fb-pixel Skip to main content
IDEAS

May I have a word: Not euphemistically speaking

It’s like the phrase ‘hiking the Appalachian Trail,’ except it doesn’t have another meaning at all.

When former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford went off the grid for a few days in June, 2009, he claimed to have been "hiking the Appalachian Trail." The phrase quickly became a euphemism for having an extramarital affair, which is what Sanford was really doing.Nataliya Hora - stock.adobe.com

Last time, I asked for “a word for something that sounds like a euphemism but isn’t,” plus any relevant anecdotes.

My favorite anecdote came from Samantha Timmerman, of Melrose and Vion, France, who recalled: “While admiring the complicated woodwork of a sculptor, I innocently said to him, ‘You must have an amazing set of saws!’ A person standing nearby burst out laughing.”

As for the coinages I received, Emily Hiestand, of Cambridge, proposed fauxphemism. And Aaron J. Weinert wrote: “If you feel embarrassed by the reaction your non-euphemism elicits, perhaps it’s a rue-phemism?”

Two other coinages, however, emerged as dueling contenders for bragging rights. The aforementioned Emily Hiestand; Bob Mangano, of Natick; Marc McGarry, of Newton Highlands; and Geoff Patton, of Ashland, all came up with truephemism or a variant thereof.

Advertisement



Joe Barr, of Arlington, wrote: “My suggestion for a word for something that sounds like a euphemism but isn’t is euphemisn’t.” He added, “I suspect I won’t be the only one to suggest that.”

Right you are, Joe. Mike Czitrom, of Quincy; Leonard Silver, of Arlington; the aforementioned Samantha Timmerman; Becky, Ben, and Jonathan Winickoff; and Tom Wolf, of Acton, all proposed the same coinage or a variation.

When the two terms are said aloud, euphemisn’t strikes me as easier for a listener to get than truephemism — and I like that the novel part of it comes at the end, like a punchline. So I’m awarding euphemisn’t’s eight coiners bragging rights this time. Congrats, folks!

An aside here: I was surprised to see that all the coinages I received, including ones that don’t appear here, were hybrids, or chimera words — or Frankenwords, as Jan Freeman dubbed them in these pages in 2010. The sinister connotations of Freeman’s name for them are surely intentional, while the term itself is an example of what it describes: words with roots in two or more languages. Euphemism, for instance, is derived from Greek, whereas true, is, and not have Old English and Germanic roots.

Advertisement



Usage mavens of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th had generally been schooled in Latin and Greek and would have sneered at our new coinages. They called the hybrids of their day “ridiculous,” “barbarisms,” and “monsters,” as Freeman explained. The writer Stan Carey discussed how usage experts’ opinions have changed over time in a 2011 blog post, misleadingly titled “The Monstrous Indecency of Hybrid Etymology.”

But as the study of Classical languages has receded from the foreground of secondary-school education — these days fewer than 1 percent of American high school students study Latin, let alone Greek — contempt for hybrids has abated, and they’ve become more and more common. Heaps of hybrids crop up in our everyday language — automobile, bureaucracy, coastal, lovable, neuroscience, pacifist, polyamory, speedometer, and television, to name just a few. Not only do we not object to them but we probably have no idea that they are hybrid, chimerical Frankenwords.

Fine with me! As Carey wrote: “English has always added foreign bits to native bits, and both to other foreign bits. It does this in its sleep.”

Now, on to our next bit of fun. Geoff Patton’s coinage, above, may have been a runner-up this time, but his proposed challenge is a winner: “English needs a word for an activity or task that is productive or creative but is actually something you are doing to procrastinate from doing a more onerous, necessary task (e.g., baking brownies to stall washing the kitchen floor).”

Advertisement



Send your suggestions to me at Barbara.Wallraff@globe.com by noon on the day after Thanksgiving, and kindly include where you live. Responses may be edited.

Barbara Wallraff is a writer and editor in Cambridge.

A previous version of this piece erroneously identified the word “marathon” as a hybrid.