Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Sugar-Coated Smurf Sandwiches

I don't often feel like I'm contributing much to the world, because I'm not. Doctors, teachers, librarians, and people making dog-sprinkler videos are all benefiting society more than yours truly.

However, sometimes I suspect my ill-spent, nap-centric, euphemism-collecting life might have some redeeming features after all.

A study at Bristol University shows that being a potty mouth raises your stress levels. Not only that, but euphemisms — even close euphemisms — seem to carry none of the stress of genuinely naughty words. As researcher Jeffrey Bowers put it, "Euphemisms such as the 'F-word', clever acronyms whose meanings are clear...and taboo words learned later in life when learning a second language have not been associated with emotions through conditioning to the same extent, and as a result, do not trigger strong emotional responses."

Since stress is associated with conditions such as heart disease and conniption fits, I guess euphemisms have a healthy purpose I never imagined. Therefore, as their proponent, I am a hero. Huzzah! Maybe someday I really will live up to my kindergarten award Most Likely to Put Gandhi to Shame.

So, this month I ask you to learn and love these euphemisms not merely in the spirit of word-love, but for the sake of your own health. Take my advice, as a licensed euphemism practitioner: don't f-bomb yourself into an early grave.

sugar-coated Satan sandwich

As described on Language Log, this term for the Budget Control Act (tweeted by Congressman Emanuel Cleaver) is most likely a euphemism for what I will also euphemistically call a poop sandwich. As a teacher, the crap sandwich — also called a praise sandwich or feedback sandwich — is one of my most useful tools: saying something positive, then giving some criticism, then closing with more positivity, praise, or Splenda. As a political term, I love sugar-coated Satan sandwich. It's the most diabolically delicious lexical item since Howard Taft spoke of bacon-wrapped Beelzebub-sicles.


Speaking of poop, during his recent stand-up special Very Famous, comedian and writer Michael Ian Black prefaced a disgusting and funny story with a euphemism that made me giggle and reach for my notebook. Black said, "I was...creating in the toilet." Creating! What an upbeat, positive term for bestowing an offering unto the porcelain god. This term could even change how I see the world, Whorfian-style, making me more forgiving of those jerks who don't pick up their dog's business. Maybe they just don't want to stifle their labradoodle's creativity.

love in a cottage

While skimming through the OED online, I spotted this term for "marriage with insufficient means" — in other words, walking down the aisle as broke as a church mouse or typical American. The term goes back to at least 1745 and is used in this 1812 OED citation: "Lady Clonbrony had not the slightest notion, how anybody could prefer, to a good house and a proper establishment, what is called love in a cottage." Sigh. If I ever get married, I fear even love in a cottage may be beyond my means. I might have to settle for love in a dumpster.

unfortunate in-flight incident

This phooey-filled phrase was mentioned on the American Dialect Society listserv by Victor Steinbok, who called BS on the headline "Olympic dreams dashed after unfortunate in-flight incident," because this creepy caper involved a would-be Olympian getting drunk and peeing on a child. As Steinbok wrote, dashed is a poor word choice because it suggests someone else was the dasher, and unfortunate is unfortunate "because it also suggests a random act or an external agent." I'd say a more accurate headline would be: "Olympic dreams literally peed away by obnoxious, drunken lout."

runway excursions

That makes a nice transition to a euphemism written about by word maven extraordinaire Erin McKean. It was used in the Wall Street Journal by Andy Pasztor: "...the latest crash highlights persistent problems and hazards poised (sic) by so-called runway excursions: accidents and serious incidents stemming from airliners careening off runways..." As McKean noted, "A 'runway excursion' sounds like it ought to be a pleasant group tour of your local airport." Indeed. Let's hope we never hear a fatal car crash described as a terminal highway excursion.

Finally, let's talk Smurfs.

The euphemistic potential of this word has long been exploited by the blue fellows themselves and the rest of the world. Rare terms such as unsmurfingbelievable and fansmurfingtastic are out there, and advertising for the new movie includes phrases such as "Smurf happens" and "Where the smurf are we?"

However, this is just the tip of the smurfberg. The term has other, odder slang meanings as well. In Australia, a smurf is, as Green's Dictionary of Slang puts it, "an inexperienced or short prison officer." In U.S. gay slang, a smurf is a young homosexual with blonde hair. A smurf (or smurfer) is also a middleman in crystal meth production, probably because the drug is blue.

Thanks to the Bristol study, we also know that screaming "Smuuuuuurf!" in full-throated Shatnerian style won't cause stress, turning you into High Blood Pressure Smurf. Thank the gods, lexical smurfing is good for you.

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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 September 7th 2011, 3:34 AM
Comment by: Seth Lee Abrams (Bigfork, MT)
Most recipes for Diseaster include egg whites from multi-colored eggs.
Wednesday September 7th 2011, 9:33 AM
Comment by: AGC (Cleveland, OH)
To smurf sans-consciously is essential when a good Catholic grand-mom is visiting.
Sunday September 11th 2011, 3:07 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Another piece of good writing to curb our stress indeed!
Stress Tablets are available now in new format as euphemism. No matter weather you are all diabetic, with cancer or neuro problems or suffering with any unknown rare disease, please take at least one pill a day. That will cover 24h zero stress. A workable solution at all stage and for every gender.

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