Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Thought Identification and Other Potential Future Feelings

Recently, my friend Diane started feeling nauseous and passing out. After a scary trip to the emergency room, she learned the problem was her heart: it kept stopping every once in a while, so she was strongly advised to get a pacemaker. (She now has one and is doing great, thank Zeus.)

But when Diane was debating what to do, a doctor not only came down in favor of pacemaker insertion, but a certain word choice as well:

"Oh, it's not a surgery," the doctor said. "It's only a procedure."

Call me crazy, but anytime you saw someone open and attach something to their heart—in this case, a mechanical doowhacker that may bring them one step closer to being a fembot or Dick Cheney—I would say surgery is involved. But I don't get a say, even though I'm a doctor and a language columnist. I'm shunned by the AMA, because my doctorate is in English. Snobs!

Anyhoo, calling surgery a procedure did nothing to make Diane feel better about her ticker, but other sweet nothings may have a more soothing effect. As always, here are some old and new euphemisms to get you through the latest snowpocalypse—er, I guess we could say wintry conditions, for the faint of shovel.

thought identification

On the Jan. 4 60 Minutes, Lesley Stahl interviewed Marcel Just and other neuroscientists about a new technology that can tell if a person is thinking about, say, a screwdriver or an igloo. (This could be important if evidence alone cannot distinguish a screwdriver assassin from an igloo bandit.) Stahl understandably thought of such brain-invasion as mind-reading, but Just called it thought identification, coining my favorite euphemism of 2009, so far. Though another 60 Minutes-watcher at the recent American Dialect Society meeting said the term was accurate and technical, rather than euphemistic and silly, I ask you, kind readers: Can't a word be technical and euphemistic? You just know the government's secret mind-stapo is more likely to use thought identification than mind-drilling in their interoffice memos, before the memos self-destruct.


"I need to see a man about a dog" and "I'm taking the Browns to the Super Bowl" are two time-honored ways of announcing a bowel movement, but my friend Theresa's four-year-old nephew blazes his own trail, shrieking "I've got the feeling!" Given the urgency of such pre-poop percolations, especially to the youthful, the is an appropriate word choice, elevating the feeling to the lofty company of the Pope and the Fonz. I just wonder if this is the same feeling Boston and REO Speedwagon sang about in "More Than a Feeling" and "I Can't Fight This Feeling," but such speculation would only reveal my age and frightening lack of maturity, two infirmities that might reflect poorly on each other if revealed to the public.

chicken twit

During the Brangelina-soaked movie Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Jane Smith flees an about-to-kaboom building, stranding her husband John. After taking a moment to assess the state of marriage in America, John says, with disgust and disappointment: "Chicken twit." I'd like to think Pitt's character was following in the absurd footsteps of a summer camper I knew who called her foes chicken weirdo. More likely, chicken twit is a censor-friendly euphemism for that which enters the world after a chicken has the feeling.

potential future contender

While watching some NBA games with my paternal unit on Christmas, I heard TNT analyst Kenny Smith call the Washington Wizards a scrub team. This made host Ernie Johnson laugh and suggest a more palatable term for the struggling, muggle-like Wizards: potential future contender. In the future, I shall put the fruit of Johnson's wit into the juicer of my fragile self-esteem. For example, did you know I am a potential future contributor to the New Yorker, as well as a potential future warlord on Mars?

aircraft delayed

As comedians and travelers have long known, airports are a banquet of euphemism and BS. But some airportese is so astounding it could take the breath away from a vampire. Last month, while gazing hopelessly at a screen that promised knowledge of the destiny of my flight, I read this strangely capitalized sentence: "Delay reason: Aircraft Delayed." I don't know if this really counts as a euphemism—my Buddhist advisors suggest it may be a new translation of an ancient Zen koan—but it is an enormously uninformative, evasive nugget of no knowledge at all.

Since I like making nonsense-ade out of nonsense, I think I'll adapt this strategy at my freelance medical shed for the uninsured and misinformed.

When asked, "Why do I have a fever?" I'll say, "You are hot."

