Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Mephitic Weasels in the Garden House

What do you call a marijuana merchant, pot dealer, or reefer retailer?

It's an increasingly relevant question, as pot gets legal-er and legal-er by the day. However, some terminology in a recent Washington Post article gave me a coughing fit, as Vanessa West said:

In private we might call ourselves "bud tenders," but in an effort to legitimize the industry, we prefer the term "product specialists." We're trying to get away from the Cheech and Chong thing, but there is a lot of stigma to overcome.

Product specialists? That is so far from the Cheech and Chong thing, it's in another multiverse.

This evasive lexical varmint is vague squared and quite ironic. In an effort to evade the stigma of marijuana, potrepreneurs have concocted a coinage so conspicuous it suggests far sketchier stuff than pot. If I heard someone describe themselves as a product specialist, I would assume they sold heroin, crack, plutonium, infinity gems, or peas. I hate peas. They are the worst.

Product = bad. Way to not overcome a stigma.

Speaking of bad, here are some of the latest and non-greatest lengths your fellow hairless apes have gone to not say what they mean.

mephitic weasel
This term isn't exactly evasive, but it is a hoot, so what the hell, I'm including it. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) captures one use of the term American Mephitic Weasel in 1827. While this sounds like a positively Satanic critter to my sensitive ears, the truth is less diabolical: it's a skunk.

loss of the clerical state
This mouthful has turned up in some articles about the ongoing and seemingly endless scandals involving sexual abuse by Catholic priests. When priests are thrown out of the priesthood, they are defrocked or laicized, but as Rev. Damián Astigueta puts it in an article for northjersey.com, "Both terms are considered outdated by the Catholic church, which prefers the term 'loss of the clerical state.'" This passive description is typical of the Catholic church's passive (and vile) approach to predators wearing collars. It's a small lexical disgrace to go along with the enormous ethical horror.

Here's an old pile of horsepucky from the corporate lexicon of firing. The term dates from the late forties and originally had the less horrible meaning of helping fired folks find new jobs, but it soon became a handy new handle for the ax. In other words, the word for the cure spread to the disease. A Time magazine article from 1970 shows the term in flux:

Instead of simply bouncing a subordinate, the boss can send him to a firm that specializes in helping unwanted executives to find new jobs. The practitioners have even coined a euphemistic description for the process: "outplacing" executives who have been "dehired".

This is as bad as the classic downsizing. That term evades reality by commenting on the new size of the company; outplacement evades reality by highlighting the new location of the now-former employee. A 1988 Daily Telegraph article includes a variation in a mega-euphemistic sentence: "Outplacers may be called in to help a small number of senior executives suddenly made redundant." Suddenly made redundant? The Outplacer should be a Batman villain.

Since the 1600s, a reposer has been, as the OED puts it, "A person who or thing which rests, or causes another to rest." That covers a lot of restful ground, some of it euphemistic. A 1913 issue of The Pedagogical Seminary includes this evasive sample pack: "Terms used are repressive and euphemistic... A drink is a morning rouser, a reposer, a sparkler, a rinse." Bartender, make my sparkler a double.

garden house
This seemingly innocent term has had at least two meanings that could be considered indelicate, as the delicacy police would say. Since the late 1800s, a garden house has been an outhouse. That's accurate and lipstick on a pig at the same time. It's Schrodinger's lipstick. The other meaning goes back further, to at least the early 1600s: a brothel. That's one of the most euphemized concepts of all; soft synonyms include academy, bawdy house, common house, hothouse, and public house.

Speaking of houses, do you live in an empathetic house?

As mentioned in an article on smart houses, "[Virginia Tech computer scientist Denis] Gracanin sees a future where houses actually help their inhabitants to deal with things like stress, mood, productivity, and more,  so instead of calling it a 'smart house' Gracanin prefers the term 'empathetic house.'"

In addition to fearing an uprising of emphatic, sensitive, house-sized Cylons, I'm reminded of a tweet from Chris Evans, who plays Captain America and may secretly be the Hitler-punching hero: "Dear All Technology, Remember the 90's when you just WORKED??? I don't need a 'smart' feature on my TV, thermostat, lights, music, refrigerator, security cameras, and f-ing car. You're a major pain in all of our asses. You're not worth it. Signed, Everyone."

I can't argue with Captain America. I prefer my houses stupid, my thermostats ignorant, and my cars idiotic. The last thing a guy with my fragile self-esteem needs is to lose a game of Connect Four to a stapler.

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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.