Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Hope is the New Risk

I have to admit, I'm still basking in the glow of last month's American Dialect Society meeting, when my two picks for 2009's Most Euphemistic — hiking the Appalachian trail and sea kittens — each took home an award. Hiking killed it in the euph category, while the sea kittens swam over to "Most Unnecessary" and took the prize. Booyah, and may I add, for the benefit of older readers, huzzah!

But it's a new year, and we can't dwell on the hikes and kittens of the past — not when a Mach 10 contender for Euphemism of the Year 2010 has already emerged.

The bringer of euphemistic goodness is Rosa Franklin, the Democratic Senator from Washington state who feels, "We really put too many negatives on our kids... We need to come up with positive terms." Her suggestion is to rid state law of the term at risk for young'uns who are poor, disadvantaged, poverty-stricken, etc. and call them — brace yourself — at hope.

If only George Carlin, euphemism exorcist extraordinaire, were alive to throw unholy water at this one. At hope is the kind of mushy, cryptic, Orwellian, optimistic/insane language that world-class satirists like Stephen Colbert and the South Park guys make up — but this is real. It's real as rats. I just hope someone has told these lucky kids that they're no longer perched on the precipice of risk, but merely waiting in line for the balloon ride of hope.

Franklin's innovation is a lesson to us all that the word hope may not be fulfilling its destiny as fully and battily as it could. Perhaps it could function as band-aid/morphine drip for other suffering citizens. Wouldn't post-traumatic stress disorder sound nicer as post-traumatic hope disorder? Maybe our government's already evasive enhanced interrogation techniques could be rebranded as enhanced hope techniques. Oozing cysts are so 2009. How about hopeful cysts? There's no limit to what hope can mean when it doesn't mean anything at all.

Risks be damned, I hope you're ready for a new year of obscure euphemisms. It's my job — as appointed by the courts — to search far and wide for those nuggets of nonsense that have been hiding inside dictionaries under rocks. Batten down the hatches and hide the English teachers! Let the truthiness be told...


Thanks to Wordnik guru Erin McKean for tipping her Twitter followers off to another early candidate for euphemism of the year 2010: it appeared in a Boston Globe article on the bizarre phenomenon of hoarding: "Today they will work on a brochure to educate the public about hoarding — although Teri McDonough, the center's outreach coordinator, admits she prefers the word 'cluttering' or even 'over-treasuring.'" Ah, over-treasuring! What a sugary coating for the dumpster-spurning hoarder... Still, I'm in no position to judge. With my history of over-treasuring words, I don't have a dusty dictionary to stand on.


While reading Arika Okrent's fantastic In the Land of Invented Languages, I stumbled upon her mention of this euphemism for what mathematicians call number two. Yes indeedy, sir-reverence — despite its reverent tone — is the kind of business that requires a scooping technician. I don't know how the devil this happened, but Okrent notes that sir-reverence is synonymous with with all due respect and plausibly suggests, "People usually pull out 'with all due respect' when they are about to drop some bad news, so I suppose the change in meaning came about after enough people, upon hearing the phrase, thought to themselves, 'Oh, great. Here comes another pile of sir-reverence.'"

duck's disease

This 1960 Oxford English Dictionary citation is quite intriguing: "Plinio, the barman with duck's disease, came running up." A layperson might interpret this condition as a rare disorder, involving intermittent quacking and unsightly feathers. Rather, duck's disease is just a silly expression (used since at least the twenties) for short people — because ducks aren't known for their towering stature. As a lanky monolith of a man, I've never had much need for terms like vertically challenged and petite, but I'm determined to adopt this avian idiom. Euphemisms, like Far Side cartoons, are always better with ducks.


While looking back at the ADS Most Euphemistic winners of the aughts last month, I noticed two runner-ups that shared a common denominator: population reduction (apparently a military cloaking device for a combat assignment) and partner reduction (a term for a divorce or other break-up). Sweet Superman on a surfboard, I never realized what a euphemistic wonder reduction could be. In the spirit of population reductions and partner reductions, I am authorizing a pie reduction that will commence immediately and with extreme prejudice.

Finally, did you realize how dangerous it is to reach out and touch somebody?

Probably not, if you're only familiar with the phone company slogan. Yet this common cliché has taken on decidedly doubletalky duties, as I heard on the radio a day after the Christmas day Undiebomber attack.

I was too full of pie and Christmas spirit to scribble down that source, but I found a similar use in a National Review blog, as James Jay Carafano wrote on January 5 (italics mine): "The terrorists have been there for a while. They have been threatening to go global. The U.S. government has known about the threat. U.S. agencies have been operating in Yemen for some time — and, in part, the terrorist attempts to reach out and touch America are because we have been after them. There were at least two strikes last month going after al-Qaeda leaders in the country."

Reach out and touch as a euphemism for a terrorist attack? Ye gods! You know a phrase has made a long and terrifying journey when it's gone from describing a Christmas call to granny to a Christmas underwear bomber trying to blow up granny's plane.

That's risky business. Well, at least all is not lost. I suppose it's hope-y business too.

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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:

Wednesday February 3rd 2010, 7:09 AM
Comment by: Jennifer S. (Cruz Quebrada-Dafundo Portugal)
Oh ye gods and little fishes

Obama's fine thought-provoking title is besmirched, belittled and be (something or other to make the tryptich) With sir-reverence such as that expression (children at hope) there's no space for audacity and no hope for hope!

Or perhaps the lady was doing a little toadying?
Wednesday February 3rd 2010, 10:05 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
"(something or other to make the tryptich)"

That was marvelous, Jennifer! Your extraordinary wit completely absolves you from any blame for the missing period. Thanks for giving me a laugh!
Wednesday February 3rd 2010, 1:44 PM
Comment by: Jennifer L. (Felizzano Italy)
You might like to consider adding a section to your already comprehensive offerings highlighting English when found in the hands of foreigners.

I live in Italy where I teach English. Since arriving here 5 years ago I have discovered that a 'box' is a garage and 'black tight' is the groom's wedding attire. There are many other examples I could quote of English taking on a completely original meaning.

This 'new' section should not be misspellings (which can indeed be very funny) but additional translation of bona fide words.
Wednesday February 3rd 2010, 2:16 PM
Comment by: Elin
Hahahaaaa! I loved this piece, simply loved it. Mark Peters, you made my day.
Wednesday February 3rd 2010, 5:19 PM
Comment by: Mark P. (Chicago, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thursday February 4th 2010, 8:01 AM
Comment by: Adele C. M. (Charlotte, NC)
Oh, this was a wonderful way to start the day! Simply hilarious. Thanks Mark.

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