Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Sandwich Artists Profess Great Insight

I can only imagine how annoying the words Twitter and tweet are to people who haven't gotten in on the microblogging phenomenon. It's been over a year since I embraced all things tweet-y, and I like it so much that I continue praying to Zeus daily that Twitter never goes the way of Friendster and the pet rock. (Public service announcement: Neuter your pet rock. You can never be too careful.)

Anyhoo, I think The New York Times must be among the annoyed throngs who find this whole tweet thing about as pleasant as a vuvuzela alarm clock, because they generally avoid using the word tweet in their hallowed pages, resorting to euphemisms. In the wake of the overblown LeBronathon, Zeke Turner of the New York Observer rounded up the many ways the grey lady sidestepped tweet, such as chimed in, added, posted, and professed great insight. I don't think I'm professing any great insight in noting that these verbal gymnastics could win a gold medal for goofiness. Like it or not, there's a word for writing on Twitter, and you have to think the Times will eventually embrace a word as commonly used as hats.

Or not. A no-tweet-policy isn't their only quirk. Apparently, tuchus is a no-no, but tush is on the guest list, as Jeffrey Goldberg learned the hard way, or at least the silly way. In a more understandable omission, our own VT supreme commander Ben Zimmer and Times On Language columnist was forced to resort to the unwieldy circumlocution "a scatological slur for a person's head," to avoid a term for what a kindergartner might adorably call a poopoobrain.

Of course, our major newspapers, government censors, and Aunt Petunias aren't the only ones avoiding words like the plague or the cooties. Please enjoy this banquet of euphemisms—I won't scrimp on the Irish footballs.

Irish parliament

FYI, Irish football, like Irish apple and Irish lemon is a term for a potato. These are among the many Irish-ish terms that are a bit offensive to our Irish brothers and sisters, much like Irish parliament: a term for a fight, brawl, scuffle, disagreement, or full-scale throwdown that may or may not involve a smackdown. Before anyone tries to Irish parliamentalize me, read this disclaimer I provided in my GOOD magazine column: "As a substantially Irish person myself, I can appreciate that not all these terms are flattering, but they're an undeniable fossil record of how people have perceived the Irish, and the prejudice they've faced. Dictionaries—accurate ones, anyway—have never been a safe haven for the squeamish; they record the sins, errors, prejudices, and foibles of humanity in all their ugly glory."

In any case, Irish parliament isn't the worst of such terms, and it has a certain understated wit that I enjoy. At long last, I have a reason to look forward to my next family reunion, when I'll be the one begging, "Irish parliament is adjourned! Please! Adjourned! Please!"

water cure

This is a synonym for a torture method that was all over the news during the Bush administration: waterboarding, a horrific "enhanced interrogation technique" that Christopher Hitchens once tried (on himself) in the interests of journalism. The OED has examples going back to 1902 and Mark Twain: "The torturing of Filipinos by the awful 'water-cure'..to make them confess." Anytime torture is couched in the language of medicine, you have to admire the audacity, even as you despise the evilness. I spotted this term in a Chicago Reader story by Michael Miner, where he mentioned other terms such as parrot's perch and Swedish drink. Yikes. That's enough to make me renounce Swedish pancakes—almost.

sandwich artist

This silly name for a sandwich-maker at Subway isn't particularly new. In fact, it should have been retired years ago, like a pile of pickles old enough to recall the Clinton administration. I include it mainly as an excuse for linking to a McSweeney's piece by Jonathan Tucker Bell, "Subway Sandwich Artist's Statement": "I haven't worked extensively in roast beef—I'm more experienced in turkey and ham—but recently I've learned a great deal experimenting in this new medium. I've been trying to push myself with new textures and colors. I love the way the meat has a sort of iridescence that dances across its surface like the dusk-red sun atop the stippled sea. But the most interesting thing about beef is that this glittering quality can also recall the fireworks of battle or the glint in a vengeful lover's eye. A single slice of beef can contain worlds." Yes, worlds. Mmm, who else is in the mood for an MFA?

Finally, before history renders its final judgment of this column, let's go back to the New York Times to look at a euphemism that entered my euph diary accompanied by circles and arrows and a whoo-hoo: differ from history, as in this headline: "Candidate's words on Vietnam service differ from history." As anyone but that headline writer could tell you, that means the dude lied. You have to wonder if that story influenced this Onion piece: "Candidate May Have Lied About Heroic Death In Vietnam."

I just wish I could go back to Mr. Halas' AP history class and tell him that, contrary to his judgmental comments at the time, I wasn't wrong about the American-Australian War of 1987 or lying about where I was 4th period. My words just differed from history. Back in college, when I predicted the moon would soon fall on California, I wasn't off the mark and/or my nut. My forecast merely differed from reality. And in the present, as I write tasteful non-fiction novels about my secret love with Christina Hendricks and the magical kingdom of gold and unicorns we rule, I'm not lost in an absurd fantasy world. My novels merely differ from anything resembling a clue, and a clue-lacker isn't a liar. At least that's what the unicorns tell me, and they profess great, great insight, or so they say.

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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 4th 2010, 8:34 AM
Comment by: Melissa T. (Orlando, FL)
Good article - entertaining as always. Oh, and thanks for introducing me to Timothy McSweeney's site. It's hilarious!
Thursday August 5th 2010, 9:00 PM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
Substantially Irish? To be Irish you need a passport, ya Yank.

Bertie MacAvoy (fellow Yank)

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