Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Necessary Redundancy Turkeys and Other Waste in Space

In this month's Evasive Maneuvers column, our master of euphemisms tackles food and the consequences of food — on earth and in the cosmos.

Recently, aboard the International Space Station, a crisis struck!

Mercifully, they weren't attacked by the Klingon-Martian alliance I've been trying to warn people about in my blogs and world-is-ending signs. Luckily, they weren't ticketed by the space cops or pestered by space vendors, looking for contributions to a "Save the Solar System" campaign. No cases of astro-madness have been reported (so far — knock on wood).

The crisis was more mundane: an overflowing of the Waste and Hygiene Compartment. In non-NASA-ese, that's the space toilet. In NASA-ese, straight from their press release, here's how this short international nightmare was resolved: "The toilet in the ISS WHC (Waste & Hygiene Compartment) is again operational. This morning, the crew changed out a number of parts that were flooded with pre-treat solution yesterday when a dose pump failed ON. The crew is Go for nominal use of the WHC."

(I hope you're reading, J.J. Abrams, because I just gave you the plot of the next Star Trek movie. You're welcome.)

And with that, we are Go for nominal use of the Evasive Maneuvers column. Though I fear I've killed your appetite with thoughts of hideous alien alliances and hideous-er poo in space, buck up, kids! I've lovingly collected four restaurant-quality euphemisms that are all food-related. So get out your sporks and straws and feedbags, euphemism-lovers. Soup's on. 


As a lifelong, chronic sufferer of word-love, I am always telling friends and neighbors about which words have caught the ever-wandering eye of my fancy. Last week, I was enamored of snorkel. Then it was trident, a word and thing that could be so useful if used more widely, perhaps in the war against terrorism/sea monsters. But I also enjoy the alliteration and humor, if not the art and science, of dumpster-diving. When I said so out loud, my friend Colleen mentioned, "Oh, they call themselves freegans now." Though freeganism may, in some cases, involve a more philosophical approach to life than Colleen or I can imagine, including a noble protest against consumerism, I prefer to focus on the hobo-ish, vagrant-y, get-a-job-you-bum-esque aspects of the movement. That's just how I was raised.

cornflake redundancy syndrome

If you're not an insider in the breakfast industry, you may be surprised to know that, like snowflakes, no two cornflakes are alike. Each is unique and precious and noble — but only when the cornflake assembly process works without a hitch. When appalling reruns make it from the cereal factory to your box at home, it is known as cornflake redundancy syndrome. On the other (more truthful) hand, cornflake redundancy syndrome actually refers to the less-than-hilarious situation in which someone learns they lost their job via newspaper at breakfast. Grant Barrett, in his essential Double-tongued Dictionary, collected it here, and I regret to say that Count Chocula could not be reached for comment.

son of a turkey

I recently bought a new couch to replace my old futon, having decided (after three years of data-collecting) that a painful, medieval-type torture device was not fit to sit on, unless part of a presidential post-acquittal detention power display, of course. While performing the impressive gymnastics and elevator dismemberment required to get the fraking thing in my building, one of the movers said, "Son of a turkey!" Why did he think I had such fragile ears, ears that needed the aural ear muffs of this preposterous, poultry-proclaiming exclamation? I have no idea, but I'm code-4 giddy to have the couch in my apartment and this paragraph in my column.

enhanced chicken

Speaking of fowl, I feel as though an angel cooed the words enhanced chicken in my ears, since I have been a chicken enthusiast for years, especially in college, when I was the chicken-finger-eating champion of my dorm (despite my svelte build and gentle disposition). I was also a connoisseur of the tastefully named Chernobyl chicken wings, which melted so many of my internal organs. But the only enhancements in enhanced chicken seem to be the pumping in of enough salt water to make a pirate moonwalk the plank — and then have a heart attack in the water because of all the sodium. This nefarious transformation of a petite chickling into a bloated sumo-chicken-monster is disturbing and wrong, and could hinder my chicken-lust in the future. Therefore, I will immediately forget about it completely, starting now.

But we can't end there. Food has consequences. Luckily, my bursting utility belt has an appropriate idiom for this occasion...

While at a recent gathering of Ph.D. types, I overheard one of the many Ivory Tower residents say he would return in 10 minutes, helpfully adding, "That gives me time to do some necessary functions." While I haven't seen that expression too often in the latest technical journals, necessary has a long euphemistic history, covering up the hideous events of the restroom, as in these OED quotes from 1975 ("Lorry drivers..regarded this instrument [sc. the tachograph] as a spy which recorded everything they did, including going for a smoke, pulling into a layby and 'doing the necessary'.") and 1596 ("There is no obscenitie..in wordes concerning our necessaries: but now for the place, where these necessaries are to bee done."). Necessary house, necessary place, and necessary vault have also been names for outhouses.

Such language may be heard more than ever with the coming of the Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot, which refuels by "engaging in biologically-inspired, organism-like, energy-harvesting behavior which is the equivalent of eating." Indeed, I fear our necessary houses will be clogged with EATRs who did what was "necessary": sign a Klingon-Martian-robot treaty dooming the human race to a future as mere appetizers at the cosmic equivalent of Chili's.

I hope I'm wrong, my fellow earthies! If not, I'll be with you soon on an affordable astro-combo-platter.

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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 August 5th 2009, 7:59 AM
Comment by: Bruce (Florence, SC)
Mr. Peters has assembled a thought provoking work Excellently written, it sent my thoughs off in all directions, both memory wise and creative wise. While euphemisms are not at the top of my fun list, I do need to share a thought with Mr. Peters. My 9 year old grandson, Townsend, and I constantly barb each other with verbal gems. Just yesterday we punned each other into laughing submission. After reading Mr. Peters article I will start him off today with a favorite euphemismistic game of mine, foreigh languages as a euphemistic gold mine. My first will be benjo for toilet.
Wednesday August 5th 2009, 9:49 AM
Comment by: Mark P. (Chicago, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, Bruce!

Shameless plug alert: Any VT folks who like these columns should follow me on Twitter, where I'm doing a little language stuff and a lot of silly humor, while raising important questions of our time, such as: What is the “business end” of a feathered boa?


Thursday August 13th 2009, 6:35 PM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
Too late for the Star Trek plot. It has already been liberally used in the Radio SciFi Comedy/drama Canadia 2041.

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