Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Tricky, Capable Apple-squires and Alligator Dung

How's your behavioral health?

Until a few days ago, I would have no idea how to answer that question. But now, like the true word sleuth I am, I've discovered (Columbus-style) a vague term used to describe mental health services.

I understand why a euphemism is useful. There's a huge stigma, unfortunately, surrounding mental health, and that stigma probably prevents people from seeking the help they need. However, I wonder if this euphemism is too effective a cloaking device. I was recently looking for a new therapist, and a receptionist asked me, "Behavioral or physical?" I was stumped for a moment and tempted to say, "Just hook me up with a head-shrinker!" Behavior health professional sounds like someone who trains dogs not to eat underwear.

That's the danger of euphemisms, I reckon. They cover reality with a blanket of soft words, but sometimes the blanket is so thick the baby chokes on the bathwater. Sorry, that metaphor got away from me.

Anyhoo, I've risked my own behavioral health by diving into the murky waters of euphemisms. Here are some more terms I scavenged, old and new, that are neither steadfast nor true.


Are you very capable? According to one meaning, that would mean you have a talent for killing a bunch of folks. While looking for crime slang, I came across a Boston Globe article by former Visual Thesaurus Executive Producer and eternal word wizard Ben Zimmer. On the occasion of the Whitey Bulger trial, Zimmer wrote, "Much of mobspeak repurposes common expressions as euphemisms. Charging 'rent' is extorting money from business owners under the threat of violence. When someone like Bulger develops a reputation for being 'very capable,' that means he is equipped to have someone killed if necessary." Yikes. I've never been so proud of being incapable.

experience-sharing company

If I saw the term experience-sharing company with no context, I wouldn't know what to think, other than, "Hey, keep your mitts off my experiences!" But those pretentious corporate words are precisely how GoPro describes themselves: "GoPro is an experience-transfer company. An experience-sharing company. And there's an energy transfer in that." OK, then. After an exhaustive skim through the rest of this article, here's what I think GoPro actually is: a bunch of drones that take pictures. Yeesh, what's wrong with an honest word like camera-bot?

alligator dung

This term popped up recently when Dan Rather was asked about President Obama's visit to post-flood Louisiana, which some considered too late. About the hubbub, Rather said, "…it's what your native Louisianans would call alligator dung." The term is allegedly a euphemism for "crock of s***," though as Ben Zimmer observed on the American Dialect Society listerv, "I'm not so sure W Brewer's euphemistic reading is really necessary here." In other words, a dollop of dung is already a load of crap.


This old-timey term has had several meanings involving what the Oxford English Dictionary calls "A male companion of a woman of ill-repute," which has sometimes meant a pimp. Apple-squire has been around since the 1500s and still turns up from time to time. In Ciaran Carson's 1999 book Fishing for Amber, there's a vivid scene: "Picture the roads and the inns thronged with tinkers, tooth-drawers, pedlars, ostlers, carters, porters, horse-gelders and horse-leeches, idiots, apple-squires, broomsmen, bawds, chive-fencers, kinchen-coves, soothsayers and sow-gelders." I wonder if horse-gelders and sow-gelders read the same professional journals.

straw death

According to my doctor, straw death occurs when you eat too much straw. Remember kids, you should only eat the FDA-recommended amount of straw. Actually, straw death is a death in bed, presumably of natural causes. Straw death—which is derived from the Norwegian straadaude—was not considered as noble and manly as dying in battle, according to Thor, probably.

Finally, have you seen any tricky people lately?

My life is barren and wonderful, but I have several friends who have followed Shakespeare's advice, "The world must be people'd." While talking to a parental unit, I learned a term that's apparently revolutionized how parents talk to their kids about creeps and predators: tricky people. This term has replaced stranger danger, which is a shame because I love rhyme.

Apparently, tricky people is meant to give kids a better sense of which strangers are truly a threat. Pattie Fitzgerald of the group Safely Ever After has said, "Instead of looking for the boogie man, a child should look for the person asking them to do something that doesn't sound right or ask if the adult is trying to get them to break one of their family's safety rules or trick them. 'Tricky people' is effective because it gets kids thinking about the situation."

That makes sense, though the little George Carlin that chases the hamster in my brain can't help seeing some humor in this term. Without context, what does the term tricky people suggest? Mimes? Jugglers? Puppeteers? Apple-squires? Magicians?

On second thought, this is a tremendous term. We must protect our children from magicians at all costs.

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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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