Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Streetwise Co-people Dust Some Crops

While reading the Aug. 19 Rolling Stone and trying to wrap my brain around Matt Taibbi's latest piece on our country's ongoing financial shenanigans, I stumbled onto an article on Katy Perry, who I know very little about due to my old age.

Turns out reading about the future Smurfette (OK, I guess I know something) paid off big time in my role as the foremost euphemism columnist in the galaxy, or at least the solar system. While discussing her strict religious background, Perry said her parents used to refer to deviled eggs as angeled eggs. By the beard of Zeus! That's the kind of euphemism I'd go to hell—er, heaven—and back for.

As so often happens, "new to me" meant "freaking ancient to the rest of the world, especially those that have clues." The Web is cluttered with recipes for angeled eggs, and it makes me wonder if I could find Satan-spurning writers who give the angel his due, or say "The angel is in the details," all the while avoiding the devil like the angel.

I'll have to keep wondering, because it's column-commencing time. Angels and devils will have to step aside for this month's crop of under-the-radar euphemisms, which I pray are not so far under that they get bitten by a shark or Aquaman.


Is it possible for one of the most popular comedies of all-time to contain a not-so-common euphemism? Eh, probably not, but this is my column, and I can bend the laws of possibility to my will, much like dream architect Ellen Page in Inception. Anyhoo, during my 37th viewing of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, a term caught my ear. As Ron and Veronica Corningstone realize they are attracted to each other after Ron's jazz flute performance (not a euphemism), Veronica frets about getting romantically mixed up with a co-worker. Ron, in an epic moment of rationalization, suggests that for this one night they can cast off the shackles of co-workerdom and become, simply, co-people. Co-people! Hard to believe this silly, wonderful term eluded the butterfly net of my mind till now. After all, without co-people, there'd be no people at all.

sudden in-custody death syndrome

I still want to believe this term is a piece of spectacularly dark humor, a Colbertian satire of medical truthiness, but alas, it appears to be real. I spied it in an article by Chris Thompson, who describes this "Orwellian euphemism" as the label for this situation: "...a suspect is intoxicated, usually on cocaine, he's already highly agitated and got his heart pumping like a marathoner, and the cops hit him with electricity or pepper spray, then pin him to the ground and shackle him. Not everyone dies after such an experience, of course, but an alarming number of them have." I don't know what's the sickest thing about this term: the resemblance to sudden infant death syndrome, or the fact that it reduces officer-caused deaths to "Wow, how'd that happen?" Excuse me while I shower—I need to scrub my psyche free of this term.


How streetwise are you? Do you have street cred coming out your wazoo, much like me, or do you shake and quiver when it "gets real," like me when I'm not lying? Either way, take cheer. Any of us can become streetwise in the sense Victor Steinbok recently shared with the American Dialect Society mailing list. Steinbok linked to an article quoting the Reverend Michael Land, who told his English flock, "The church must be more streetwise and use language most people use today." He added, "People view Jesus through tinted spectacles and place him on a pedestal. The reality is that he was poor, lacked any real education and did not fraternize with Pharisees or scholars. People today would probably be quite shocked at the language he used at that time." Hey, I appreciate the sentiment, but do we really want our holy folk swearing like sailors, even if Jesus was the original sailor? I hate to think of the damage to mom-and-pop euphemism collectors like myself, and it seems wrong that "What would Jesus say?" and "What would Lenny Bruce say?" might have the same answer.

crop dusting

If you're no fan of air travel, this paragraph is not going to win you over to the friendly skies. In a recent New Yorker piece, David Sedaris quoted a stewardess describing how airline attendants strike back at annoying passengers: "...what me and the other gals would sometimes do is fart while we walked up and down the aisle. No one could hear it on account of the engine noise, but, anyway, that's what we called 'crop dusting.'" Egads! So that's not the smell of progress, or a whiff of jet fuel, penetrating my sensitive nostrils as landing commences. I wonder if the briefly famous Steven Slater was a crop duster. I'm guessing not. Slater probably wouldn't have "hit the slide" if he had been blowing off more steam.

Speaking of odors most foul, I spied two synonymous euphemisms in Jonathan Lighter's amazing (and sadly, yet to be completed) Historical Dictionary of American Slang: essence-peddler and fragrance-peddler. Both refer that most romantic of all animals—at least according to the cartoons I've seen—the skunk.

The OED also has some examples of essence-peddler, including one from 1860: "It is a vulgar mistake that the porcupine has the faculty of darting his quills to a distance, as the essence-peddler has of scattering his aromatic wares." Essence is such a tasteful term for a stench or an odor, and it has a pedigree dating from the 1600's.

I think essence-peddler deserves a revival, as well as an expansion to cover stinky people like Anchorman's Brian Fantana, a would-be co-person whose cologne cabinet includes "London Gentleman," "Blackbeard's Delight," and the hideous "Sex Panther," which was compared to "pure gasoline" and "a used diaper filled with Indian food." An essence-peddler like that would make Pepe le Pew proud.

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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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