Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Massaging European Issues

Before pushing on with this month's batch of old and new euphemisms, I'd feel remiss if I didn't give my take on job creator, which the American Dialect Society voted 2011's Most Euphemistic term of the year.

Though I'm still saddened that my suggestion of sugar-coated Satan sandwich went over like a fart in church, I can't argue with the selection of job creator. That term, which I define as "a person so loaded they probably roll around in a giant vat of moolah like Scrooge McDuck" is not only euphemistic, but a little evil. I don't want to get into an argument about taxes, but the rich should at least have to live with being called rich.

Enough looking back. The spokes of nonsense never stop spinning. I hope you enjoy the following flashes of flummery, malarkey, and horsepucky.

female issues that are apparent at the age of 50

In past columns, I've shared vague phrases such as life problem issues and significant life events that were used by students to excuse late work. Recently, I received an excuse that's more precise and more preposterous: a student wrote that she was "having a great deal of problems with female issues that are apparent at the age of 50." Jesus, Mary, and Archie Bunker, is menopause really that shameful a word? If so, I'm thankful there's no manopause. There isn't, is there?

friendship club

Have you been to a friendship club recently? I hope not, because that is a term for a brothel, as mentioned in an Indian newspaper. Over time, the brothel has earned many ridiculous nicknames and euphemisms, including assignation house, common house, hothouse, nanny shop, notch house, public house, massage parlor, and (my fave) holistic health center. In the brothel-naming field, friendship club might be the most sugar-coated Satan sandwich of them all. It sounds like the kind of place you'd find Mr. Rogers or whoever fills his Cardigan today.


Speaking of the euphemism-soaked word massage, the other day I was looking through the Oxford English Dictionary's entry on massage as a verb, wondering how old expressions like massage the facts were. Turns out the sense of massaging as manipulating info goes back to at least 1969: "Buying a record of the day's trading activity and having it massaged through their computer programs at night." Then I learned a meaning that was quite a bit older. Since the 1920's, massage has meant "To assault (a person) with repeated blows; to kill," as used here in 1927: "One guy was all set to massage your dome wit' a table leg." A 1937 example, courtesy of Jonathan Lighter's Historical Dictionary of American Slang, is vividly violent: "The thugs have been caught and massaged with rubber hoses in the back room of some station house." I'm no bleeding heart, but even violent thugs and perky facts deserve better treatment than that.

European debt dynamics

Though America is a world leader in the field of being up to our eyeballs in debt, we're not the only ones, as indicated by this fun phrase: "A recent Citibank report states that several countries in the Caribbean ‘have European debt dynamics', a euphemism for being on the brink of default." Now that's a useful idiom, and it reminds me of a classic Seinfeld moment: the time an exasperated Jerry defended his man-purse by proclaiming "It's European!"


This harmless implement, too small to kill a vampire, is more fearsome when it's a euphemism for a bowie knife, as used here in an OED quote from 1862: "I didn't call but jest on one, an' he drawed toothpick on me, An' reckoned he warn't goin' to stan' no sech doggauned econ'my." A common variation is Arkansas toothpick, which my favorite book, Green's Dictionary of Slang, traces back to 1835. Green's (edited by slang's other great Jonathan, Jonathan Green) has a ton of citations for Arkansas toothpick between the 1800's and the present, plus other terms that will probably make an Arky non-proud, like Arkansas wedding cake (corn bread), Arkansas fire extinguisher (a chamberpot), Arkansas lizard (a flea), and Arkansas credit card (a hose for stealing gas).

youth development campus

If three-word terms were outlawed, would euphemisms disappear? I doubt it, but the rebranding business would suffer a serious blow, much like the ice-cream industry would be rocked by the criminalization of cones. In the Augusta Chronicle, I spied a three-word whopper in an article about a "...roiling scandal at Augusta ‘Youth Development Campus,' a sugary-sounding euphemism for the local juvenile lockup." That does sound more palatable than Teen Jail, but yikes, this one is making George Carlin roll over in his grave. What's next, calling a federal prison an adult development resort?

Finally, check out this tweet from Boston Globe language columnist Erin McKean: "Sent to me in an email, as an example of understatement: ‘I don't think he's stupid. He's just unlucky when he thinks.'"

This beautiful quotation is not only understated but euphemistic, pointing the way toward other turns of phrase that could make my life sound far more lively: I'm not relationship-challenged. I'm just unlucky when I date.  I'm not unathletic. I'm just unlucky when I move. I'm certainly not packing on the pounds. I'm just unlucky when I weigh myself.

As for you, dear readers, if the ending to this column appears formulaic and predictable, it's not! You're just unlucky when you read — or experiencing reading issues that are apparent at the end of articles. 

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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 February 2nd 2012, 2:31 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I always love place- or culture-based euphemisms, which I believe are almost always negative (Dutch courage, French letter, Irish twins). Thus your examples of various Arkansian euphemisms strike me as references to the alleged backwardness of the Razorbacks. And I suspect that these particular terms were probably most popular among folks who lived one state over. What do you think?

Anyway, great piece.
Thursday February 2nd 2012, 10:12 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
It may not be a true euphenism, but "when the time's right" rates high on my list of favorites.
To state the obvious in such a quasi-hidden manner is the height of polite, commercial reference to "it" and why you need to purchase the product to succeed.
Thursday February 2nd 2012, 5:04 PM
Comment by: Mike (Florissant, MO)
Thursday February 2nd 2012, 9:51 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
The wording was more correctly, "When the moment's right."
Thursday February 2nd 2012, 9:56 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom)
As usual Mark, yor article is highly entertaining
Thursday February 2nd 2012, 9:57 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom)
As usual Mark, your article is highly entertaining
Friday February 3rd 2012, 1:08 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom)
Here's another one for you Mark:
A friend of mine has told me that he met a German gentleman who said that the pre-war street girls in old Berlin used to say, ‘Na ja, Kleine.....wurdest du angenehme schwaecken lassen?’
Translated, this means.........."Hello, young man, would you like to be pleasantly weakened?
Ferial again
Saturday February 4th 2012, 8:31 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
No,we the readers are lucky when we have Mr. Mark's euphemism column. I wait with eager till the next one appears.
European Dynamics is a nice term to introduce for "on the brink of default" meaning.
Thank you again.

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