswagen.

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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 July 2nd 2009, 7:08 AM
Comment by: gretchen W.
What a great way to start my morning! I love words - especially when they tell the world that you've got a great mind like Mark Peters.
Thursday July 2nd 2009, 8:24 AM
Comment by: Dr. Don (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
That was entertaining.

This is probably too nit picky, but I wonder if "activities" in the sentence "Jon's activities have left me no choice but to file legal procedures" really qualifies as a euphemism. The word seems to be missing a necessary quality of circumlocution.

If Kate had said something like "extracurricular activities," she would have been more obviously speaking around the word she was avoiding.
Thursday July 2nd 2009, 8:57 AM
Comment by: Clarence W.
Contributing to the sticking power of the euphemism was the announcement as the story developed that it was Naked Hiking Day, an annual celebration of Spring.
Thursday July 2nd 2009, 10:00 AM
Comment by: Mark P. (Chicago, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Good catch, Clarence! That should've been in there...
Thursday July 2nd 2009, 10:38 AM
Comment by: LadyAlice
When someone says they 'love' words or they love something other than another human being it irritates me for some reason. Am I being too picky?
Thursday July 2nd 2009, 11:11 AM
Comment by: Mark P. (Chicago, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
LadyAlice: Probably so... I definitely find words, ice cream, dogs, 30 Rock, the NBA playoffs, and just the right size notebook easier to love than most people, but maybe that's just me!
Thursday July 2nd 2009, 12:46 PM
Comment by: Winston D.
As Sanford's "hiking the Appalachian trail" itinerary unfolded, my thoughts turned to Bunburying, Wilde's deceptively handy instrument in his "The Importance of Being Ernest." I've no doubt Sanford understands completely the rules of Bunburying!
Thursday July 2nd 2009, 12:46 PM
Comment by: LadyAlice
I teach my grandchildren to like things or enjoy things but love belongs to family and friends. I hope I'm correct in my belief because ice cream or the playoffs cannot love us back. Nothing warm and fuzzy there. (=;}
Thursday July 2nd 2009, 12:52 PM
Comment by: Becky C.
I kind of thought the Governor's report of "crossing the ultimate line" was an interesting turn or phrase. Did he mean intercourse or did he mean falling in love?
Thursday July 2nd 2009, 1:52 PM
Comment by: Suzanne (Asheville, NC)
Hilarious, Mark. Thanks for the laughs. I've apparently been living under a rock this week and had completely missed all the fun at the Luv Guv's expense.

Becky C, that's an interesting question. I wonder if we'll ever find out.
Thursday July 2nd 2009, 3:06 PM
Comment by: Scott G.
Hmmm... This particular euphemistic drift is sad. I've hiked the Applachain Trail. (Really. I have. Honey, if you're reading this, you know I used to hike more.)

I'm hoping this one burns out fast. Or worst case, only hangs on for a little while to have some fun with it and then just have it disappear into "Love Guv" silliness. Now, the "Governator" is something else. That clearly goes away when Arnold does. But THAT's a fun one.

Thursday July 2nd 2009, 4:30 PM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
My husband and I are friends with two other incredibly busy couples. Often one member of the six-some is away with work-related or leisure activities. When we've wanted to share extra-marital gossip about some public figure we'll haul out our own activities and air quote "watching the salamander migration" or "at the Board of Education meeting" or "taking depositions" or "basketball reffing." Gov. Sanford soiled a really great past time activity for us.
Thursday July 2nd 2009, 5:39 PM
Comment by: Lynne S.
Evasive manouevers and hiking the A-trail. Sounds downright educational.
Thursday July 2nd 2009, 7:42 PM
Comment by: Judith A. (Hamilton, GA)
Hmmmm. So THAT'S why my husband wants his ashes sprinkled on the A Trail.
Friday July 3rd 2009, 9:11 AM
Comment by: Mark P. (Chicago, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Mary Liz: "Watching the salamander migration"? By the hammer of Thor, that is awesome. Thanks for sharing...
Saturday July 4th 2009, 5:57 PM
Comment by: James M.
This is, I think, all very tedious . . . (My wife and I hike in the Sierras.)
Sunday July 5th 2009, 4:38 PM
Comment by: Kathleen P.
I doubt this has national euphemistic implications, but a neighbor of ours frequently used the talk show inspired phrase "Taking some Me Time" for her hours-long evening absences. Turns out the Me was a We, and did not include her husband. A story all too common, sad for the kids and family, but what a hell of a garage sale ensued!
Monday July 13th 2009, 10:32 AM
Comment by: Michael T. (Blue Bell, PA)
I do not agree that the Sanford Affair and the Appalachian trail has impacted our language the way 'Watergate' did. Today it seems big, but it's really a minor league sex scandal. When taking a Bayesian approach to meaning, the most likely activity of somebody saying they're doing the trail is still hiking. Only in the limited sphere of politics does the meaning alter. Even then, I think people will forget.
Wednesday July 7th 2010, 1:21 PM
Comment by: Barbara M. (Roseburg, OR)
LadyAlice have you looked up "love" in the Visual Thesaurus. There are other meanings to the word than affection for people. So I love my husband, my children, my grandchildren my dog, ice cream, and words.
Wednesday January 5th 2011, 7:31 AM
Comment by: Bernadette H. (London United Kingdom)
Some ten years ago, I hiked to the top of Mount Brandon in Dingle, alone, on a cold November day. It took me almost four hours, and later I found the ascent described as 'purgatorial' in a local guide book.

Looking across from London, I have no idea who Sanford is or what much of this means. But away from the merriment, I can imagine his wife is on a purgatorial trail of her own right now.

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