Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Minding Like-Minded Individuals With a Low Blue Flame

Have you encountered a transition counselor lately?

I hope not. In the real world, a transition counselor is a diabolical euphemism for a profession made famous by George Clooney's character in Up in the Air: someone who fires people for a living.

But in Matt Kindt's extraordinary conspiracy thriller Mind MGMT, the term has an even darker sense: assassin. Oddly, in Kindt's world of telepathic manipulators and immortal lunatics, plain old assassins are some of the least scary folks.

Assassination, like everything death-y, is a euphemism-heavy topic. One of my favorite is arbitrary deprivation of life: a State Department term for state-sponsored whacking used in 1984 and recorded in Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf's Spinglish: The Definitive Dictionary of Deliberately Deceptive Language.

Someday we will all be deprived of life, arbitrarily or not, so we'd better have a few laughs while we can. In that spirit, here are some euphemisms that show the human mind is as creative and clever as it is conniving and covert.

coterminous stakeholder engagement

Speaking of Spinglish, here's another term from that impressive collection of baloney and flapdoodle. I don't know what coterminous stakeholder engagement sounds like to you: perhaps some sort of group marriage/suicide pact involving a board of directors. The real meaning is less romantic and fatal: chatting. Apparently, British town council officials encouraged coterminous stakeholder engagement because converse and talk aren't part of British English, a fact I'll certainly, undoubtedly verify before turning in this column.

soil enhancer

Thanks to Logan Jenkins—another euphemism collector—for alerting me to this term, which Jenkins wrote about in the San Diego Union-Tribune. It's specifically chicken poop, but would apply well to all forms of manure. Ah, if only people heeded the words of George Costanza, who long ago in the Paleolithic era of the 90s observed that manure's not that bad thanks to its combination of "ma" and "newer." Soil enhancer is also a good reminder than any form of enhance is a strong indicator that the lexical manure is about to get deeper than usual. As I've written about before, enhanced interrogation techniques is just the most famous use of enhanced to un-enhance the truth.

minder

This word seems harmless enough. It could refer to a cautious bloke who is really good at minding the gap—or maybe someone who is so easily offended he can never honestly say "I don't mind." But it's actually a type of hired muscle, as seen in a 1968 use from the book Death & Leaping Ladies: "At school he was a juvenile fence and money-lender, with a couple of tough, simple-minded older boys as his ‘minders'." Other Oxford English Dictionary (OED) examples from 1973 ("Comes of a whole family of wrong 'uns... A high class ‘minder' around the big gambling set.") and 1985 "And if there's a threat of physical violence you have to call on your minder.") show a word steeped in criminality and fisticuffs and guys with their arms crossed looking mean.

like-minded individuals

In a New Yorker article, Darren Wilson—the disgraced police officer who killed Michael Brown—used some revealing language. While describing his somewhat reclusive current life, Wilson indicated that he only patronizes certain types of restaurants: "We try to go somewhere—how do I say this correctly?—with like-minded individuals. You know. Where it's not a mixing pot." Obviously, like-minded individuals are other white people, while a mixing pot would be a place with a broader color palette. It's baffling that a guy already accused of an awful and notorious racial crime would say something so transparently racist, especially to a journalist for the love of Zeus. As they say, the mind reels.

burn with a low blue flame

When I'm stumped for euphemisms, I often turn to Paul Dickson's Drunk, a magnificent collection of term for being drunkulent, drunksy, and drunkish. One of the more euphemistic expressions is burns with a low blue flame. As Dickson puts it, this idiom probably "has some relationship to the ancient assertion that if one drank enough rum or brandy and was bled, the blood would burn blue until totally consumed." These days, no one believes boozehounds are combustible, because we're far too sophisticated. At least that's what my unvaccinated children tell me.

Finally, I hope you're not moving dustward at a fast pace.

This obscure adverb, with only one OED example, has a decidedly deathy meaning: "Towards the dust; towards death or the grave."

A recent term for a more corporate demise is sunsetting. In a Wired article, Davey Alba writes about the dustward journey of a startup, "The two-year-old company says it will take steps to ‘sunset' the Oyster service over the next few months and will honor customers' requests for refunds over the next few weeks." I reckon sunsetting is a gorgeous term that, like a gorgeous KGB spy, shouldn't be trusted in any circumstances.

I could devote a whole column to death-related euphemisms, and I'm kind of surprised I haven't done so already. Another obscure word, this one dating back to Old English, is end-day, which is the day you die. An even more euphemistic term is homegoing, a religious term for a death or funeral.

Heaven is the presumed home, though I think I'd rather go to Asgard myself. I always wanted to meet Odin's ravens. Maybe I need to see a transition counselor about that.


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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 October 7th 2015, 4:47 PM
Comment by: mike H. (san diego, CA)
Alcohol burns with a low blue flame. Next time you are at a fancy restaurant , order a flaming dessert, bananas foster, for example and observe the flame. Not sure how it fits in your definition but it is certainly descriptive of how alcohol burns.
Wednesday October 14th 2015, 10:37 AM
Comment by: Jan S. (Brookline, MA)
In your paragraph on soil enhancers, you have one correct "it's" and one that should be "its." Please go back and edit.

[Fixed! —Ed.]

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