Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

"Big Foreign Policy Initiative": What Is It Good For?

Just as a biologist can tell a critter from a creepy-crawly by the number of legs, euphemism enthusiasts can tell a 5-alarm, major-league, restaurant-quality euphemism by the presence of three words. Readers of previous columns may remember terms such as employee dialogue session, strategic dynamism effort, enhanced pension offer, life problem issue, taco meat filling, and customer pain point. Every time, three words = three metric tons of malarkey.

But a four-word euphemism? That's rarer than a four-leaf clover and just as lucky, at least to a euphemism collector like moi. The four-part morsel of mumbo-jumbo I recently spotted is big foreign policy initiative, a way of avoiding the term war used by Oliver Willis here. Willis was slammed by some conservatives for this convoluted collocation, but I think we can all come to a bipartisan agreement that it is thoroughly whacked.

Then again, if things get even more Orwellian, perhaps this term will replace war in the history books. We might look back on World Big Foreign Policy Initiative I and II. We could shake our heads at the lives lost in the American Civil Big Foreign Policy Initiative. Even the Big Foreign Policy Initiative on Drugs would take on new meaning.

Insane initiatives aside, here's another random, raw, ridiculous, rootin'-tootin' roundup of euphemisms that recently caught my eye and befuddled my brain. I hope they boggle yours pleasantly.

microbial deprivation

These days, every third kid seems to be deathly allergic to peanuts, gluten, or kryptonite. As allergies multiply, so do hypotheses. One theory is that hyper-vigilant parents have hand-sanitized away their kids' natural defenses: that's the hygiene hypothesis. Since having a clear name for anything might send the wrong message, a euphemism has been coined.  As SF Bloomfield and company write, "It would however be helpful if the hypothesis were renamed, e.g. as the 'microbial exposure' hypothesis, or 'microbial deprivation' hypothesis... Avoiding the term 'hygiene' would help focus attention on determining the true impact of microbes on atopic diseases, while minimizing risks of discouraging good hygiene practice." So if someone says you're filthy, you can always respond, "At least I'm not a microbial depriver!"


In science fiction, there are many dangers. Killer robots might kill you. Invaders from space might invade you. Dating is no less risky, as there's an excellent chance that lovely lady you met at the wine bar is actually your grandmother — because sci-fi is full of time-traveling. No wonder there's a euphemism for a time traveler: chrononaut. This term, which I found in Jeff Prucher's wonderful Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction dates from a 1963 story called "Highwayman & Mighty Mite" by Gardner F. Fox. I can't believe it's already 2013, and there appear to be no chrononauts running around. You'd think at least one would have the gumption to travel back in time to kill me.


This is another term collected by Prucher: one of many sci-fi euphemisms for Earthlings. These include Earthian, Earthie, Earthperson, Earthborn, Earthian, Earthman, Earthwoman, Earthperson, Tellurian, Terran, and Terrestrial. If I'm ever a resident of a Martian petting zoo, I wonder which label they'll put on my cage.


I spied this euph in a Bill Simmons column about Tracy McGrady's puzzling NBA career, which was equally spectacular and disappointing. Simmons quotes former coach Jeff Van Gundy as saying, "Either your best player has to cover up the non-strengths of the others, or the others have to cover up the non-strengths of the stars." Non-strengths? Though Van Gundy may no longer have to juggle the delicate egos of professional athletes, he has retained this gentle, pillowy word, which dodges the honest term weakness. For Van Gundy, speaking plainly is clearly a non-strength.

reverse funnel system

In the recent episode "Mac and Dennis Buy a Timeshare," It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's depraved idiots go down a road less depraved than usual: pyramid schemes. Of course, no one wants to believe they're mixed up with one of those, so Sweet Dee makes the following rationalization: "It's not a pyramid scheme. It's a reverse funnel system." Actually, that's a wonderfully apt euphemism, since a pyramid scheme does systematically funnel funds from the bank accounts of its dupes, reversing the dupes' expectations. Man, three-word euphemisms never let me down.

And here's another 3-worder to bring us back to the topic of war — er, big foreign policy initiatives. Are you in favor of strong humanitarian responses?

Thanks to this tweet, I read this article, which contained a whopper of a euphemism: "The House of Commons will be asked by the government on Thursday to approve a 'strong humanitarian response', possibly including force in principle."

Dagnabbit, strong humanitarian response might be an even more nefarious euphemism than big foreign policy imitative. I don't know about you, but when I think of the world humanitarian, I think about Jimmy Carter building a house, not Barack Obama launching a drone.

But this isn't the first time humanitarian has been used so deviously. The term humanitarian intervention has been around for a while, at least since this 1992 New York Times editorial by Paul Lewis: "Paradoxically, forcible humanitarian intervention was often considered more legitimate before the United Nations was created than afterward."

I hate to think how lengthy and ludicrous such terms might grow in the future. Could a chrononaut tell us that he served in a big humanitarian foreign policy intervention initiative experience process? It's enough to make George Carlin roll over in his post-health box.

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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 October 2nd 2013, 4:03 AM
Comment by: Karen D. (Laurel, MD)
I'm not sure that I would call Earther a euphemism, especially for Earthling. There doesn't seem to be any avoidance going on. Terran and its kin were attempts not to privilege English so I suppose they might qualify.
Monday October 7th 2013, 11:32 AM
Comment by: Rick M. (Bettendorf, IA)
I enjoyed reading this! Very funny at times, informative other times.

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