Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Possibilians Disinvest in Conversation Water, Dad-Swamp It!

I looooooove staying at swanky hotels. I seldom have the cash to do so on my own, but one of my non-euphemism-related employers often puts me up at various Hyatts and Hiltons. Man, I love escaping my semi-squalid lifestyle while enjoying some HD TV, about 6 or 9 pillows, and the absolute joy of having a maid tuck in my blankie. Still, despite my good fortune, I've never been lucky enough to stay at a hotel with its own death ray.

However, some travelers have had the pleasure. It seems that "an intense beam of searing desert sunlight" (as Damon Hodge puts it) has been singing hair, melting stuff, and generally scaring the living bejesus out of innocent pool-goers at the MGM Resorts International Vdara hotel. Understandably, locals have dubbed this evil beam of white-hot doom the death ray. Now there's the kind of frank, honest language that would make George Carlin applaud in his grave.

Of course, from a hotel management point of view, there's something about the term death ray that seems so...deathy. Maybe that's why the rebranding geniuses at MGM Resorts reject death ray in favor of solar convergence phenomenon: a technical, lifeless three-word pile-up for a beam of energy powerful enough to melt cops — er, cups — and make Dr. Evil envious. (FYI, Jeff Prucher's wonderful Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction traces death ray to a 1915 sci-fi story.)

While some euphs rain down from heaven like a Martian laser-blaster, others lurk below the radar, where my informants and word-traps await. These words and phrases have far less power than a death ray, though some have been known to metaphorically melt membranes.


To many, an agnostic is merely an atheist who is also a fraidy-cat. After all, no one claims to be an agnostic about debatable creatures like the Yeti and the Octomom. But for some, even agnostic is too bold a claim — enter the possibilian. This ugly, awkward term was the basis of an article in New Scientist by neuroscientist David Eagleman, the creator of the term who sees it as a way beyond the apparent certainties of the religious and the godless. Eagleman's "third side" consists of "a little less pretence of certainty and a little more exploration of the possibility space." The only problem is the term agnostic beat him to the label over 100 years ago, in 1870 to be exact. As a commenter on the story noted, "With respect, 'possibilian' is a hideous neologism that really doesn't communicate anything." With respect, I agree. This term is almost as bad as calling an atheist a Brightone of the most tone-deaf, self-flattering terms of all-time.

conversation water

I am not wise in the ways of champagne — I only recently realized it needs to be brewed in the city of Champagne, totally nullifying the bubbly efforts of my Cousin Billy back in Baltimore. I also discovered, through the wonders of Jonathan Lighter's amazing Historical Dictionary of American Slang, that this most celebratory of adult beverages is sometimes called conversation water (or fluid), which seems like an apt term for all such liquid propellants (as the legendary Mike Royko called them). Here's a HDAS example from 1903: "The highest-priced Caterer in Town would deal out the sparkling Conversation Water as if Brut and Buttermilk cost about the same." Bonus euphemism: you gotta love Homer Simpson's optimistic term for beer: learning juice.


I spied this word in the Atlantic, as Michael Kinsley discussed our financial pickle, in which in-the-red state governments "will be losing, together, about $140 billion this year. They'll make up the money by 'disinvesting': firing teachers, putting off maintenance on public buildings, shutting libraries." The OED has a 1975 use with about the same meaning: "His only remaining realistic course..would seem to be to disinvest — namely to curtail and actually reduce the size and profitability of his company." So disinvest is a nicey-nice way of not saying "Cuts cuts cuts!" I understand the need for discretion. People get so nervous when I bring my samurai sword to the park; I guess they're afraid I might disinvest in them.

magnified coaxing measures

This item fails the "Is it obscure?" test but passes the "Is it awesome?" test by eleventy-bazillion points. Magnified coaxing measures is just one of many so-horrifying-they-could-be-true terms spewed out by Rob Beschizza's wonderful "New York Times Torture Euphemism Generator," which is inspired by the Grey Lady's record of avoiding the word torture like it was an enhanced interrogation technique. This brilliant word generator also produced intimidating imploration strategies, invasive cross-examination scrutiny, intense physical solicitations, bothersome aquatic measures, tribulating coaxing diagnostics, personalized aquatic tactics, and reinforced toenail admeasurements. The most darkly funny result I got was "Reports of possible electric sad time." The weirdest was "Detainees suffered meatbag tenderizing procedures," which sounds like it was coined by another robot: Futurama's Bender, who has a preference for calling humans meatbag and longing to kill all of them.

Now this column is almost over, dad-swamp it!

English has a plethora of evasions of the names God and Jesus, such as jeez, gee whiz, dagnabbit, and golly. But one of the coolest and rarest is dad — an evasion of God that survives in the form of dad-blast it, but has also been part of many lesser-known variations, such as dad-bing, dam-blame, dad-blast, dad-burn, dad-fetch, dad-gast, dad-gum, dad-rat, dad-shave, dad-shim, and dad-swamp, all listed in the HDAS, and all meaning something like diddly doodly darn it!

You don't have to be Ned Flanders to appreciate how much fun those words are. Since our popular exclamations are as worn out as your mom's socks at this point, maybe you could help me revive these terms. Next time your cat brings home a bird corpse, say "Dad-bing it, I asked for a squirrel!" When the government displeases you, yell, "Dad-shave it! I prefer anarchy." Or when a language columnist like myself makes a silly language goof, the kind that burns your toast and mine, send a comment along the lines of "Dad-swamp it! Can I have your job?"

Spoiler alert: No, you can't, dad-rat it!

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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 November 3rd 2010, 8:07 AM
Comment by: Melinda J. (Wilmington, NC)
"Disinvest" reminds me of the "separation," which I have recently become acquainted with as businesspeak for "firing."
Wednesday November 3rd 2010, 10:51 AM
Comment by: Theresa Y. (Atlanta, GA)
hehe --- dad-gast-astical!!!

love it.
Wednesday November 3rd 2010, 10:15 PM
Comment by: Liliane Y.
a dag-nab-it education for a 95 year old.
Friday November 5th 2010, 9:16 AM
Comment by: Suroor A.
Is that where the drat comes from--dad-rat?

Also, I've been coming across an expresion, "my bad". What does it mean? If it's opposite of "my goodness" then why can the person not just say "my goodness" or, if that's too wishy-washy, some red-blooded expletive? My bad to me sounds a bit coy.
Sunday January 9th 2011, 12:00 PM
Comment by: marcia F. (oklahoma city, OK)
'My bad' it just means you made a booboo. No, wait, my bad..that means you made a mess in your trainers.
Monday January 24th 2011, 4:17 PM
Comment by: Willis L. (Fredericksburg, VA)
About your converstation water. Makes me think of the Irish term, Adam's Ale, which just refers to water.

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