Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Honoring Hugh Rawson, Euphemism Scholar

Lexicographer Hugh Rawson died recently. Among other accomplishments, he wrote Rawson's Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Doubletalk, a monumental, essential look at euphemisms that every language-lover should own. I can't recommend it enough.

The following are euphemisms I first discovered — or realized were euphemisms — through Rawson. Thanks, Hugh, for the inspiring work.

space adaptation syndrome

Three-word euphemisms are my favorite, and this triad of twaddle is a classic example: it means space sickness. If you experience space adaption syndrome, you might need to use the waste-management compartment: in other words, the space toilet.

confidence course

This may sound like an online class teaching the art of self-esteem, but it's something far more physical and traditional: a confidence course is an obstacle course. Presumably, whoever came up with this one thought obstacle sounded too discouraging for the fragile psyches of army recruits. I guess it's like my grandpappy said, "Turn obstacles into malarkey."

special investigation group

If a special investigation group comes a-knocking, bolt the door: this is a death squad.


Hell itself couldn't contain all of English's euphemisms for the devil, and this one has been used since the mid-1600s to mean either bad luck or the personification of evil himself. This Oxford English Dictionary use from 1694 makes the sense plain: "The Deuce take me if there were three good things said." Devil-disparagers should be happy to know that deuce is also a euphemism for another oft-obscured topic, as in "My dog dropped a deuce."

Internal Revenue Service

Rawson had a particular talent for noticing the euphemisms that hardly seem like euphemisms at all, terms that, as he wrote, "...are embedded so deeply in our language that few of us, even those who pride themselves on being plainspoken, ever get through a day without using them." The IRS is a perfect example, as Rawson observes that this oddly named agency is "A 'service' that most taxpayers feel they could do without."

action figure

I never thought of myself as someone who played with dolls — until I read Rawson, ever a dispeller of drivel. He points out that action figure is a euphemism for doll, a term lacking the stereotypical masculinity demanded by so many lads and their parents.

courses of particular interest

If you google this term, you'll find various classes recommended to students of all sorts. You'll also find a few uses like this one by Bruce Brown, whose narration of a PBS special called "The Miracle Planet" included these words: "Using a special camera and telescope, with a wide visual field, they have identified 25 meteors travelling on courses of particular interest." As Brown explains:  "Each of these meteors has an orbit which intersects the Earth's orbit." In other words, these asteroids are potential doomsday asteroids, and a "course of particular interest" should be called a "course that, good God, could obliterate humanity once and for all!"

aerodynamic personnel decelerator

Here's another first-ballot entry in the jargon-centric wing of the euphemism hall of fame: an aerodynamic personnel decelerator is what laymen (and sane people) call a parachute.


This maneuver — a favorite of professional wrestlers and police officers — surprised me at first when I saw it in Rawson's book. How is that euphemistic, I wondered? After all, a sleeperhold puts you to sleep. Ever vigilant, Rawson names the sleeperhold's true, honest title: chokehold.

youth-oriented merchandise

This term could mean Legos, Barbie dolls, and Darth Vader action fig — er, dolls. However, it actually refers to something enjoyed by less innocent youths: drug paraphernalia.

family with service needs

Most euphemisms are a laughing matter, but some conceal horrors, like this Connecticut term for an abusive family. I prefer the term family with parents who need to be locked up.

nondiscernible microbionoculator

Give yourself a minute to guess what in Thor's name nondiscernible microbionoculator could mean. Ready? It's a poison dart gun. Apparently, this CIA weapon could fire a deadly dart 100 meters. I imagine the dart itself might be smaller than its name.

monarch of the jungle

No, that's not Tarzan. Monarch of the jungle is simply a non-gendered alternative to king of the jungle: in other words, a lion. This is one of the battiest, brazenest terms collected by Rawson, who was truly the monarch of the euphemisms. He will be missed.

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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:

Tuesday July 2nd 2013, 6:59 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
He will be missed.
Tuesday July 2nd 2013, 12:12 PM
Comment by: Angel M.
Why do excellent people like Hugh Rawson have to die so soon?
Monday July 8th 2013, 10:00 AM
Comment by: Mike (Florissant, MO)
I have to get that book! I'm not a student of lexography or euphamisms, but I do enjoy a good chuckle. It's sad that someone of Mr. Rawson's caliber is no longer with us.

However (there's always a 'but', isn't there?) sleeper hold blocks the flow of blood to the brain resulting in unconciousness. Choking, on the other hand (or different part of the neck) blocks air to the lungs. How is that a euphemism or double talk?

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