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.