On charts, I'll use my finest Crayolas to note: "Cause of hemorrhage: The patient is bleeding."

If asked by the AMA why I practice medicine unlawfully, I'll shrug and confess, "I am an unlawful medical practitioner."

But I am a potential future licensed medical practitioner, as are you, dear reader. It's what binds us together, like rope.

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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 February 4th 2009, 10:02 AM
Comment by: Rachel V. (Methuen, MA)
Potential future contender -- sweet. Potential future rock star present and accounted for!
Wednesday February 4th 2009, 10:04 AM
Comment by: bccreative (Paramus, NJ)
Great article, Mark.

My favorite phrase taken from all this is "...an enormously uninformative, evasive nugget of no knowledge at all." I can see myself ordering a rubber stamp bearing that assessment, as well as it being potentially well-worn in the near future from overuse.

Back to your poopy paragraph, my esteem for my 15 year old son rose dramatically when he casually tossed "I gotta drop a deuce" before heading off to the tiny echo chamber.

I've been waiting for the right forum to share this gem. Thank you.
Wednesday February 4th 2009, 10:10 AM
Comment by: Betz
Very funny article! Although I believe they weren't trying to be evasive when they coined "thought identification," it certainly sounds like that to us laymen . . . erm, I mean, potential future neuroscientists.
Wednesday February 4th 2009, 10:12 AM
Comment by: Susan C.
My 92-year-old mother with dementia developed a fear of doctors in the last 10 years, seemingly without direct cause. When it came time for her to have cataract surgery, my sister was careful to always refer to it as a "procedure" to ensure her cooperation and avoid panic. It worked. Now I see this has spread to general use for those of us who presumably aren't logic- and memory-impaired. Not working for me!
Wednesday February 4th 2009, 10:25 AM
Comment by: Paul S. (Boulder Creek, CA)
"I'm taking the Browns to the Super Bowl!!!" That's funny. I've never heard that one. I'm sure that I will bring it up in polite conversation very soon.

Where does this phrase come from? Is it the fact that the Browns have been in the crapper since the Eisenhower administration?
Wednesday February 4th 2009, 10:57 AM
Comment by: soledad (IL)
I stopped reading after the "fembot or Dick Cheney" sentence.

Cannot we as lovers of language avoid that oh so "pornographic" way of expressing our opinions in such a partisan way as vilifying your political opponents?

How ugly that is...in every sense of the word or words used.

If a columnist wants to offer an inviting forum for readers (and I know it must be hard living encased as many of you do in your East Coast silo of iv(or)y league liberalism) but please, for the sake of lexical dexterity: Can't we all be friends?
Wednesday February 4th 2009, 11:34 AM
Comment by: Mark P. (Chicago, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Bruce and Paul:

Not sure about the origins, but I believe I first read the expressions "take the Browns to the Super Bowl" and "drop a deuce" in the columns of Bill Simmons, the ESPN.com columnist. Both are fantastic... I think the lack of Cleveland football success definitely adds another layer of meaning. Much as I like it, I use the expression sparingly. Since I am from Buffalo, the words "Super Bowl" always make me weep.
Wednesday February 4th 2009, 11:45 AM
Comment by: Elissa S. (New York, NY)
Great article! I've never used the phrase "I'm taking the Browns to the Super Bowl!" but that's hilarious.

