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"Spinglish": A Smorgasbord of Evasive, Duplicitous Delights

Have you ever struggled to explain a nuclear meltdown caused by an incredibly stupid mistake? You would have been grateful for alternative terms, such as "a core rearrangement caused by an ill-advised learning opportunity."

You can find these terms and more in Spinglish: The Definitive Dictionary of Deliberately Deceitful LanguageHenry Beard and Christopher Cerf have put together a comprehensive, quirky compendium of language that lies its lexical pants off. It's a terrific collection that should appeal to newbies as well as veteran language mavens.

(Full disclosure: my euphemism column is cited in this book quite a few times. I don't know the authors, though I'd like to. Given our mutual interest in verbal BS, I bet we'd have a good time.)

Beard and Cerf focus on language that's trying to hoodwink or bamboozle, and they find plenty of examples, recording hundreds of circumlocutions. They search near and far for evidence of "...our native tongue, transformed into a sophisticated method of judicious miscommunication through the use of careful word choice and the artful rephrasing and reframing of familiar terms." That encompasses the poppycock of politicians, marketers, people embroiled in scandals, and just about anyone with something to hide—or sell. As Beard and Cerf put it, "...it all comes down to making me sound better, or you sound worse, or both. I'm a freedom fighter, you're a terrorist. I want to enhance revenues, you want to raise taxes. My product is artisanal, all-natural, and organic; yours is mass-produced, synthetic, and contains artificial additives." In other words, everybody spins.

Most of the terms are euphemistic, and if you were brand new to euphemisms, this book would make a terrific introduction. Beard and Cerf include many of the most familiar euphs, such as administrative professional, adult entertainment, and friendly fire, but they go far beyond them, and the rare absurdities are the biggest treats. Is your child panicked about taking a test? Call it a celebration of knowledge. Did your boss catch you doing nothing? Say you were zero-tasking. Do you feel bad about firing employees? Call it synergy-related head count restructuring and you'll sleep soundly, you monster.

As with other collections of euphemisms, you can see the same topics dodged over and over: death, failure, sex, lies, war. Unshockingly, many come from the world of marketing. I had heard terms like vintage and pre-loved thrown around, but never new-to-you, a particularly painful term for used crapola. But new-to-you has a more pleasant sense that applies to this book: I can't imagine anyone (short of the late and frequently cited Hugh Rawson) who would not find hundreds of novel terms here. This is a banquet of verbal duplicity and a monument to creativity, even if it's the kind of creativity most would pooh-pooh.

Since the focus of this book is spin and deception, not all terms are euphemistic. Some are closer to dysphemisms, like Frankenscience and jack-booted government thugs. Others are flat-out absurdities and lies, like Rush Limbaugh's feminazi, which shows you can lie with language by bastardizing the truth as well as hiding it. Only a few entries are headscratchers. I can't figure out why Plutoed is in here, since it's just a humorous term without any deceptive intent I can imagine. Likewise, Sarah Palin's refudiate is an odd choice. Though Palin did spin her mistake as creativity, I don't think a mistake can be an example of spin. But the amount of terms that seem like mistakes or bad fits is small—most are legitimately as crooked as a bag of snakes.

Some terms have only a brief definition, while others have a lengthy exposition, but the writing style is always clear and enjoyable. In the lengthier entries and the introduction, Beard and Cerf show real skill with language. Sentence are packed with colorful turns of phrase, like this description of: "...a flurry of press releases flogged by a host of professional Spinocchios and hundreds of highly paid liars with fireproof pants ready to pull the genuine imitation faux wool over your eyes." Though collections of deceptive terms are inherently disparaging, I bet Beard and Cerf have a hint of admiration for many of the terms: spinmeisters and good writers share the ability to constantly find new words for old stuff.

The book concludes with an English-Spinglish Dictionary, which is quite fun. This tool allows you to say you had an extremely vivid nighttime hallucination about eating façade protectant in a congregate care facility (a nightmare about eating paint in an orphanage). Or you could say you had a robust exchange of views with an interspecies communicator at a lifestyle center (got in a shouting match with an animal trainer at a shopping mall). Spinglish would be a blast to use while playing Mad Libs.

I give this book the highest/lowest praise: it belongs on the Mount Rushmore of bathroom books, and it's a heckuva work of scholarship too. For the sake of the authors, let's hope this book isn't ahead of its time—a euphemism for a book that didn't sell squat.


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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.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday June 23rd 2015, 1:40 AM
Comment by: Lesley G. (Lowestoft United Kingdom)
Thanks. This book is now on my shopping list. As a former FE lecturer who endured hours of OFSTED 'professional development' I can confirm that the world of education has its own 'banquet of verbal duplicity'. Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to a good read.
Tuesday June 23rd 2015, 10:51 AM
Comment by: Robert E M.
I immediately purchased the mentioned book. You cost me moolah, boola!
Tuesday June 23rd 2015, 1:49 PM
Comment by: John E. (Mechanicsburg,, PA)
Hey, Mark, not to give you short change on your mental acuity balance, but "Plutoed" clearly means one got demoted to a position of lesser standing in the Universe. Pluto used to be small planet of long-standing in our Solar System; now it is just a planetoid, a minor functionary passed over by greater celestial discoveries.
Wednesday June 24th 2015, 4:54 PM
Comment by: Joann Z. (Rockford, IL)
How is "feminazi" a lie?
Friday June 26th 2015, 9:25 AM
Comment by: James B.
It's RusH Limbaugh. I suspect you've never read or heard anything from a conservative, so I forgive you ... sort of.
Sunday June 28th 2015, 1:40 PM
Comment by: Michael C. (Lansing, MI)
I'm wondering as well, how is "femininazi" a lie or absurdity?

James B., Saying "It's Rush Limbaugh" is hardly an explanation. That's merely lazy labeling. Hardly intellectual dialogue.
Monday June 29th 2015, 6:31 PM
Comment by: Tureeda M.
My opinion;
perhaps a "feminazi" is a word used/created by WASP patriarchs to divert attention from their collective behaviors that diminishes the value of women thereby mirroring their actions upon groups they wish to secretly destroy.
Monday August 3rd 2015, 11:17 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
A femeinazi just might be a woman whose opinions about whomen's beliefs and behaviours are extreme and tightly held.

It isn't only conservatives who have fixed opinions.
Tuesday March 22nd 2016, 1:00 PM
Comment by: marcus O. (NC)
I am tuched with this book

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