Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Sustained, Mislived Difficulties and Other Drivel-ish Dreams

Are you a dreamer?

I've had a few myself. That one where my pet lizard Ronnie convinced me to betray humanity to the alien lizards who control all governments was a doozy. Betraying Earth is one thing, but I would never have a pet lizard!

But that's not the kind of dreamer that made a few recent headlines. Rather, a dreamer is an undocumented immigrant, usually a young person, who may have been brought to the U.S. as a child. Several versions of the Dream Act, which would grant them citizenship, have been introduced unsuccessfully in Congress. As euphemisms go, this is a smart, strong one. The allusion to the American Dream is hard to resist, though I hope for the sake of the dreamers that the unreal connotation of dreaming doesn't win out.

According to my alarm clock, it's time to get to the rest of the column. I sincerely hope you enjoy the euphemisms that my crack staff compiled. (Full disclosure: My crack staff is a dog and some action figures.)

While compiling a list of words for the evil and wicked for Mental Floss, I came across this understated word for a life of dastardly and diabolical deeds. This obscure term popped up in the 1400s meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "Leading an evil life; wicked." A similarly subtle synonym for evil is unperfect. I reckon these are useful words when trying to describe that Cthulhu-type beast at the coffee shop who's always screaming the demon-resurrection passages of the Book of the Dead while Skyping with, I assume, Stalin's ghost. 

modern sporting rifle
The NRA, god bless 'em, has a lot of 'splainin' to do whenever Americans question our plague of gun violence. In an attempt to perhaps pre-splain, the NRA has coined some creative terminology for guns any sane person would call an automatic weapon or machine gun. As Justin Peters discussed in Slate, "The term modern sporting rifle, evoking outdoorsy competition and good, clean fun, sounds incongruous when applied to weapons like these, unless you are prepared to argue that man is the most dangerous game." Actually, that's an easy argument to make. Nobody beats people when it comes to killing or covering that killing with a thick stack of baloney.

This common word has a lengthy resume of euphemizing, which should be expected, since its combination of vagueness and badness makes it a perfect word for dodging any subject that must be avoided like a poison dart. Often, that's a painful financial subject, as in this 1904 use by W. B. Yeats: "A returned emigrant, who helps his old sweetheart out of a difficulty by insisting on losing money at cards to her husband." Money problems are a lightning rod for euphemisms, since they're a hush-hush, taboo topic, much like death, sex, and you know what.

do a Houdini
During Garth Ennis' (co-creator of Preacher) long run on The Punisher, he wrote about plenty of mobs and cartels, just about all of whom got "punished" (killed) by the lead character. But I noticed a particularly gruesome euphemism in the "Kitchen Irish" arc, which featured a variety of Irish criminals fussin' and feudin' and generally making Hell's Kitchen (forgive the redundancy) a living hell. One mobster persuaded a retired gangster to do a Houdini. That's a very nice way to say "make a body disappear," which is almost as evasive. Let's just say doing a Houdini is a bit messier than pulling a rabbit out of a hat and leave it at that. Let's also say Garth Ennis is a disturbed, mislived, unperfect man.

target-rich environment
This is a term used by law enforcement for areas under particular risk of attack, especially by terrorists. Target-rich means heavily populated and therefore vulnerable. But this term doesn't just refer to physical violations, as seen in a recent article by Kevin G. Hall in which a cybersecurity expert named Alan Brill called the recent Olympics "…a target-rich environment of rich targets" who have "far higher limits on accounts than otherwise" and are also "more likely to use ATMs." In other words, lots of people using credit and debit cards are as vulnerable to cyberscum as they are to regular, rob-you-in-an-alley scum. In other news, I like the word scum.

lady of pleasure
This is one of several ladylike euphemisms for what can only be described by a current euphemism: sex worker. This term is as old as the 1500s but not entirely out of use, as seen in a 2007 use from the Stratford (Ont.) Beacon Herald: "All the guys down at the senior centre chipped in to buy their 95-year-old pal Gus an evening with a 'lady of pleasure'." Related expressions include the popular lady of the evening and the less-popular lady of easy virtue. Like the term lady itself, such expressions are a bit out of date, but might I suggest the expression lady of none of your damn business.

Finally, have you recently short-circuited?

During some confusing commentary on her endless email scandal, Democratic Nominee (and future President, knock on wood, unless 2016 and not 666 is the true number of the beast) Hillary Clinton said, "What I told the FBI, which he said was truthful, is consistent with what I have said publicly. I may have short-circuited and for that I will try to clarify."

That's a strange defense for a lie, half-truth, or load of horsepucky. Robots and toasters should short-circuit, not Presidential candidates. But I suppose a short-circuit sounds better than the nearest synonym I can imagine: brain fart.

Maybe a euphemism would help. Does neuro-flatulence sound Presidential?

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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 2016, 3:59 PM
Comment by: David R. (Lorton, VA)
The U.S. military used the term target-rich environment from at least the late 1970s, when I was first introduced to the term as a newly commissioned Army officer. We used the term ironically to describe what we fully anticipated to be massive Soviet mechanized formations charging across Central Europe, outnumbering us three-to-one. The implied dark-humor was we'd have no difficulty finding enough targets to engage.
Monday September 19th 2016, 2:21 PM
Comment by: Alberta E. (South Plainfield, NJ)
Your articles make me laugh and think. Both good things to do.

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