Additionally, any kind of political references were lost on me. I thought the fembot reference was due to the addition of machinery to his female friend's heart and the Dick Cheney reference was because he actually has a pacemaker. Any kind of vilification went over my head, because I was too busy giggling at the idea of telling my friends that I'm taking the Browns to the Super Bowl.
Wednesday February 4th 2009, 11:50 AM
Comment by: Leon A. (Markham Canada)
I understand where you are coming from soledad, but if you take away someone's personal opinion and hack away at their unique expression and writing style then you have a mathematical textbook. You respond as though he orchestrated this entire article just to poke fun at Dick Cheney. Also you seem to have read barely anything from his article yet you have already neatly classed and categorized him. I see your point but I think you've jumped the gun on this one. His personality (as well as his experiences and beliefs) go hand in hand with his writing style. Great article, I enjoyed it.
Wednesday February 4th 2009, 12:59 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.
Sad that the mere mention of a man with a pacemaker, in reference to a friend receiving a pacemaker, would motivate one to stop reading. Doing so might open one up to characterization as a potential future chicken twit with a feeling that is quickly becoming an enormously uninformative, evasive nugget of no knowledge at all. But then, it wouldn't matter, because the characterization would be over the head of the willingly uninformed.
Wednesday February 4th 2009, 6:56 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
As a medical doctor and language-lover I have also loved to poke fun at far-end euphemisms.
All too true, the Medical Profession often lacks some of the necessary humor of life. When that quality of perspective fails so does communication.
One of the worst is the saying, "The operation was successful, but the patient died!"
There is a way to talk seriously to patients without insulting their intelligence.
Thursday February 5th 2009, 7:54 AM
Comment by: John M.
Nauseous describes something or someone that makes one feel nauseated. I know some nauseous persons, but they are generally not about to throw up. They sicken others, however.
Thursday February 5th 2009, 9:14 AM
Comment by: warren G.
Since I am a real Doctor, it's ok to use "procedure" when it's performed on patients. However when it's my turn to "go under the knife", it's a legitimate operation.
Thursday February 5th 2009, 1:48 PM
Comment by: Laurel T. (Chico, CA)
Ah, many thanks, Mark, for this delightful article! Not only did I LOL (several times), there were snorts and chortles, too!
Thursday February 5th 2009, 3:04 PM
Comment by: Mark P. (Chicago, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, Laurel... (And others!)
Thursday February 5th 2009, 4:13 PM
Comment by: Donna D. (Augusta, GA)
Mark Peters...I was so sorry to learn that your friend Diane had been nauseous--how very embarassing. I hope that during her episode of being nauseous, she did not also nauseate herself. That would only add injury to insult!
Thursday February 5th 2009, 5:02 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
John M. and Donna D.: Nauseous clearly falls into the category of "skunked terms," something I discussed most recently in the Word Routes column on enormity. To quote myself, a skunked term has "a historical meaning that confuses those unfamiliar with it and a newer meaning that irks traditionalists, leaving no one happy." I think I may need to devote a future Word Routes column to nauseous, if it's not too sickening a prospect!
Thursday February 5th 2009, 6:11 PM
Comment by: Mark P. (Chicago, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Good idea, Ben... Did you come up with the expression "skunked terms"?

I just checked the OED and found that the meaning I intended goes back to at least 1885, so I don't feel too nauseous about my own use of the word.

I wish I felt so strong-bellied about the rest of my behavior...
Thursday February 5th 2009, 9:54 PM
Comment by: Harry H (Melbourne Australia)
I enjoyed the article but felt that the reference to Dick Cheney was gatuitous and unkind, therefore I am with soledad on this one. .
Thursday February 5th 2009, 10:37 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Mark: "Skunked term" is, as far as I know, a coinage of Bryan Garner, as used in his Modern American Usage.

(Oh, and you can thank me for the 1885 OED citation!)
Friday February 6th 2009, 12:59 AM
Comment by: Clarence W.
I have tended to be on the side opposite the irked when it comes to "skunked" terms covered of late. However, I've happily used both meanings of nauseous. Such bliss supports my contention that these terms have merely evolved into homonyms/homographs, enriching rather than fouling the language. Since I now know that I might bemusedly, nonplussedly, or even with enormity, cause confusion and irksomeness, I can take care to creatively and clearly convey the usage intended.
Friday February 6th 2009, 2:58 PM
Comment by: Tamara H. (Indianapolis, IN)
Thanks for an enjoyable article that not only was informative, but it made me laugh - which is far more important!

