Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Unidentified Aerial Horse Apples

Do you believe in Unidentified Aerial Phenomena?

You do if you're (cue the Village People) in the Navy, at least according to a recent Time magazine article, which discusses an alternative to the more common term UFO (unidentified flying object). According to Joseph Gradisher, who is spokesman for the ominously named Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Warfare:

The 'Unidentified Aerial Phenomena' terminology is used because it provides the basic descriptor for the sightings/observations of unauthorized/unidentified aircraft/objects that have been observed entering/operating in the airspace of various military-controlled training ranges.

OK, then. I suspect the real reason for this word choice is that the term UFO brings to mind little green men from Mars and other space monsters: bug-eyed, multi-tentacled, brain-eating, etc. Let's face it, real-life stuff in space is unlikely to be that entertaining.

FYI, UFO has been around since at least 1953, and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) even includes the term flying saucer (which has been around since at least 1947) in the definition. So maybe that term is a tad skunked as far as a sober label for spacey sights.

In any case, whether the aliens who will someday destroy humanity — if we don't do the job ourselves — are first labeled UFOs, UAPs, or OH CRAPs, the human race continues to produce euphemisms faster than a bug-eyed space monster gets pink eye. So wrap your eyeballs around these horse dumplings while you can.

extreme risk protection bill
Red flag is one of the simplest, most clear-cut terms in the language for, "Hello! Something is wrong here." I’ll never forget a one-liner from Alias' Jack Bristow about an especially suspicious situation: "There were more red flags than a Russian airport." In English at least, a red flag is a universally accepted signal of wrongness. But an alternative is being used in the endless saga of American gun violence:

Also on the table is a "red flag" bill — Cease Fire PA prefers the term "extreme risk protection order bill" — through which family members or members of law enforcement temporarily can take guns away from someone in crisis. This, too, could help.

Talk about throwing syllables at a problem. Extreme risk protection order doesn't exactly sound like it involves a plate of cookies or a puppy playing with a kitten, but it’s a word salad so big even Elaine Benes wouldn't order it. But if it even slightly reduces my chances of getting shot by a maniac, I take back everything I just said and promise to become a syllable enthusiast.

put on the spot
Though I always abide by the law — even in international waters — I love me some criminal slang. Here's a common expression with a sinister sense, at least in the olden days of the mafia. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines this expression dryly as "In the situation of being targeted for murder." This sense of put on the spot dates from the 1920s, but this 1961 use from The Spectator explains it best: "When a rival gangster was put on the spot, the objective was making sure that he was very dead." Very dead sounds very bad. I hope I can still look at such terms with amusement when I'm on my very deathbed.

Bishop
Speaking of old terms for murder, here's a weirder example. The OED records Bishop as meaning to "To murder by drowning" with the explanation that the term was inspired by "one Bishop who, with a confederate, drowned a boy in Bethnal Green in 1831, in order to sell his body for dissection." Yikes. The term had limited traction for a while, as Richard Barham wrote the line, "I Burked the papa, now I'll Bishop the son" in 1840. Double yikes. Burke is an eponym that was more successful, meaning "To murder, in the same manner or for the same purpose as Burke [a noted smotherer] did; to kill secretly by suffocation or strangulation, or for the purpose of selling the victim's body for dissection." Well, this column has taken a turn toward the grim. Moving on.

Finally, are you cultured?

I hope not, because that means you were grown in a lab and therefore terrify villagers. A Forbes article includes a passage that may have been plagiarized from the Necronomicon:

On the horizon are cell-cultured seafood products like BlueNalu, Finless Foods, and WildType, which promise real seafood without the ocean impacts. (The industry prefers the term "cell-based" or "cultured" meat or seafood to "lab-grown.")

The aversion to lab-grown is understandable. If you've seen a single B-movie or read a comic book, you know that labs are diabolical lairs of mad science where monsters are hatched and Lex Luthor loses all his beautiful hair, thanks to that meddling Superboy.

On the bright side of the exploding sun, maybe now we can finally put aside the hurtful expression "Frankenstein's monster." I look forward to discussing, pitchfork in hand, Frankenstein's cell-based, cultured pal made from post-life parts.


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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:

Friday October 11th 2019, 11:19 AM
Comment by: Phil H. (Thessaloniki Greece)
You're a funny man, Mark. And (as a subscriber to VT) I'm a money fan.
Sunday October 13th 2019, 8:30 AM
Comment by: Juan Jose Hartlohner (Madrid Spain)
You write, "aliens who will someday destroy humanity"; wouldn't it be more appropriate to say "destroy humankind" or is my Latin susceptibleness betraying me?
Monday October 14th 2019, 9:07 PM
Comment by: carlos C. (miami, FL)
Mark is absolutely Great.
Monday October 28th 2019, 11:50 PM
Comment by: Austin B.
Talk about humor.
Thursday October 31st 2019, 1:48 PM
Comment by: Don H. (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Good article. Thanks for the humor. ("There were more red flags than a Russian airport." Great!)

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