Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Shooting Sea Kittens in a Barrel

As the only euphemism columnist in America, it is my sacred duty to help euphemisms swim and purr to their greatest potential, lest Darwinian forces maul them prematurely.

So, even though PETA's preposterous "rebranding" (another euphemism, I reckon) of fish as sea kittens has been much commented on elsewhere, I feel I must pitch in, weigh in, and help strap rubber floaties to this sinking carcass of a term. Some say language columnists, like the time travelers on Lost, have no power to change the future, but that doesn't mean I mustn't try.

Thus, hereafter and forevermore, I will not only refer to every fish I eat or command with my Aquaman-like powers as sea kittens, but I'm adapting old proverbs too:

"Mom, you drink like a sea kitten!"

"Give a man a sea kitten, he'll eat for a day."

"You, sir, are a sea-kitten-monger."

"You're gonna be sleeping with the sea kittens if you don't pay back those clams..."

While I'm refining my phrases, please enjoy the following euphemisms — all rare and served with tartar sauce. They're approved by PETA, scorned by English teachers, and fit to be used in any situation: as condition-4, grade-A, 24-carat euphemisms, they're as harmless as a sea kitten in a tree.

interview without coffee

One of many life-enriching terms found in Grant Barrett's Double-Tongued Dictionary, interview without coffee is a military euphemism for the Z900 stealth bomb, an "interview" (giant super-weapon) that leaves 20,000 people without "coffee" (their lives). You read it here first. Zzzzzzzzzap! OK, OK, uncle! (The VT fact-checkers are giving me the dreaded electro-wedgie again, invoking their archaic don't-make-this-stuff-up rule.) In reality, this is a military term, but it involves a stern talking to, maybe some Full Metal Jacket-ish berating, or some other form of reprimand. I'm only a civilian, but I would guess an interview without coffee is also sorely lacking chocolate cake and a bubble bath poured by a superior officer.

palmetto bug

Sea kitten was coined to discourage citizens from consuming delicious fish, but I don't believe palmetto bug was created because flying cockroaches were a popular snack among young and old. More likely, it's because the prospect of a flying cockroach — which my science advisors insist is a real animal, unlike orcs and meerkats — is so historically, Biblically gross that southeasterners needed pretty words to cloak the horror, the horror. This 2001 OED quote from the Houston Chronicle sums up the issue: "These cockroaches could harm Florida's image. But we Floridians solved that problem by giving them a new name, 'palmetto bugs', which makes them sound cute and harmless." Hmm. Perhaps I should rebrand my rancid basement as The Palmetto Suite and open it to tourists.

old gentleman

Though many elderly, chivalrous fellas may answer to the call of this term, watch out! There's a euphemistic meaning that is decidedly un-gentlemanly, unholy, and un-un-evil: since the 17th century, the old gentleman or the old gentleman in black has been a kid-gloved, laundry-safe reference to Satan. This 1810 OED quote explains the purpose for the term: "There is a certain old gentleman, whose name, we say in England, must not be pronounced in the hearing of polite ears."

thermal incident

Certainly, this sounds ominous — like a meltdown at a nuclear plant or unrelenting flatulence in church — and ominous it is. Last year, a Dell computer burst into flames, giving firewall a new sense of urgency. In a New York Times article, a Dell spokes-something said "It's very, very rare to have a thermal incident." While accurate (let's hope!), I don't see that sentence making it onto the next Dell marketing campaign, though a more specific version would be attention-grabbing: "Buy Dell. It is unlikely that one of our computers will erupt into a savage ball of flame. Warning: To be safe, keep laptop away from lap."

director of first impressions

Your dad might call them administrative assistants. Historians claim our cave-cestors referred to them as secretaries. I wouldn't aspire to the job myself: I made a terrible first impression, and I'm incapable of directing bats to the Batcave. Luckily, DoFIs of the future can take a lesson from an article by Erika Germer in Fast Company: "Smile! Then smile again! That's Cathleen Jivoin's advice for anyone who wants to make a good first impression. As Director of First Impressions at Sarasota, Florida-based Teltronics, which designs and assembles telecom systems, her job is to set the right mood for everyone who walks into the company's lobby."

Unkind readers who pooh-pooh such job-title inflation should be ashamed of themselves. Haven't you ever wrapped yourself in a reassuring, Snuggie-like blanket of words, to steel yourself against the terrors and truths of a cold world that likes to take chew toys away from puppies and puppies away from orphans and orphans away from orphan-eating snakes?

As a show of solidarity to the thermal incidents and palmetto bugs of the world, I renounce the title language columnist, which antagonizes so many otherwise non-violent individuals in the tri-state area. In the spirit of sea kitten, I wish to be known as a language kitten.

(FYI: I'm available for belly-scratching and lolcat photo shoots Monday through Thursday.)

