Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Secular Twaddle and Cockamamie Community Bunk

Are you scared of group warfare?

You should be, because group is now a euphemism for gang.

This word choice is explained in a recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article: "Investigators are tracking 39 groups in the city, said Sgt. Jim Glick, who heads GVI. Police prefer the term 'group' because they feel it better reflects the loose organization and shifting allegiances they see here than the word 'gang.'"

Is this term pure palaver? Partially.

There is a little logic to the change, as violent crimes Commander Victor Joseph says in the article: "Group names and associations change. Things are different than they were 15 or 20 years ago when things were neighborhood-based. These days it is very fluid. Guys from two different neighborhoods that historically would never be associated are associated now."

OK, I get it. Stuff changes. Maybe it's not as easy to predict a young hoodlum's affiliation from his zip code. Fair enough.

Still, groups? Come on. The word group is so preposterously broad that it lumps criminal organizations with knitting clubs, the Boy Scouts, the Avengers, and literally every gathering of people on the planet. Groups, schmoups.

Anyhoo, here's your monthly meal of weak words I caught in my lexical lobster trap. All these words are safe for home use: they have no sharp edges or blunt meanings whatsoever.

community cat
Feral cats have an image problem: they sound like wild untamed beasts, roaming the streets, which is exactly what they are. But I can't complain too much about a silly term that aims to do a serious good: helping those wild cats, by taking care of them as much as possible and neutering them so the population doesn't keep expanding. The Mohave Valley Daily News recently quoted We Care For Animals founder Rebecca Seefeld as pooh-poohing feral in favor of community because "…the felines are part of the community and a lot of people care for these animals as much as those cats allow it." That's as kind a euphemism as I can imagine, so I will allow it, on behalf of the Euphemism Enforcement League (EEL).

I collect a few things. I have way too many books, including massive stacks that perpetually threaten to fall over. But am I a hoarder? Oh no, sirs and ma'ams! I am simply a collector, to use a euphemism provided by an article from New Zealand's Southland Times: "Morris Smith, of Riversdale in Southland, prefers the term 'collector' - to hoarder." Well, who wouldn't? The article goes on to say that Smith did feel the need to purge his collection, resulting in "a nine-day long garage sale in his town's main street." Hey, at least I'm not engaging in a nine-day garage sale. I'm not selling anything at all ever, which I think proves my sanity, no?

transformational ministry
Anti-gay prejudice has inspired many attempts, some of them religious, to try to turn gay people straight, as if switching sexuality were as simple as switching from Coke to Dr. Pepper or from Game of Thrones to The Walking Dead. The traditional term for such methods, which have ranged from creepy to abusive, is conversion therapy, which has an unearned medical ring. The euphemistically named Restored Hope Network has put a new coat of paint on "pray away the gay"—via the term transformation ministry. Ugh. Even evil Transformer Megatron wouldn't stoop this low.

marijuana reform policy
When you hear about the decriminalization of pot, or another drug, the meaning is pretty clear: as Peter Tosh said, "Legalize it!" But politically speaking, it isn't acceptable to quote a Peter Tosh album while trolling for votes. Thus the term marijuana policy reform. Kate Frey, Vice President of Advocacy for New Futures, recently told New Hampshire Public Radio of her dislike for the term decriminalization: "I think we prefer the term 'marijuana policy reform,' because there's a perception that it [decriminalization] means it's okay to use." Um, according to my secret decoder ring, decriminalization and "okay to use" do mean pretty much the same thing. But as my grandpappy said, "The road to reform is paved with horse apples."

Finally, do you practice secular witchcraft?

Witches have a bad reputation, thanks to fairy tales involving demonic evil and rain-related melting. Sometimes that rep extends to modern Wiccans, who likely do nothing more unholy than conform to stereotypes of the woo-woo and new-age-y.

But a Mashable article on contemporary witches shows that even Wiccan is sometimes a bad word for the broomstick crowd: "There is no one particular path of witchcraft all of these business witches follow. Some identify as Wiccan, while others ascribe to Paganism, and others still prefer the term 'secular witchcraft.' A lot of witches don't like to label their beliefs, and instead say what sort of traditions influence them the most, such as Germanic paganism, Hoodoo, root work (folk-based witchcraft), or Brujeria (Hispanic-based witchcraft)."

I never knew about Germanic paganism or Hispanic-based witchcraft. I wonder if there are witches for every ethnicity, like there are mobs. If so, I may come from a long line of Polish secular witchcraft enthusiasts. Does that make me a secular warlock?

I wish. I can barely cook spaghetti, much less eye of newt.

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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.