Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

An Enhanced Look at the Euphemism of the Year

The American Dialect Society's annual meeting is coming up, and like all word nerds, I have Word of the Year fever. I won't be in Pittsburgh for the meeting, but as the only euphemism columnist in this star quadrant, I want to make a case for euphemism of the year.

I don't think there's an obvious choice, unlike last year, when hiking the Appalachian trail and sea kittens were such glorious, gobsmacking globules of bull hockey. Terms from 2010 like corn sugar and constituent services just don't have the batty humor and ballsy deceit I want in a euphemism of the year. So I'm going with enhanced, partly for its role in enhanced pat-down, and partly as recognition for its years of service in creating terms and expressions that smell as fishy as Aquaman's undersea lair.

Enhanced pat-downs (and enhanced screening procedures) enraged travelers, spawned jokes, and filled the headlines of late 2010, as the TSA's security theater produced one of its most comical performances. Enhanced was already a worn-out weasel of a word before the TSA got hold of it. VT supreme commander Ben Zimmer noted the repugnant resemblance to enhanced interrogation procedures, and I'd wager that endless scandals over performance-enhancing drugs also helped to besmirch all things enhance-y. The word always had euphemism potential, as shown in an OED example from 1872: "Buying up the stock of any commodity to sell it again at an enhanced price." There's no corn-sugar-coating it: enhanced is one of the least trustworthy words in the language. Examples abound:

  • As previously mentioned in this column, enhanced chicken is bloated with enough salt water to make Foghorn Leghorn cry in his coop, and an enhanced pension offer puts a three-word cloaking device over the honest term buyout.

  • The New York Times on sale in my local coffee shop sports a sticker boasting "Enhanced Coverage of Chicago", which I suspect means either "More Coverage of Chicago" or simply "Coverage of Chicago."

  • The enhanced driver's license should, in my expert opinion, allow you to fly the space shuttle or a Cylon baseship. Alas. It merely allows the holder to avoid a freedom frisk.

  • Science fans may be interested in enhanced brain-controlled devices, which allow monkeys impressive control over computer cursors. However, I for one do not welcome our new robo-monkey overlords.

  • ESPN's Bill Simmons makes fun of the NFL for a silly description of proposed scheduling changes: "This week, I'm calling out NFL owners for this 'enhanced schedule' crap. Forget the stupidity of adding two more games when we already have too many injuries and concussions (that's a whole other issue). I can't believe the league created 'enhanced schedule' like it's some hokus-pokus corporate catch phrase to throw people off the fact that, really, they're blatantly stealing from the CFL."

  • If I were in a profession that is already synonymous with torture—like teaching or dentistry—I would surely avoid the term Enhanced Dental Care.

  • If the TSA is still getting you down, maybe you need to shuck off your underoos and try Privates, "a new line of privacy-enhanced travel clothing that will protect your privacy from invasive TSA security screening technology." FYI, any home can be privacy-enhanced with the addition of a moat.

  • Given how deeply Facebook has already penetrated every nook, cranny, and app of our lives, I deeply fear Enhanced Facebook Integration, courtesy of Google-wannabe Bing. Instead of Facebooking us to death, why can't someone invent a real version of George Costanza's iToilet: a handy app (featured in last year's Seinfeld reunion on Curb Your Enthusiasm) that directs you to the nearest available public toilet. Now that's change I can believe in.

  • Speaking of public toilets, I suspect my dog would enjoy the wonders of the enhanced water hydrant.

I could go on all day. Enhanced is being used in so many bizarre and sleazy ways that I have trouble trusting it in any context. A recent reference to the New York Knicks as "a much enhanced group" raises needless suspicions. I know the team has merely improved, but my overactive imagination wonders whether plastic surgery, gamma radiation, or performance-enhancing salt water may be involved.

So why do people keep using such a damaged, duplicitous word when there are plenty of other words, just sitting in the dictionary, that are more specific, clear, and non-creepy? Why keep drinking from such a poisoned well? Why won't enhanced die?

I'll ponder those questions for a long time to come, or at least till 2012. Isn't that the year of the Mayan's enhanced apocalypse?

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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:

Wednesday January 5th 2011, 8:27 AM
Comment by: Meggin M.
Well done! I can't think of another euphemistic winner beyond what you've described here. Not that I have been thinking about it much lately but I'd vote for "enhanced" given your varied demonstrations of how it has lost all credibility for meaning what it meant when I was but a young lass. Maybe I'm just an enhanced lass at this time. My Scottish dad would probably like that I could still think of myself as a "lass" at all :)
Wednesday January 5th 2011, 9:57 AM
Comment by: kelley S. (Newberg, OR)
I'm sure Enhanced Conversation will ensue. Well done.
Wednesday January 5th 2011, 10:34 AM
Comment by: Jennifer R. (Toledo, OH)
I am an enhanced educator you know.....
Wednesday January 5th 2011, 1:35 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Once again, you nailed it, Mark! I suspect that the users of "enhanced" would say it's a synonym for enriched, embellished or improved, but often the more accurate translation would be burdened, polluted, contaminated or infested. If they must use a trendy word, maybe we can propose a new term and hope it becomes popular. How about deceptionized, absurded or sleazified?

The Happy Quibbler
Wednesday January 5th 2011, 2:10 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I am enjoying enhanced retirement. Hmmm, maybe that's unenhanced retirement... my pension and benefits are more limited than my country's senators! LOL
Wednesday January 5th 2011, 3:33 PM
Comment by: Roger M.
There are few things on my enhanced wish list,,,,,one of them is unenhancing such frequent use of this word.

However, I thoroughly enjoyed your take on the subject

Thursday January 6th 2011, 1:29 PM
Comment by: Bob K. (Sun Lakes, AZ)
Hilarious! And right on. Your TSA references recalled Charles Krauthammer's recent piece about the guy who told a TSA agent: "Don't touch my junk."

Enhanced: "one of the least trustworthy words in the language." Amen to that!


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What's the Word of 2010?
The American Dialect Society is looking for the Word of the Year. What's yours?
How we got to the "enhanced pat-downs" of the TSA.
Last year, "hiking the Appalachian trail" was named Most Euphemistic.