Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Twerking the Awakened Pancake

I twerking love euphemisms.

Let me explain.

As you're probably aware, the primary meaning of twerk is a bizarre form of dancing that looks more like a medical condition than anything attractive. However, a far more enjoyable use of twerk emerged in an article about Sinead O'Connor's letter to Miley Cyrus, America's Twerker-in-Chief. Gerrick D. Kennedy used twerk to replace the obscenities in O'Connor's letter, like so: "The music business doesn't give a [twerk] about you, or any of us." That twerks — er, works so well that I propose this become the primary meaning of twerk. I much prefer ridiculous euphemizing to ridiculous "dancing."

Speaking of twerked-up language, here's another roundup of euphemisms old and new, from near, far, and everywhere in between. I hope these vague, blurry words give you a warm, fuzzy feeling. 

second-screen experience

Like so many people, I was hooked on the final season of Breaking Bad, and I can't quite believe this wonderful series is over. During that final season, one annoying term kept popping up in AMC's ads, which encouraged viewers to have a second-screen experience by checking out an AMC website or app or other thingydoodle while watching the show. As near as I can tell, having a second-screen experience is a euphemism for ruining another experience by staring at your phone during it. Unfortunately, for many of us, life itself has become a second-screen experience.

high-value activities

If you didn't already believe the business world is a relentless storm of BS, raining down doubletalk and drivel, you will after reading Will Oremus' Slate takedown of outgoing Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's letter to shareholders. Among the jargon and jibber-jabber, this term jumped out at me: high-value activities. As Ballmer non-explains, "Think of the experiences people have every day that are most important to them — from communicating with a family member and researching a term paper to having serious fun and expressing ideas. In a business setting, high-value activities include experiences such as conducting meetings with colleagues in multiple locations, gaining insight from massive amounts of data and information, and interacting with customers." In other words, a high-value activity is anything you say it is. For Ballmer, it seems nothing is more high-value than spewing gibberish.


I owe a thank you to fellow contributor Nancy Friedman for pointing me to this preposterous euphemism for the government shutdown. On Fox News, the shutdown has been referred to as a slimdown, which sounds far less dire. In fact, it sounds downright healthy. Most of us could use a little slimming down these days, though if I ever have a pituitary or kidney slimdown, I doubt this euphemism will provide much comfort.

teeth hug

On a recent episode of The League — an underrated comedy about a bunch of friends and their fantasy football league — I noticed a fun little euph. In the episode "Heavy Petting," group weirdo Taco launches a mobile petting zoo full of "puppies" who are actually geriatric dogs. When he hears that one of these elderly pooches bit a child, Taco tries to dodge the blame like so: "No, he probably just gave him a little teeth hug." Aw, a teeth hug sounds adorable. When I finish writing this column, I think I'm going to give a bacon double cheeseburger a long teeth hug.

the awakened

A Facebook friend of mine — who often seems to forget his tinfoil hat — recently made this vague post: "For the awakened and those who want to understand what's coming, whether they're part of the solution or part of the problem...." What followed was a link to a website called Conspiracy Watch. It seems the awakened is a euphemism conspiracy nuts use for themselves to highlight their alert state — and draw a line between themselves and snoozing dopes like the rest of us. But who knows? Maybe the awakened are onto something. It is a little convenient that all conspiracy buffs are prescription-strength whackos.

Speaking of whackos, let's talk Jack Handey — and pancakes.

One of my favorite things to do is read the humor of Handey, the Deep Thoughts writer who has written many humor piece for The New Yorker, plus a novel: The Stench of Honolulu.

In one of his humor pieces, Handey spins a bizarre monologue on behalf of the Waffle and Pancake Council, an organization that slowly transformed itself into a criminal enterprise of supervillainous, comic-booky proportions. Handey tells the history of the council's diverse crimes, including amusing details such as, "There was a brief period of reform in which the council went back to promoting pancakes, but only ones laced with psychotropic drugs, to turn people into mindless killing machines." As part of a more successful reform, Handey demanded "...that the council bylaws be rewritten so that the definitions of 'pancake' and 'waffle' were more traditional, and not so vague that 'pancake' could mean practically anything." In this absurd scenario, pancake and waffle were euphemisms.

I wish this obscure use would spread. Perhaps President Obama could threaten regimes who won't give up their pancakes with an onslaught of waffles. Perhaps the NRA would stop advocating for gun owners and start working for the right of all Americans to bear "pancakes." Perhaps terms such as big foreign policy initiative and strong humanitarian response could be replaced with buttermilk initiatives and Swedish pancakes with humanitarian berries.

After all, guns don't kill people. Pancakes kill waffles.

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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:

Sunday November 10th 2013, 7:26 AM
Comment by: Chandru S. (Chaska, MN)
hey mark,

thanks to u, i read the two books by david cystal - Spell it Out and The Story of English in 100 words. enjoyed each and every page of these two books and these are indeed gems of their kind. hopefully, u will give me some other names of equal interest. tks once again.
Tuesday November 12th 2013, 9:21 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Ah, Mark, what would we do without these periodic gifts that you bestow upon us, these tales of the days of your euph? And ours. Thank you for your light touch and obvious relishing of these absurdities; you encourage us to laugh at them, instead of muttering, sputtering and becoming red in the face with indignation when we hear or read them.

You could have some fun with all of the ways we euphemise "euthanize" ... someone's pet might be "put down" or "put to sleep" - are there others? I guess euthanize is a euphemism for "kill" ... OK, never mind. That wasn't so much fun after all ...

The Happy Quibbler

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