Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Euphemism Hall of Fame

(This article appeared in the January 2008 issue of The Funny Times)

A lot of people don’t like euphemisms, probably because they’re evasive, deceitful, preposterous degradations of language. The Bush administration’s surge, extraordinary rendition, regime change, compassionate conservative, pre-emptive self-defense, and alternative interrogation methods are all highly hate-worthy—it’s true.

But I love euphemisms. In fact, I go ape-feces for that kind of horsepucky; I think they are fan-fornicating-tastic.

Why? Because they’re creative. You can keep the pyramids, the poems, the paintings, and The Sopranos; there’s no larger monument to human creativity than the bottomless pit of euphemistic language. Nothing brings out our creative spark quite like the need to fib, fudge, and fabricate.

Everyone’s heard George Carlin’s routine about how shellshock evolved into the softer battle fatigue and finally the totally lifeless post-traumatic stress disorder, and we’re all familiar with the mythical personhole, a PC version of manhole that only exists in standup routines. But not all euphemisms have been so frequently joked about. In fact, some terms have been hovering under the radar, spreading very little information but lots of chuckles. These obscure-yet-real linguistic evasions deserve to be first-ballot inductees in the Euphemism Hall of Fame—if they ever find a building big enough to house it.

subterranean strengths
Name expert Maryanna Korwitts says people named Natalie have subterranean strengths—this might be the faintest, most backhanded praise of my lifetime. Roughly translated, “Your daughter has subterranean strengths” means “This kid has good points that are so hard to find, you need an oil drill the size of a dinosaur. These strengths are buried underneath so much mud and earth and rock and mole men and underground sugar caves that you might end up in China before you find ‘em. She’s a swell girl.”

badly sourced
A badly sourced story is false—not a hallmark of the finest journalism. You have to admire the audacity of this one, which makes it seem as if the sources are somehow the problem, not the writer who dumbly selected or totally failed to consult them. What’s next, a botulism-causing meal that, according to the chef, was badly reciped?

dignity bag
This term has a more noble origin than most: it was invented to ease the pain of foster children whose possessions were moved in garbage bags. Dignity bag sounded a little better to Jeanne Fowler, an advocate for foster kids who apparently coined the term. Is she onto something? I wonder if we’d all have more dignity if we used the word dignity instead of garbage, trash, rubbish, junk, and squalor. Then we could live in a shiny new future, full of dignity cans, dignity trucks, and dignity men who empty the dignity dumpsters. White trash would be white dignity. We’d say, “Why is this bum digging through the dignity?” “Why is my dog eating dignity off the street?” And it would give new meaning to dying with dignity.

When I hear the word salvage, I think about saving, rescuing, preserving, and… murdering? In the Philippines—at least in the naughtier circles—salvaging refers to extrajudicial execution, as in “I salvaged the dissident and buried him in the backyard.” If that’s their idea of salvaging, I’d hate to be recycled.

controlled flight into terrain (CFIT)
The Flight Safety Foundation writes that, “CFIT occurs when an airworthy aircraft under the control of the flight crew is flown unintentionally into terrain, obstacles or water, usually with no prior awareness by the crew.” According to my secret decoder ring, that’s a plane crash. So…controlled flight into terrain involves an operational plane, a competent crew, and an on-the-ball pilot. Unfortunately, all concerned also end up on the mountain, on the monument, and sometimes on the ocean floor.

maximum absorbency garment (MAG)
Being an astronaut has always seemed cool; wearing a diaper has rarely scored as many points with the hipperati. Maybe the non-suaveness of diaper-donning is why NASA conceived this lengthy euphemism for an icky aspect of space travel, where the road trips are long and the porta-potties scarce. However, I worry what advanced interstellar civilizations will think when our representatives greet them in nappies.

vehicle-borne improvised explosive device
These twelve syllables, which have unfortunately been used often during the second Iraq war, do the work of two: car bomb.

symmetry failure
You’re going to love this term if you feel like wardrobe malfunction—a term for stripping that became popular after Janet Jackson’s infamous Super Bowl performance—is too forthright and honest for this era of tender hearts and minds. In English, symmetry failure—also known as wrong-site surgery—can be summed up in twelve little words: “Um, guys? I think we were supposed to remove the other foot.”

holistic practitioner
Though those two words may bring to mind herbs, massages, chiropractors, acupuncturists, and other non-traditional healers, this term picked up a new meaning in Toronto that only deals with the Marvin Gaye type of healing: sexual. Apparently, getting a license for your very own holistic health center was about as difficult as finding a Tim Hortons Donuts, and many license-seekers were actually pimps and pimpettes. Insert your own “So that’s why they call it hole-istic” joke here.

In 1997, residents of Kingsville, Texas tried to legally change the word hello to heaven-o, because they felt this common greeting sounded too much like a neighborly welcome to the sweltering land of fire and damnation. Thank God they failed, because who knows what words and expressions they would’ve gone after next. How could I scare my children with tales of heavenfire and heavenbeasts, such as the heavenhound? And I’m not ready for a world where heavenicopters crash into balloons full of heavenium, leaving women named Heavenen to shout “Heaven-p! Heaven-p!”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I know it's been not far from a year since this was posed, but I feel the need to point that, despite its hilarious language from the neophyte's point of view, a "controlled flight into terrain" is NOT an euphemism, but a term for a very specific type of plane crash (as opposed to, say, failure to gain speed at takeoff or equipment breakdown etc.), and one that is of particularly keen interest to crash investigators.