Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

"Alternative" is the Ultimate Euphemism Maker

Back in January, alternative facts staked its claim as the Euphemism of the Year and Eon, garnering attention aplenty. But this is far from the first rodeo for alternative. Just as enhanced is a term that attracts euphemisms like catnip attracts cats and cats attract YouTube views, alternative is no newcomer to the euphemism game.

Just about everything under the sun—including music, birth, energy, newspapers, sciences, and universes—has inspired an "alternative X" term. And why not? If something's not this, it's gotta be that. And if it's not that, it's the other thing. Language is a machine made of alternatives.

No wonder alternative is so particularly useful in the euphemism game. In fact, alternative term is a solid definition for euphemism, though a fuller definition would be "alt-term that is as soft, fluffy, and evil as a poodle who's never had a haircut or soul."

Here are just a few of the ways alternative has modified and mollified, to small or sinister effect. In the sleazy halls of the Euphemism Hall of Fame, few words have a longer resume of rubbish.

alternative interrogation technique
Though enhanced got all the press during the tortuous Bush-Cheney years, alternative was used too. Torture methods such as waterboarding have been described as alternative interrogation techniques, which is little comfort to the torturees.

alternative birth
This vague term could suggest anything from an actual stork delivery to the fiendish creation of a robo-infant, but the truth is more mundane and less unholy. Since the 1970s, this has been a term for home birth. A more familiar (and clear) description would be natural childbirth.

alternative music
I was a wee young college lad in the days of Nirvana, when alternative music became a popular term. Even then the label smelled of twaddle and tripe. “Alternative to what?” was the common rejoinder. Similarly, alternative rock was once a buzzword for rock that was, in some ineffable way, not the usual rock. I always took this to mean it was rock that didn’t suck, or that paired with a better brand of adult beverage. Who knows?

alternative science
This is one of the nuttier terms in the alt-lexicon, in which alternative represents not a different flavor, but a different entity entirely. An amusing example from 1981 in The London Times shows what this term encompasses, describing “The Institute of Noetic Sciences, which researches into ESP, parapsychology and alternative science.” Even the corpse-y work of Dr. Frankenstein was more peer-reviewed.

alternative therapy
Here’s where we can see the true uselessness—er, use—of alternative. An alternative therapy can be a legitimate form of medicine that’s just not western, such as acupuncture. Or an alternative therapy could be something far wackier, like magnet therapy. Tangent alert: In a coffee shop where I used to compose these golden words, there used to be a guy who would place little magnets around his table. Once a barista jostled a magnet—breaking his defensive perimeter—and he looked very angry. Another time I glanced at his laptop and (I swear to Thor) saw the words, “Why don’t I just kill everyone?” I go to a different coffee shop now.

alternative practitioner
Perhaps the Magneto of the coffee shop would have benefited from the soothing touch of an alternative practitioner, another goofy title. OED examples illustrate the desperate linguistic race to name the inane, with examples from 1981 (“Many alternative practitioners prefer the terms complementary or supplementary therapies for their work”) and 2002  (“Long before the word ‘holistic’ had been coined and glorified as a ‘new paradigm’ for healing, alternative practitioners were advocating a philosophy of healing that was nothing if not ‘holistic’.”). Holistic: there’s another lexical horse cookie. One of my favorite euphemisms of all-time is a Toronto-area term for a sex worker: holistic practitioner.

alternative universe
This isn’t exactly a euphemism, but it is an interesting term, and an intriguing place I am endlessly trying to find on the subway map. An alternative universe, alternative reality, parallel universe, or whatever is another place just like ours, but usually with some key differences that are milked for humor or drama. In the famous Bizarro episode of Seinfeld, Elaine was sucked into the Bizarro world, where doppelgangers of Jerry, George, and Kramer actually read books, care about other people, and behave like reasonable adults. Thankfully, such horror lasted only one episode.

alternative dentation
This term is recorded in the wonderful Spinglish: The Definitive Dictionary of Deliberately Deceitful Language, in which Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf collect loads of lexical lies. What in the name of Valhalla is alternative dentation? False teeth, a term that, now that I think about it, sounds so dentally disreputable.

alternative dispute resolution
This oddball term could mean virtually anything, which is a strength in the fuzzy world of euphemisms. What it actually means is mediation or arbitration. That sounds innocent enough, though I’m rethinking that after finding these grammatically dubious sentences in the Blackmore Vale Magazine: “The benefits for consumers are that alternative dispute resolution schemes are usually free or low cost and simple to use. Ombudsman services are a type of alternative dispute resolution scheme which are impartial and free for consumers to use.” But maybe I’m too suspicious. Whoever went wrong by putting their trust in a scheme?

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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.