Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Naturally Flavored Dreams About Graduation

The Americans is my favorite TV show. Set in the 1980s, it features a web of duplicity like I've never seen, as married KGB agents Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings lie to their neighbors, manipulate their children, steal deadly chemical weapons, murder a bunch of people, wear lots of wigs, and try to maintain a healthy marriage while destroying America. Unsurprisingly, the show's many dastardly deceivers often use euphemisms.

One of many complex characters is Nina, a Russian operative who has a pesky habit of betraying her own country. In a recent episode, Nina is in trouble once again, and according to the translation, she might receive exceptional punishment. I'm sure you can figure that one out, but I won't spoil whether Nina survived or suffered a less-exceptional fate.

In another storyline, Philip—trying to cover up the shenanigans of himself and his wife—tells a probably doomed character who knows they're spies this whopper: "When we were hired, we were called peace workers." You could see Philip choking a little on that piece of horse pucky, which isn't surprising. He's a great liar, but he's also gotten increasingly uncomfortable with a job that sometimes requires making a human body fit into a suitcase.

Few of us have assassinated for Mother Russia, but we've all dodged the truth. Here are some of the most egregious, preposterous, ludicrous euphemisms I've spotted in the past month. Share them with your friends and family—but not the KGB.


Speaking of spies and their lies, I've been enjoying a terrific James Bond comic book called Vargr, by Warren Ellis and Jason Masters. Alongside a heaping helping of violence—this Bond is more assassin than spy—is a term that's extremely euphemistic, or at least understated: tradecraft. That seems to encompass a wide range of deceptive behavior, from fake accents to the seductive art of the honey trap. Turns out tradecraft has had a general meaning since the mid-1800s and an espionage-specific meaning since the mid-1900s. This is a pretty great word: its blandness is perfect for the covert world of spies. It's the lexical equivalent of a perfect wig.

dream about your grandmother

This term, which I spotted in the ever-wonderful Dictionary of American Regional English, has nothing to do with your beloved grandma. It's an idiom—used at least in Indiana, central Massachusetts, and southwestern New Hampshire—for having a bad dream. DARE recorded this example from 1978: "'Mince pie at this time of night? Why, you'd dream of your great-grandmother!'" The explanation was that warning was given "to children who asked for indigestible food near bedtime." The idea, presumably, is that a dream about your grandmother would be less than welcome if the dream were rated anything more mature than G.

natural flavors

I will eat absolutely anything—meat, dairy, genetically modified Tribbles—so I don't pay a lot of attention to food labels. Thus, I hadn't given the label natural flavors might thought until my vegetarian friend Eileen brought it up as a dubious label. As an article by Amanda Woerner notes, the difference between artificial and natural is a tad thin: "…they (natural flavors) probably consist of a chemical originally found in blueberries, enhanced and added into your food in a lab. Artificial flavors, on the other hand, are usually entirely human made, as opposed to being derived from a natural source." So natural flavors are like cyborgs, but artificial flavors are like robots. Pick your metallic assassin.

lovely, beautiful, gorgeous

Women get a lot of crap for how they look, and it seems like commenting on women is the national pastime, while men and women both love to play. So I understand why euphemisms occasionally pop up in this area. Words like curvy and plus-size are a bit silly, but they come from a good place. Other terms, however, come from Bonkers Land. As discussed in Slate, lingerie company Neon Moon is massaging the egos of customers by replacing numerical sizes for their clothes with words such as lovely, beautiful, and gorgeous. As CEO Hayat Rachi said in an interview, "...why not compliment yourself and say, 'Hell yeah, I'm a size Beautiful!' rather than judge yourself on whether you've gained or lost inches?" This strange development was predicted by Arrested Development, on which a "new-age feel-goodery" gave middling students a crocodile instead of a C. Christina Cauterucci points out the complete impracticality of Neon Moon's odd system: "…women don't need compliments from our clothing tags—we need to buy garments that are the right size for our bodies." Makes sense, though "right size" sounds a little judgmental. I'm sure Cauterucci meant to say the ravishing size.

Finally, have you graduated lately?

I hope not, because then you've been fired.

I once again have VT contributor Nancy Friedman to thank for alerting me to a euphemism for getting sacked. This one comes from a New York Times Review of Dan Lyons' Disrupted: My Adventures in the Start-up Bubble. Reviewer Dwight Garner spots a particular gem: "There's an Orwellian quality to how language is used at HubSpot. People aren't fired here, for example. They 'graduate.'" Yikes.

Still, painting a firing as a graduation—complete with a mortarboard?—is minor malarkey compared to another HubSpot euphemism. Turns out they poo-pooh the term spam, preferring the mouthful lovable marketing content.

Ye gods! That's a euphemism for the ages—specifically, the golden ages of gobbledygook. It even trumps pre-loved, that transparent word for used goods. But some say love make the world go 'round, so maybe lovable is a smart cloaking device.

Toxic waste sounds so toxic. Why not call it lovable waste? As a freelancer, paying estimated taxes is a seasonal strain on my wallet. If only I could pay estimated love installments. Death sounds so final. I prefer to think that when the time comes, I won't sleep with the fishes or join the heavenly choir, but become eternally lovable. And I hope you'll join the fun by calling my obituary a lovable announcement.

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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:

Monday May 9th 2016, 3:59 AM
Comment by: Ray M. (New York, NY)
I worked for Lockheed Space Ops at the Kennedy Space Center at one time. The term "got launched" meant he/she was fired. I kind of liked this one best.
Friday May 13th 2016, 4:42 AM
Comment by: dejohnmi (Liverpool United Kingdom)
Whenever I tell my Father what I'm about to eat for supper, he tells me that: 'Yeh'll see yer grannie' so there is a chance that the euphemism comes from Lowland Scotland rather than from regional America. Since expectation of bad dreams due to indigestion always seemed to involve cheese, which I don't find particularly indigestible, I always assumed that the idea came from a misreading of Ben Gunn's obsession with cheese in 'Treasure Island.'
Friday June 24th 2016, 10:54 AM
Comment by: Gena W.
At my company, we find synergies--meaning we find people to fire. At a recent client, I learned that the new phrase is to optimize.

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