As the only euphemism columnist in America, it is my sacred duty to help euphemisms swim and purr to their greatest potential, lest Darwinian forces maul them prematurely.
So, even though PETA's preposterous "rebranding" (another euphemism, I reckon) of fish as sea kittens has been much commented on elsewhere, I feel I must pitch in, weigh in, and help strap rubber floaties to this sinking carcass of a term. Some say language columnists, like the time travelers on Lost, have no power to change the future, but that doesn't mean I mustn't try.
Thus, hereafter and forevermore, I will not only refer to every fish I eat or command with my Aquaman-like powers as sea kittens, but I'm adapting old proverbs too:
"Mom, you drink like a sea kitten!"
"Give a man a sea kitten, he'll eat for a day."
"You, sir, are a sea-kitten-monger."
"You're gonna be sleeping with the sea kittens if you don't pay back those clams..."
While I'm refining my phrases, please enjoy the following euphemisms — all rare and served with tartar sauce. They're approved by PETA, scorned by English teachers, and fit to be used in any situation: as condition-4, grade-A, 24-carat euphemisms, they're as harmless as a sea kitten in a tree.
interview without coffee
One of many life-enriching terms found in Grant Barrett's Double-Tongued Dictionary, interview without coffee is a military euphemism for the Z900 stealth bomb, an "interview" (giant super-weapon) that leaves 20,000 people without "coffee" (their lives). You read it here first. Zzzzzzzzzap! OK, OK, uncle! (The VT fact-checkers are giving me the dreaded electro-wedgie again, invoking their archaic don't-make-this-stuff-up rule.) In reality, this is a military term, but it involves a stern talking to, maybe some Full Metal Jacket-ish berating, or some other form of reprimand. I'm only a civilian, but I would guess an interview without coffee is also sorely lacking chocolate cake and a bubble bath poured by a superior officer.
Sea kitten was coined to discourage citizens from consuming delicious fish, but I don't believe palmetto bug was created because flying cockroaches were a popular snack among young and old. More likely, it's because the prospect of a flying cockroach — which my science advisors insist is a real animal, unlike orcs and meerkats — is so historically, Biblically gross that southeasterners needed pretty words to cloak the horror, the horror. This 2001 OED quote from the Houston Chronicle sums up the issue: "These cockroaches could harm Florida's image. But we Floridians solved that problem by giving them a new name, 'palmetto bugs', which makes them sound cute and harmless." Hmm. Perhaps I should rebrand my rancid basement as The Palmetto Suite and open it to tourists.
Though many elderly, chivalrous fellas may answer to the call of this term, watch out! There's a euphemistic meaning that is decidedly un-gentlemanly, unholy, and un-un-evil: since the 17th century, the old gentleman or the old gentleman in black has been a kid-gloved, laundry-safe reference to Satan. This 1810 OED quote explains the purpose for the term: "There is a certain old gentleman, whose name, we say in England, must not be pronounced in the hearing of polite ears."
Certainly, this sounds ominous — like a meltdown at a nuclear plant or unrelenting flatulence in church — and ominous it is. Last year, a Dell computer burst into flames, giving firewall a new sense of urgency. In a New York Times article, a Dell spokes-something said "It's very, very rare to have a thermal incident." While accurate (let's hope!), I don't see that sentence making it onto the next Dell marketing campaign, though a more specific version would be attention-grabbing: "Buy Dell. It is unlikely that one of our computers will erupt into a savage ball of flame. Warning: To be safe, keep laptop away from lap."
director of first impressions
Your dad might call them administrative assistants. Historians claim our cave-cestors referred to them as secretaries. I wouldn't aspire to the job myself: I made a terrible first impression, and I'm incapable of directing bats to the Batcave. Luckily, DoFIs of the future can take a lesson from an article by Erika Germer in Fast Company: "Smile! Then smile again! That's Cathleen Jivoin's advice for anyone who wants to make a good first impression. As Director of First Impressions at Sarasota, Florida-based Teltronics, which designs and assembles telecom systems, her job is to set the right mood for everyone who walks into the company's lobby."
Unkind readers who pooh-pooh such job-title inflation should be ashamed of themselves. Haven't you ever wrapped yourself in a reassuring, Snuggie-like blanket of words, to steel yourself against the terrors and truths of a cold world that likes to take chew toys away from puppies and puppies away from orphans and orphans away from orphan-eating snakes?
As a show of solidarity to the thermal incidents and palmetto bugs of the world, I renounce the title language columnist, which antagonizes so many otherwise non-violent individuals in the tri-state area. In the spirit of sea kitten, I wish to be known as a language kitten.
(FYI: I'm available for belly-scratching and lolcat photo shoots Monday through Thursday.)
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 other articles by Mark Peters