Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Tender Undoing and Other Surface Coal

We have another Euphemism of the Year candidate—and perhaps an entirely new category. In reference to her impending divorce, singer Jewel called the event a tender undoing, apparently seeking to create a more gibberish-soaked term than conscious uncoupling, which Gwyneth Paltrow famously used to describe her own divorce.

Tender undoing? Conscious uncoupling? Great googly moogly! Are celebrities so accustomed to the universe bending to their whims that they can't even speak the one word that accurately names the end of a marriage? Is there a clause in the deal with the devil all celebrities sign that demands such drivel?

I hate to imagine what terms might come down the pike next. OK, that's a lie. I love to imagine future terms, which might include the following:

  • affirmative bifurcation
  • Tantric separation
  • poignant ouchie
  • cosmic wow-that-was-a-mistake
  • Kabballah-style fighting over the children and mansions
  • gluten-free detaching

Man, I should be a celebrity ghost writer.

As we come to the tender undoing of this introduction, let's mosey on to the rest of this month's euphemistic wonders and colossal concoctions of claptrap. These words are all real, even if their meanings are as slippery as the ghost of a flim-flam man.

online content creator

I was recently followed on Twitter by someone who listed this three-word mound of malarkey on his bio. As best I can figure, it means he's a writer, which I guess doesn't sound cool and hip and groovy these days. After all, no one wants to be a starving writer, but who's even heard of a starving online content creator? Unfortunately, some may have: I've noticed the content creator biz seems to diminish the value of writing and pay writers almost nothing for ungodly amounts of copy, treating "content creation" like a bodily function that runs on anything but cash.


I don't know if you contracted soccer fever or another illness during the World Cup, but if you did, you probably already know a futbol-centric euphemism: simulation. That's the official term for what is more honestly known as flopping: in other words, acting like a little boo-boo is a criminal assault to get the attention of the referee. Simulation possesses a certain sleazy connotation that's unusual for a euphemism. Maybe FIFA could replace it a nobler sounding term, like Oscar-worthy performance.


I can't remember where I saw this term, but the Oxford English Dictionary traces the verb slot  meaning "To kill or injure (a person) by shooting" back to 1987: "During the Rhodesian conflict..'troopies' on external raids into Frelimo territory (Mozambique) regularly sought (and found) bayonets on the bodies of those they 'slotted.'" I guess maybe this is more of a dysphemism than a euphemism, because slotted paints a fairly vivid, horrifying picture, especially here in America, where gun violence seems to occur as often as a sunrise.

controlled access entry

An apartment building in my neighborhood has an ad boasting of a building's controlled access entry. Those three words sound like they should describe something like Fort Knox surrounded by a moat and defended by a drone army. Alas, they mean something more mundane: you need a key to get in the building. Excuse me, not a key: a controlled access entry module.

surface coal

Thanks to fellow contributor Nancy Friedman for tipping me off to surface coal, which is collected in a list of Old West terms. Apparently, this euph for “cowchips” is used specifically for manure that’s burned for fuel. Though I love it dearly, I can’t find this term in use, so it may be a load of surface coal itself.


I watched the first episode of Manhattan—a new series about the scientists developing the atomic bomb—the other day. It was a promising series, and even better, it brought a euphemism to my attention. The scientists working on the bomb were sworn to secrecy, even with their families, but they needed to say they were working on something: so the word used was gadget. That's got to be the most deadly use ever of a word that's normally in the same goofy company as gizmo, doohickey, and thingamajig. I guess bombamajig would have been too revealing.

healthy diet
If your teenager wants a healthy diet, that sounds terrific, right? (Except for the part where you have a teenager). Unfortunately, in some circles, healthy diet appears to be a code word for eating disorders, especially among teenage girls.

On a cheerier note, have you contributed to any problematic entities?

That's the term used in a 2013 memo, and the entity in question is an Islamic charity, which is considered politically deadly for one of those two words.

If you can get past the devious political origin, problematic entity is a wonderful term. It could be used in so many contexts, because let's face it, most entities are problematic. We could avoid hurtful terms like zombie, vampire, criminal, guy with Bluetooth, Martian warlord, person with clipboard, and Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. They could all be known as problematic entities.

And if two problematic entities get a divorce, they will have simply entered into a non-problematic, mutually fulfilling, Bikram severance with a side of surface coal.

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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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