Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Inaccurate Refrains and Other False Notes

Do you have wisdom stripes?

No, that's not a term preferred by biologists who study the oldest and sagest of zebras. It’s a coinage from one of the final episodes of Veep.

Veep's final season will be over by the time this column is released into the wild, which means I may have fallen into depression, because I can't think of a better written, better acted, more relevant comedy. Also, nobody in the history of TV is better than Julia Louis-Dreyfus, as I may have argued elsewhere.

During this awesome final season, the topic of Selena Meyer's age — a number repeatedly mystified by the politician — came up in a spoof of the hubbub over Barack Obama's birth certificate. "Where are you from?" became "When are you from?" During a discussion of Meyer's age, she wonders if anyone would like to inspect her stretch marks, and her obsequious but lovable toady Gary instantly rebrands that term as wisdom stripes.


If only all such reprehensible rewordings were satirical rather than serious. But as long as homo sapiens hem and haw and holler horse apples, I'll be on the job, collecting those apples in my train of twaddle, which rolls on in all seasons. Please enjoy the following evasions and consider using them in your bank robbery notes and Yelp reviews.

This heated term been around since the early 1800s, but you don't hear it much these days. Too bad, it sounds like a delicious way to make a pizza. This flamey hyphenate is indeed euphemistic: it's an evasion of hell-fired, a term someone should trademark for chicken wing sauce. This paragraph is making me hungry.

professional role player
I could probably get a whole column out of the rich, drivel-tastic gems unearthed in a recent HuffPost piece about the ways moony romantics describe their jobs on dating apps. The apparently popular CEO at self-employed makes me want to vomit my whole body twice, while disruptor demands a call to 911. As an occasional romantic, I'm glad to know a self-professed entrepreneur is probably unemployed. This terrific article included a few inane evasions of actor such as dreamer and pretender, but the worst offender might be professional role player. That sounds like someone who gets paid to play D&D or S&M.

unlicensed physician
If a fella without a medical degree pretended to be a doctor, you might be tempted to call him lots of things: charlatan, quack, schmoctor, and fake doctor among them. But one such non-physician has another preferred term, as discussed in an article about the documentary Screwball. As filmmaker Billy Corben says of Tony Bosch, who famously provided baseball players with illegal, performance-boosting drugs: "…[Bosch] prefers the term 'unlicensed physician.' But the truth is that he did not study medicine in the United States, and he was not licensed to practice it in the United States." Hey, I prefer that term too. By this standard, I am also not only an unlicensed physician, but an unlicensed astronaut and unlicensed sorcerer supreme.

music with repetitive structures
I enjoy minimalism. The work of folks like John Adams, Phillip Glass, and Steve Reich is supremely soothing in a world that determined to upset my tummy. But Glass, the most famous minimalist composer of all, isn't crazy about being pigeonholed by the term: he prefers to call his compositions music with repetitive structures. Uh, doesn't that describe all music, other than free jazz? Obviously, people named Phillip Glass shouldn’t throw around unnecessary verbiage.

Finally, have you revived any inaccurate refrains lately?

I don't want to alarm anyone, but the President is kind of a liar. You could say that about most Presidents, but Trump has turned into the Wilt Chamberlain of liars, achieving numbers that may only be matched someday by a lying robot. According to the Washington Post, "In 828 days, President Trump has made 10,111 false or misleading claims."

Having never seen lies told in such bulk, and fearing the appearance of bias, journalists have reached for the thesaurus and new coinage like never before. As Aaron Rupar wrote for Vox: "Instead of calling Trump's lie a lie, the Times used the euphemism 'revived an inaccurate refrain' in a tweet that was widely mocked. The accompanying article goes out of its way to avoid accusing Trump of lying…"

Perhaps "revived an inaccurate refrain" might make sense on a planet where people sing dishonestly to each other. If Percy Ponzi or Gloriana Grift started singing a load of lies, stopped, and then resumed belting out the baloney, then that would be a good example of reviving an inaccurate refrain.

But on planet Earth, lies are lies, or should be, he wrote pleadingly. Then again, I suppose there's a reason Martians refer to Earthlings as "malarkey with legs."

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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.