Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Synergizing Backward Euphemisms

I am a rabid fan of 30 Rock — it recently moved into second place on my all-time beloved sitcom list, still trailing Seinfeld but nudging past Arrested Development and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.  

In my Good magazine column, I recently looked at the success of the 30 Rock-propelled terms blurgh (kind of a mix of bleah and ugh), lizzing (laughing while whizzing), and mind grapes, a preposterous extension of mind, which I was surprised to see is used commonly, in examples like this ("I only got 11 or 12 hours of sleep last night, I got something on my mind grapes") and this ("Apparently White Castle has sweet potato fries now. That hurts my mind grapes").

But my favorite expression from the show is a bit less common, and a tad more absurd, and three scootches more totally awesome. In the episode "The Fighting Irish," corporate guy Jack Donaghy — after showing Liz Lemon a video of a panda cub sneezing — says, "You have to fire 10% of your staff."  

He quickly adds, "We have to synergize backward overflow."  

Ah... What a trinity of singular doubletalk! So what's if it's from TV. I've always maintained that a made-up euphemism is still a euphemism, just as a made-up trip to Venus is still an intergalactic incident. OK, bad example, but cut me some slack, you slack-hoarders. Have you ever heard a more spot-on spoof of corporatese? It's an absurdity perfectly in tune with the awful-but-real expressions rightsizing and synergy-related headcount reductions. Thank you, 30 Rock. Thank you. 

Anyhoo, we can't worry all day about whether our backward overflow is being synergized or just ground into dog food. We need distractions, like TV and euphemisms, such as the following. I hope they enrich your mind grapes — or at least not stomp them into jelly. 

chicken hockey

Has poultry discovered the slapshot, much as elephants learned to paint? Not quite. While thumbing through the extraordinary Historical Dictionary of American Slang, I spotted this utterly silly euphemism for something I must name with another evasion: chicken poo. It turns out hockey has a history of meaning both excrement (since 1886) and BS (since 1930). As a former resident of Buffalo, NY, I should find hockey to be the most glorious game ever invented by the gods or the Canadians, but I've never cared for it. So hockey as a euphemism for a boom-boom sounds just about right. 

secret squirrel mission

In his Double-Tongued Dictionary, Grant Barrett quotes this paragraph on shenanigans within the New York State governor's security force: "The detail protects the governor, the lieutenant governor, visiting dignitaries and other elected officials deemed to be at risk. But Mr. Wiese so frequently dispatched members of the detail to other duties that State Police officials referred to them as 'secret squirrel missions' and 'colonel missions.'" This tremendous term doesn't sound remotely like the abuse-of-power-y corruption-fest it is. I'm putting it in the CIA suggestion box ASAP. 

cash considerations

Book of Basketball author Bill Simmons displays a keen BS detector in his ESPN.com column. He's an expert at identifying NBA general managers who make sofa cushions seem like intellectuals, and a few months ago he mentioned a euphemism that could solve the financial pickles of nearly anyone, even me: "The Lakers sell the 29th pick to the Knicks for cash considerations and pick Toney Douglas. Great name. He sounds like an ESPN Classic fighter. Did we ever figure out what 'cash considerations' means? If I buy a TV from Best Buy, can I tell them that I'd like to pay with cash considerations? What would happen? Could I just walk out of the store with the TV?" I just hope Visual Thesaurus supreme commander Ben Zimmer doesn't get the idea to start paying me with cash considerations, unless such considerations include the use of the secret VT space shuttle. 

Well, I hope you enjoyed these euphemisms, and if you didn't, we'll have to go outside, where I'll show you what it's like! 

Of course, I am far too great a humanitarian to assault a reader outdoors, and I'm merely segue-ing my way to an expression used in the immortal Seinfeld episode "The Opposite," which has shown so many schlumps and schmucks that, like George Costanza, they too might enjoy greater success, confidence, and spiritual fulfillment if they were "completely ignoring every urge towards common sense and good judgment (they) ever had." As Jerry pointed out: "If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right." 

During the ep, George uttered a memorable rant to some loud punks in a movie theater: "Shut your traps and stop kicking the seats! We're trying to watch the movie, and if I have to tell you again, we're gonna take it outside, and I'm gonna show you what it's like."  

Through my rigorous scrutiny of the complete Seinfeld DVD collection (maybe the best purchase of my life, aside from my scepter), I learned that this line was lifted by Jerry Seinfeld from a legendary bus bootleg of Buddy Rich, whose cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs-ness was legendary.  

But you don't have to be a jazz legend or sitcom buffoon to make this expression work for you.  

I'll show you what it's like could be useful at bake sales, book clubs, bowling leagues, and Big Lebowski conventions. It can motivate children, parents, and hostages. If you celebrate Festivus — perhaps the greatest Seinfeld invention of them all — showing someone what it's like will enliven either the airing of the grievances or the feats of strength.  

However, showing someone what it's like is frowned upon in more traditional holiday celebrations, unless the someone is a pie.

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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:

Friday December 4th 2009, 9:37 AM
Comment by: Meggin M.
Great post! What fun and the fact that our language is ever-evolving is one of the reasons I'm happy to be an American!
Friday December 4th 2009, 10:18 AM
Comment by: bccreative (Paramus, NJ)
Thoroughly enjoyable read – thanks!
Friday December 4th 2009, 11:03 AM
Comment by: Becky C.
It made me smile. Thanks for reminding me of some of the better expressions! I think the "secret squirrel mission" one came from the old (whoops, I'm showing my age!) Rocky and His Friends and the Bullwinkle Show. The show spawned a group of expressions coined by Boris and Natasha, Fractured Fairy Tales, and Mr. Peebles.
Friday December 4th 2009, 3:23 PM
Comment by: David D. (Seattle, WA)
"Secret squirrel mission" kicked my memory. A few years ago, I went to Hawaii where I saw my first mongoose. I drove on a little road through a jungle area on the Big Island and saw a pair of mongoose zip across the road looking, I wrote my daughter, like "angry squirrels on a secret mission." Fast little low to the ground animals that left me wondering if two are mongeese or mongooses?
Friday December 4th 2009, 10:37 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I think you hit on a great idea. Own all the episodes of Seinfield and keep them handy for a rainy day. Great post!
Saturday December 5th 2009, 11:36 AM
Comment by: Duain W.
"Lizzing" has to be the best portmanteau in the potty mouth dictionary. And it's so darned decent that all smiling parents would allow their ten year olds to use it. Are there other such conflations we should know about? Perhaps "chockey"?
Sunday December 6th 2009, 8:26 AM
Comment by: Kip (Brookfield, WI)
I think Jerry "used creative license" and lifted his line from Arthur Conan Doyle: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
Saturday December 12th 2009, 5:47 AM
Comment by: Sarah S. (Dalkeith Australia)
How do I post a link to my facebook page I want my friends to read this article. I love this blog!
Saturday January 8th 2011, 12:49 AM
Comment by: marcia F. (oklahoma city, OK)
This piece put me in mind of something my psychologist told me to do 30 years ago when I went to him after my divorce. "Marty, whatever you think you need to do, just do the opposite." And, I might add, it was great advice at the time. This has been fun and thanks for the memories!

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