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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 March 4th 2009, 7:42 AM
Comment by: Noel B.
Flying cockroaches? Sorry I don't have the photo - also found in Papua New Guinea, Israel, Queensland (Australia), & Chicago on a hot summer night. Insect screens on windows are a great idea.
"Palmetto bugs"??? indeed! Cucharacha, at least.
Wednesday March 4th 2009, 9:09 AM
Comment by: gretchen W.
Sure enough, in the Charleston (SC) area there are Palmetto bugs galore - and some of them even have the nerve to drop down from the palmetto trees which line the sidewalks of the South of Broad area. Well named!! After dark they're particularly prevalent and you'd be wise to stay away from the palmettos - the trees and the bugs!

Gretchen W.
Wednesday March 4th 2009, 9:15 AM
Comment by: Seth Lee Abrams (Bigfork, MT)
I heard a new (new to me at least) military euphemism the other day. It came from a Vietnam war veteran. He used the them "group therapy" to describe the use of an M16 rifle when set on full automatic. There may also be connotations in the use of term "group therapy" to indicate the somewhat indiscriminate firing of a weapon set to full automatic by more than one soldier in order to quickly clear an area of the enemy when there may not be enough time to take aim and fire a single shot or even just a short three round 'burst'.
Wednesday March 4th 2009, 9:18 AM
Comment by: Mark P. (Chicago, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Holy moly, Seth! I am going to have to research that one. I knew avoiding group therapists was a good idea...
Wednesday March 4th 2009, 11:22 AM
Comment by: Tamara H. (Indianapolis, IN)
Sea Kittens?? I had no idea PETA had such a sense of humor. It's a great service you provide, I'm not sure I would want to go through life unaware of the term "Sea Kitten"!!
Wednesday March 4th 2009, 11:54 AM
Comment by: Ginny A. (Tujunga, CA)
In the sleepy village of Ozona Florida a block from the sea, my Dad kept the kitchen light on at night to discourage the roaches. Their siblings in the converted garage-guest house were Palmetto bugs. Context is everything!
Wednesday March 4th 2009, 1:07 PM
Comment by: robert B. (san francisco, CA)
Sea Kittens. PETA seems to be in competition with the christian right to be the spokesmodel for the "most pathetic thinking" pagent.
I'm trying to imagine what their euphymism for lab rats must be.
If PETA ruled the world, they would try to prevent all animals from both eating other animals, and wearing fur coats.
Wednesday March 4th 2009, 4:51 PM
Comment by: diane H.
You don't have to live in Florida to know the horror of "Palmetto Bugs." In New York City they prowl the streets day and night. The warmer it gets and the later in the summer, the larger they become--and the more airborne.

Shortly after my husband and I were married, one of the grisly creatures was barnstorming my neighbourhood and spotted our open second-floor window. It must have liked the music from our living-room, because it let itself in. My husband spotted the behemoth lumbering toward me and shouted at me just as it lit on my shoulder. I, of course, responded as any sane woman would with blood-curdling shrieks and frantic, mindless slapping at myself. He (notice how I assign that gender to him,) counter-attacked by dive-bombing to the bottom of my nightgown and flapping blindly about until it hit the parquet, stumbled about for a second or so, then heaved its loathsome girth up and out the window. Headed for Belleview, no doubt.

Thank you for your column. It makes me very happy.
Wednesday March 4th 2009, 5:25 PM
Comment by: Mark P. (Chicago, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Rachel: Hee!

Diane: Yikes and thanks!
Thursday March 5th 2009, 4:51 AM
Comment by: Anthony D. (Brant Beach, NJ)
Saturday March 7th 2009, 7:05 PM
Comment by: Rosemary H. (Newport Beach, CA)
I have had many a morning looking at my reflection in my full length mirror, feeling hopelessly disgusted with my puffy eyes, distended stomach, ragged robe, over sized slippers and tangled hair, all the while hearing "fishwife" shouted at me from my Broca's Area. Now, as I hear sea kitten wife, my whole attitude will be much improved and I thought I disliked PETA.
Sunday March 8th 2009, 5:40 AM
Comment by: John M.
I do not eat "sea kittens" or "land kittens" either. Is this because I love fish and animals? Not at all, I hate vegetables!
Sunday March 8th 2009, 5:19 PM
Comment by: Cynthia M. (Chicago, IL)
Do we refer to sea kittens as a school or litter of creatures? And has National Geographic done a piece on them yet?! LOL...
Sunday March 8th 2009, 10:00 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.
Proud member of People for the Eating of Tasty Animals.
Saturday April 4th 2009, 5:40 PM
Comment by: A. Z.
Palmetto Bugs? Flying Cockroaches? There is an endless list of disgusting things that make me shiver with fright out there... And this was really scary... I think I'm going to have nightmares... And wait... Sea kittens? Never heard of a lot of these... But to look on the brighter side... Some of this makes me LOL!
Wednesday February 3rd 2010, 4:17 PM
Comment by: Pauline S. (Indianapolis, IN)
Oh, really. "Food insecurity," as in "X number of thousands of people experience food insecurity" instead of "hunger" takes the cake in the matter of state-manufactured euphemism.

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