Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Scooping Technicians and Horizontal Engineers... Under Dark Ethical Clouds

Mark Peters' first article for the Visual Thesaurus ("Euphemtastic!") was such a hit that we've decided to make him a regular contributor. Every month he'll be sharing some outrageous euphemisms from his personal collection.

I'm a language lover with many lexical liaisons: new words, old words, eggcorns, infixes, nonce words, and slang all float my boat to pleasing waters, where the sun shines and the dictionaries glisten and the seabirds coo.

But euphemisms might be my fave. In fact, I love euphemisms so much that I have more love in my heart for the sweet words contractors and consultants in the peace and security industry than for real-life, flesh-and-firearm mercenaries especially when they're at the door selling cookies or liquidating assets. 

For other euphemism-lovers, here are some old and new evasions you may have missed while hoarding hedgehogs.

(That isn't a euphemism, actually. I just like hedgehogs.) 

scooping technician

As a dog owner, I am resigned to carrying around bags of poop; it never occurred to me that this ignoble task, like so many American jobs, could be outsourced. But contracted canine-caca cleanup is a real gig, as substantiated by Grant Barrett's awesome Double-Tongued Dictionary site, which quotes the Aug. 3, 2008 Augusta Chronicle: "On this run, the 'scooping technicians,' as they call themselves, have netted a fair amount of dog poo. This niche job has been a successful venture for Mr. Roberts, who owns Doggie Biz Pet Waste Removal with his wife." I take two lessons from this: 1) The couple that pooper-scoops together, stays together, and 2) Now that I can think of myself a self-employed scooping technician, my own turd-herding already feels more noble and dignified.

horizontal engineering

The whiff of sleaze rising from this term is unmistakable, but misleading: horizontal engineering just means sleep. According to the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, this military coinage is as old as the Forties; synonyms include horizontal exercise, horizontal fatigue, and the less-mystifying sack time. Here's a 1958 use of the concept, courtesy of HDAS: "You out and out bastard, the only engineering you ever did was horizontal."

ethical cloud

I swear that the Visual Thesaurus overlords don't give me a bonus for including a meteorological term in each column: last month's forecast just happened to include thought showersa batty evasion of brainstorm — and this month brings intermittent dishonesty with ethical clouds moving rapidly over Lake Greedhead. This term shows up in many stories about political corruption and money-licking: A News Blaze headline claims Sarah Palin is "Unqualified, Unvetted, and Under an Ethical Cloud," while Congressman Charles Rangel is elsewhere said to be under a dark ethical cloud for his financial missteps — another grade-A, 24-carat, restaurant-quality truth-softener. Ethical cloud is a euphemistic wonder among wonders, painting beclouded varmints as if they were the cuddly, passive victims of capricious skies.

undead American

Are euphemisms that spoof other euphemisms still column-worthy euphemisms? The Committee says yes, after a long meeting with select-the-Pope-type solemnity. Undead American — a riff on terms such as African-American and Native American is used in many humorous settings, but its widest exposure might have been on the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, when Buffy said to Angel: "...I don't trust you. You're a vampire. Oh, I'm sorry. Was that an offensive term? Should I say 'undead American'?" (The episode was "When She Was Bad," Sept. 15, 1997, written by Joss Whedon.) Like so many euphemisms, undead American is ambiguous: it could also apply to zombies. (Question for supernaturally attuned readers: Besides zombies and vampires and leftovers, is anything else in the world, technically speaking, undead?)

by the pody cody

There's just something about reduplicative words like bibble-babble, ooh-la-la, and palsy-walsy that's more fun than a frog in a glass of milk, but this seldom-used, OED-recorded expression wasn't invented for its potential to entertain the nation's swaddling children and language columnists — it's a taboo deformation of by the body of God, a heavy concept well worthy of a soft blanket of euphem-licious words.

By the pody cody, I'm thinking of incorporating other expressions — such as by the flippy-floppy and by the quack-quack — into my repertoire of exclamations. Even if you're not fleeing an army of the undead or the ethically clouded, such words are good for the brain and soul and tongue.

By the higgledy-piggledy, don't you agree?

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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:

Tuesday October 7th 2008, 5:38 PM
Comment by: Rosina W. (San Rafael, CA)
You're terrific, Mark -- especially the clever twists on euphemisms. (In the wine-judging world, we refer to some select bottlings as "STWs." Not actually a euphemism (quite the reverse, in fact), it stands for "Shoot the winemaker."

On this same topic, if there isn't already a term for such an "anti-euphemism," don't you agree there ought to be? Perhaps "cacophemism" (as in cacophony/euphony) or dysphemism (my old friend Rich Lederer coined "dystopia" as an antonym to "utopia")...

BTW, in the triple-U headline on Sarah Palin, "unvested" (though it may well be accurate, especially just after she's returned from shootin' moose), doesn't seem to fit the context. (And if I'm wrong, please accept my apologies in advance.)

"Unvetted" *does* make sense, and I suspect that your (or the headline writer's) frisky little spell-checker rejected it & replaced it with something that made more sense to its tiny brain. (Great verb, "vet," in either the positive or negative sense, with the great visual of examining something as closely as a veterinarian giving a critter an exam.)

'Nuff for now. Keep up the great work!
All best,
Rosina W.
San Rafael (which, oddly, is pronounced "SAN ruh-FELL,") CA
Tuesday October 7th 2008, 5:48 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Rosina: You'll be happy to find both dysphemism and dystopia in the VT. The OED takes dysphemism back to 1884, and dystopia back to 1868, long before Lederer (first used by John Stuart Mill, actually).

And thanks for the catch of the "unvetted" typo, which has been fixed. (Our mistake, not the headline writer's.)
Wednesday October 8th 2008, 9:53 AM
Comment by: Mark P. (Chicago, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for the nice comments, Rosina!

Actually, I'm a big fan of the dysphemism concept as well. My friend Lou recently shared the term "coffin nail" with me--a blunt and disturbing name for a cigarette.

Maybe after I've done a boatload or so of these euphemism columns, I'll do a switcheroo and write about dysphemisms. That could be a fun change at some point, after I’ve discussed the 8,733 euphemisms on my list.
Thursday October 16th 2008, 8:06 PM
Comment by: Rosina W. (San Rafael, CA)
Cool! Thanks, Mark & Ben, for the info (and glad to help out "at the vet's" -- although I just couldn't get the image of Sarah P. "divestin'" herself of her blood-'n-guts-soaked moose-huntin' duds).

I wouldacouldashoulda looked up the dys/ words before mentioning them to you. Bummer. (And Rich L. undoubtedly knows by now that the not-too-shabby Mill preceded him with the coinage.)

Have fun with the remaining ?,??? euphemisms -- I look forward to 'em, and to their "dys" lexical sibs.


Rosina Wilson
San Rafael, CA

PS -- Thought I'd coined the term "blogorrhea," but luckily just checked Google before sharing it with you, and it's already in the Urban Dictionary.

PS2 -- I grew up hearing the term "coffin nail," mostly from my *dad* Lou (and mostly while he was puffing on one).


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The first batch of euphemistic goodies from Mark Peters.
Bonbon Mots
Enjoy some reduplications in the Language Lounge, from "hoity-toity" to "tittle-tattle."
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