Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

The Mixed Culture of Highly Sensitive Hokum

Do you have two kidneys? Would like you like to make a buck?

Then you might consider moving to Iran, where kidney sales are legal and government-regulated, as described in a recent Los Angeles Times article, which states: "Proponents of Iran's system prefer the term 'paid donations' to 'organ sales.' Iran's Shiite Muslim clerics have endorsed paying for kidneys as long as no harm is done to the seller."

Well, that's weird. But I guess it's not the worst thing in the world, since the system does save lives, and at least government involvement means the surgeries aren't done in back alleys, which are seldom licensed by the AMA or an equivalent healthcare organization. Still, organ-selling is probably not a sign of an imminent utopia and good times all around.

I'd give a kidney if there were no more euphemisms, but then I'd be out of a job, so let me rethink that. In the meantime, here are some euphemisms—all harvested fresh and ready to transplant into your interoffice memos and supersized tweets.

independent mom
The term single mom has a Paleolithic feel, not because being single is shameful, but because of the implied judgement of the term. No wonder some moms prefer other terms, even if they're a little clunky. For example, a recent Fast Company article describes the language choices of Picture This Clothing founder Jaimee Newberry, who pooh-poohs single mom, saying, "I prefer the term independent mom for myself." Though awkward, this alternative does have more truth than a bushel of other euphemisms. Single moms are not only independent, but awe-inspiring. If they ran the military and NASA, we'd have a galactic empire by now.

I see a lot of homeless people in my Chicago neighborhood. They're a depressing reminder of how terrible life can be and how equally terrible we are at taking care of people who need some basic help. While glancing at these poor folks, I rarely think their biggest problem is the H-word. But a recent Seattle Weekly article highlights a local politician's lexical quirk: "When Councilmember Kirsten Harris-Talley talks about homelessness—which she does a lot as she pursues more funding for housing in Seattle and an end to the current sweeps policy—she doesn't use the word 'homeless.' Instead, she uses the word 'houseless.'" Um, OK. I guess the idea is to communicate a message of caring to the homeless, which is nice, sort of, in a way, I suppose. But whether you call it a house, a home, or a fortress of solitude, these folks need someplace to live, not a rebrand.

highly sensitive taster
My friend Laura is a supertaster, which I think is a tremendous word, suggesting she was created by Jack Kirby and might have co-starred in Thor: Ragnarok or Justice League. Alas, the term merely refers to a weird condition in which someone's turbo-charged taste buds make cilantro taste like soap, and not the delicious kind. A New Yorker article offers an alternative: "highly sensitive taster." Apparently, this is a broader and more accurate term, but come on, who wouldn't want to be a supertaster? No one named Highly Sensitive Taster is getting on the Avengers.

mixed culture
The beer world has exploded in recent years with ingredients, flavors, and brewing methods that our Bud-drinking ancestors could never imagine. One type of offbeat beer is called a sour, because—I hope you're sitting down—it tastes sour. But brewer Kyle Vetter has abandoned this honest term, as he explains in Milwaukee Magazine: "…I have the difficult task of converting beer drinkers into sour beer drinkers. People are scared of the word 'sour.' We do our best to educate our customers on the wide array of flavors that exist in 'sour beers.' I prefer the term 'mixed culture' beers." Oh, do you now? Well, I prefer labels that don't require a CIA cryptographer to decipher, so no one wins today.

Unless you're a horrible monster, perhaps mutated by radiation and currently attacking Tokyo, it's hard to have bad feelings toward refugees. Controversial opinion alert: Anyone fleeing their home due to persecution or other horrors deserves sympathy and refuge, you would think. But not all refugees like the term refugee. A CBC article quotes a refugee, who is probably someone we should listen to when it comes to refugee-related issues: "Tour guide Salma Jreige is herself a Syrian refugee, although she prefers the word newcomer. She says integration must go both ways." Newcomer is pretty euphemistic, but even I'm not enough of a turd to make fun of this term.

card mechanic
Magician is a unique profession: at once goofy and impressive. Perhaps that goofiness is why some wizardly types don't like the M-word. As a recent Film Journal article puts it, "Richard Turner, 63, is a proud, borderline-arrogant, mindboggling sleight-of-hand magician—though he prefers the term 'card mechanic'—who has a black belt in karate and is totally blind." Euphemism or not, this term is groovy. I could definitely see Card Mechanic battling Supertaster in a future summer blockbuster.

Finally, have you checked your digital tattoo recently?

This term, an alternative to digital footprint, is probably more of a dysphemism (the euphemism's straight-talking sibling) than a euphemism, but what the heck.

In a Juneau County Star-Times article, social media expert Andrea Gribble advocated for digital tattoo, because, "footprints can be washed away, but tattoos are with you forever. And they're painful to remove." Unfortunately, that is a more accurate term for the digital residue we all leave behind on webpages, profiles, social media, and Thor knows what else.

And, just like with a real tattoo, bad things involving digital tattoos happen after having too many mixed culture beers.

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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.