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TSA: Body Scans, Pat-Downs, and Junk-Inspired Acronyms

An enhanced look at TSA terminology—from enhanced pat-downs to porno-scanners to "don't touch my junk"—that are touching sensitive areas.

An enhanced look at TSA terminology—from pat-downs to porno-scanners to "don't touch my junk"—that are touching sensitive areas. \n

The airport has long been a source of frustration and humor, as you well know if you’ve ever missed a flight, endured a screaming baby, or watched Airplane (RIP, Leslie Nielsen). The annoyance and comedy rose to new levels in the past month, as the Transportation Security Administration unveiled the new “whole-body imagers,” along with the enhanced pat-downs that you’ve either experienced or (more likely) heard about by now. These aggressive gropings caused a national outcry that could be summarized by the words of Alias’s Sydney Bristow, who once responded to a full-scale frisk by pointing out, “It’s not a date!”


Between the TSA’s own terminology and the enraged public’s stream of sarcastic terms such as “porno scanners,” you could write a small dictionary about the words that have debuted or risen to new prominence. Airportese is our fastest growing language.

The most prominent term is probably “enhanced pat-down.” The New York Times On Language columnist Ben Zimmer aptly noted the resemblance to “enhanced interrogation procedures,” the most famously awful euphemism for torture in recent times. You don’t have to be a branding expert to think that using a word associated with torture for a physically invasive new security procedure may not have been the swiftest move. “Enhanced” has been used since the 1500s, and it’s always contained the seeds of BS that have bloomed fully in the last decade. This 1872 OED example could have been written yesterday: “Buying up the stock of any commodity to sell it again at an enhanced price.”

Fortunately, sarcasm and humor have always been antidotes for BS. In The Boston Globe, Erin McKean points out some of the terms disgruntled travelers have coined for the pernicious pat-down procedures, such as “...gate rape, freedom pats, freedom fondles and freedom frisks, grope-a-palooza, and love pats (that last by Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri). The whole process has been called a peel and feel.” “Peel and feel” is one of many rhyming phrases for unpleasant tasks such as “strip and flip” and “spray and pray.” “Peel and feel” is also further proof that there’s nothing so unpleasant that people won’t rhyme about it.

As we’ve seen in the case of BP, anytime a company with initials in its name fouls the waters (literally or metaphorically), people eagerly suggest what their name “really” means. You can find examples of backronyms such as “Totalitarian Sex Addicts” all over the net, but the folks at Reason Magazine seem to have mined this well the deepest. Many aren’t any cleverer than your typical Internet comment, but some are pretty memorable. I liked Taking Scissors Away, Touching Stuff Aggressively, Trampling Several Amendments, and Too Stupid for Arby’s (that’s too harsh on underpaid TSA workers, but I always enjoy a shot at Arby’s).

Speaking of junk food, the word “junk” has spread like an STD in the form of the “Don’t touch my junk” catchphrase. That term for the genitalia has been around at least 15 years and was catching steam in the mainstream as part of Brett Favre’s texting-your-junk-gate. “Junk” has had dozens of meanings over the years, including stuff, jewelry, nonsense, garbage, drugs, medicine, and baseball pitches. Maybe it’s because I’m a good American Catholic boy raised to despise his own body, but I have always enjoyed the word “junk” as a term for the genitals, though not everyone does. When a friend was wiping up her baby a few months ago, and I advised her to wipe in a direction opposite the baby’s junk, my word choice was strongly pooh-poohed.

Before a TSA behavior detection officer catches me, let me suggest a term that could solve all our security and linguistic problems. It was coined on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia in the episode “The Gang Hits the Road,” as would-be sheriff Mac assured his friends that a hitchhiker was not dangerous by saying, “I did an ocular pat-down of him ... I did an ocular assessment of the situation, garnered that he was not a security risk, and I cleared him for passage.”

There is much to recommend the ocular pat-down. Requiring only eyeballs, it entails neither a freedom grope nor a deadly dose of freedom rays. As for its effectiveness, the hitchhiker Mac cleared soon stole the group’s car. That makes the oracular pat-down is as reliable as any security measure currently in use. Maybe the TSA should try it.

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