For Soledad and Harry - I'm sorry, but simply referring to the medical fact that Mr. Cheney has a pacemaker is neither unfriendly nor unkind. Egads people, lighten up! The author never whispered an unkind or malicious thing about the former Veep, which shows he has greater restraint than one who accuses the the writer of being an "iv(or)y league liberal"!!! Wow, and you wanted to be friends? You first.

Personally I think you both owe Mr. Peters an apology.

Maybe thought identification could be used to better understand the intentions of the author. Mr. Peters, would you be willing to undergo that procedure???
Friday February 6th 2009, 4:55 PM
Comment by: Mark P. (Chicago, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Sure, as long as you don't use the neuro-spork...
Friday February 6th 2009, 6:52 PM
Comment by: Mark P. (Chicago, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
And thanks for the nice comments, Tamara!
Saturday February 7th 2009, 10:53 AM
Comment by: Beryl S. (Schroeder, MN)
A perfect antidote to those still in need of a cure for the euphemisms uttered by our last, ah, do I dare say it? Administration? Until I went back to reread the article to find the Cheney reference, I thought "Cheney" referred to "mind drilling."
Sunday February 8th 2009, 1:37 AM
Comment by: Harry H (Melbourne Australia)
Tamara H: I would be very pleased to hear from Mr Peters saying that I completely misread his intentions. As you suggest, he may have merely wanted to share a medical fact with his readers just in case 1 or 2 of us had never heard of a pacemaker and needed a reference point. But Mr Peters also makes DC synonomous with being a "fembot". I do not know what fembot means, but if Mr Peters defines the word for us and it turns out to be a compliment, then I clearly over reacted. However if the definition of fembot is much less than complimentry, then maybe the reference to DC was uncalled for... Mr Peters, can you help us out on this one - I'd prefer to think that we are one big happy family!
Sunday February 8th 2009, 9:40 AM
Comment by: Tamara H. (Indianapolis, IN)
Oh my gosh, there obviously IS a severe miscommunication, only not regarding the subject I thought (Mr. Cheney).

I won't presume to speak for the author, but so far as I am aware "fembot" refers not in any way to Mr. Cheney but rather it is a portmanteau for a female robot. Get it? She was having a piece of machinery installed in her body...robot...fembot...? (Do you remember the Bionic Woman TV show, or did they not show it down there? That would be a classic fembot.)

Thank you for taking the time to explain your thoughts. I understand your comment now. Hope that helps...sorry for giving you a hard time but I did think you were being unfair, not knowing that you did not understand the reference.

Sunday February 8th 2009, 2:56 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.
Mr. Peters spoke of fembots in a previous article (Euphamistic!)"

"The 70's version had no fancy fembots or growling Edward James Olmos, but it contributed more than just a preposterous looking robo-dog called a daggit."

Are we to believe that since Mr. Peters used both in the same sentence that he was referring to Edward James Olmos (especially since he was growling) as a daggit? I happen to have a sincere dislike of Dick Cheney, but Mr. Peters' Cheney reference provided no Schadenfreude that would usually accompany an authentic dig at his character. If anything I took it as more complimentary, leaving me to feel sorry for Mr. Peters' friend Diane (authentic dig). At least the wayward discussion provided an opportunity for me to put VT to good use, I had to look up "portmanteau".
Monday February 9th 2009, 11:42 AM
Comment by: Mark P. (Chicago, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
One could call Dick Cheney many things, but "fembot" wouldn't be one of them... "Fembot" and "Dick Cheney" were just two different yet terrifying entities I jokingly feared my friend was evolving into. So far, she appears to be neither, but I am keeping an eye on her.

For a little history on fembots: http://www.popsci.com/scitech/article/2006-08/fembot-mystique

As my mom always said, "A world without fembots... That's like a world without sunshine!"
Friday March 20th 2009, 2:05 AM
Comment by: Harry H (Melbourne Australia)
Tamara H. Thank you for clarifying this for me; it all makes sense now and I don't think anyone really intended any harm at all. Happy to end on a positive note.

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In the Word of the Year voting, one of Mark's selections was named Most Euphemistic.
Mark's first batch of under-the-radar euphemisms.