Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Which Came First: The Chicken or the Hen Apple?

Even in horrible times, you can always count on your family, your friends — and euphemisms. Evasive language never takes a day off.

One keeps popping up, whack-a-mole style, in relation to the coronavirus crisis: physical distancing, an alternative to social distancing.

As Dr. Eric Handler, Medical Director of Emergency Medicine at Saint Barnabas Medical Center puts it: "I prefer the term 'physical distancing' because there are many ways to be social without being in physical contact with somebody."

This term is meant to alleviate the sting of social distancing. Well, guess what, the term doesn't alleviate squat, so just stop it.

Social distancing, in case you've been living under a rock in another dimension, is crucial to minimizing this pandemic. Everyone understands it (whether they follow it or not) so the last thing we think we need is a synonym, 'kay?

Yes, physical distancing is very clear and probably more accurate, but it's a runner-up in a contest that's over. People are smart enough to understand that social distancing doesn't mean don't call, text, email, or video chat your friends. Although if you're one of my friends, please don't video-chat me — let;s stick to a normal phone call. This could go on a long time. I'm not ready to resort to Zoom or cannibalism.

Speaking of atrocities, here is this month's roundup of rot. Please use these words in your bathroom graffiti and Twitch streams.

I find physical distancing to be unnecessary and dumb, but another alternative is at least kind of funny. I spied it in an article from Bluegrass Today:

Mr. Bluegrass Manners has been in self-quarantine mode long before he was asked to do so by the powers that be, because, you know, manners. He is more than adept at hand-washing and social distancing, though he prefers the term "aloofing."

As a freelance writer, only child, and introvert, I’ve been aloofing for years. And loafing, but that’s a personal matter.

customer careologist
Not sure where I saw this term, which makes sandwich technician seem normal and non-kooky. I wonder if you can get a careology degree at your local university of horsefeathers.

hen apple
As I try to keep my mental health somewhere in the realm of OK, I've been thumbing through dictionaries, such as the sadly never completed Historical Dictionary of American Slang (HDAS). There are so many creative terms and euphemisms in that wonderful dictionary (thanks to Jonathan Lighter) that I may have to devote a whole column to it. One of the sillier euphemisms is hen apple — meaning an egg. A synonym is hen fruit. Those are gems, though I have a preference for my own coinage: hen grenade.

horizontal engineering
Get your minds out of the gutter — this is a rare slang term (also recorded in HDAS) for sleep, and it's already done wonders for my work ethic. I may not have the energy to trim my beard, but I am a prolific horizontal engineer.

body tolerant
Lena Dunham is a lightning rod for everything except lightning, and she made recent comments that drew both snickers and support:

"I've never called myself 'body positive' because my relationship with my curves and scars isn't overtly political — it's wildly personal," Dunham wrote. "And it isn't always positive. I take enormous comfort in the body positivity movement, but I think of myself as something more like 'body tolerant.'"

I think both terms are highly goofy, but Dunham's term is the goofballier of the two. As for me, I'm body agnostic.

Finally, do you enjoy picture stories?

A New York Times article on cartoonist Ben Katchor's new book The Dairy Restaurant says:

Mr. Katchor, 68, has been working as a cartoonist since the 1980s. Like Lynda Barry and Art Spiegelman, he made comic strips that were not comical, paving the way for modern graphic novels. (He prefers the term "picture stories.")

Katchor's book looks tremendous, but this term is vomitous. As a lifelong comics fan, I find the term graphic novel to already be euphemistic and snooty. Coining an additional euphemism — presumably because everyone has figured out that graphic novels ARE comics — is just too much. Too much, I tell you. I'm only human.

No need to be ashamed of the label comic book, folks.

Warren Ellis — writer of comics and novels, plus creator of Castlevania on Netflix — likes to quote a certain line by comics legend Harvey Pekar: "Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures."

Even avoid pretentious euphemisms.

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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.