Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Charismatic, High-Concept, Low-Risk Euphemisms

It's almost Euphemism of the Year time, and whoa nelly, do I have a contender: sluggish cognitive tempo.

As Peter Aldhous notes in Slate, "The name of a 'new attention disorder' sounds like an Onion-style parody: sluggish cognitive tempo. It also sounds like a classic case of disease mongering: blurring normality with sickness to boost drug companies' bottom lines."

Like all three-word euphemisms, this term is soaked in drivel and marinated in balderdash with a thick mumbo-jumbo glaze. I wouldn't expect it to have a long shelf life, but who knows? Maybe it will join idiot, moron, cretin, retarded, and challenged as medical words that work their way into the general vocabulary. We can never have enough words for dum-dums, especially in America, where we continue to lead the world in the production of dunderheads.

Cognitive issues aside, here are this month's batch of euphemisms, which are guaranteed to tickle your thinkbone — though they may deeply offend your honesty bone.

charismatic vertebrates

A Sacramento Bee article by Cynthia Hubert looks at the trend of smaller animals drawing zoo crowds. Along the way, Hubert mentions that such larger animals are called charismatic vertebrates, because they are the type of animals who excel at stand-up comedy and other forms of entertainment. Nah. Actually, charisma only refers to the traditional drawing power of behemoths as zoo attractions. This weird euphemism may be endangered if smaller animals keep growing in popularity and proving they have charisma too. I for one think naked mole rats are quite scintillating.

high-concept

Alan Sepinwall is one of the best TV critics around, and his book The Revolution Was Televised is a terrific look at the golden age of TV, from Oz to Breaking Bad. But he recently used a term that struck me as somewhat absurd: high-concept sitcom. According to Sepinwall, "...the networks pretty much only greenlight high-concept sitcom pilots, even if those shows then have to awkwardly ditch those high-concepts by episode 2." High-concept? I think Sepinwall simply means concept: so-called high-concept sitcoms have a discernible central idea. I suspect the sun will blow up before we see the first truly high-concept sitcom.

admirable

It's time for the new NBA season, so I suppose that's a slim justification for dredging up a euphemism I heard earlier this year on Inside the NBA. On this always entertaining show — which is actually funny and insightful, unlike the usual talking-heads sports crap — Grant Hill was subbing for Shaquille O'Neal. On that night, the Los Angeles Clippers knocked the Golden State Warriors out of the playoffs, and Hill, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, and Ernie Johnson were discussing the Warriors' future. All agreed that the Warriors had one of the best guard combinations in the league, but Hill took a trip to Euphemism Land when describing their center and forwards: "I think their frontcourt is admirable." In this case, admirable is a way of not saying they're subpar, crappy, or just plain awful. I don't think this euphemism is insincere though: the Warriors' frontcourt could be legitimately admirable in the sense of getting the most out of their talents, which just happen to be less than that of their gifted teammates. In a similar way, I'm an admirable swimmer in the sense that I've never had lessons or talent but manage not to drown.

recent graduates

Some euphemisms are blatant — like the military's old standby for civilian deaths, collateral damage. Other euphemisms are subtle, slinking under my euphemism-dar for decades, like recent graduates. It never even occurred to me that this term was remotely stealthy and evasive, but economist Ros Altmann has helped me see the truth: recent graduates is a fairly transparent term for young people. However, given the large amount of older folks going back to school, I wonder if this euphemism might backfire occasionally. I teach writing at a couple colleges, and many of the recent graduates are grandparents.

sovereignty strikes

Presidents generally have a weird relationship with the word war. On the one hand, they love to use the word loosely for causes such as the War on Drugs. On the other hand, when it comes to actual military actions, the word war itself frequently goes MIA. President Obama has been no exception to this Presidential language tic, and one of his war-avoiding terms is sovereignty strikes, which have recently been launched in Iraq, even though we're totally not at war, waging war, or being remotely war-y.

security threat group

This is an ominous term. Surely it must point to a terrorist group such as al Qaeda, ISIS, or whoever employs people with clipboards. Not really. Security threat group is a three-word coagulation of crapola for a group that's far more identifiable in English: a prison gang. I learned this term in a very good article in The Atlantic by Graeme Wood about how prison gangs, contrary to their reputation, actually maintain order in many prisons. Another euphemism in this article was BNL — the bad-news list. This is not a list full of items such as, "Meatloaf again for lunch" and "SNL is back." It's a list of people to be murdered, often due to offenses such as welching or snitching. If it makes you feel any better, apparently "gangs are fastidious about removing names from the list when debts are paid." Thank God. Shiving the wrong guy can ruin your whole day.

Finally, are you a low-risk person?

I hope not — but if you are, please step away from the column and into a bubble.

As America experiences Ebola hysteria, there have been some amusing language choices by the panic-loving media. Some newspaper headlines have mentioned a search for a low-risk person, which is pretty much a risk person, or more accurately, person exposed to Ebola who could be the next link in the chain that destroys us all.

This is a great example of how trying to soften the truth with language has the opposite effect. With euphemisms and clothes, too much transparency can be dangerous — and humorous.


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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 November 5th 2014, 1:36 PM
Comment by: Craig J.
"High concept" as a term used in describing sitcoms has a long pedigree. I remember a show called ALF being described in just that way, and I'm sure others have been similarly characterized: "Bewitched" and "My Favorite Martian" come to mind as suitable candidates. It also seems to be a useful term of "art"(in the broadest possible meaning of that word), differentiating a show where the concept (say, a hand puppet from outer space) is essential to the program, as opposed to shows like "King of Queens", "Everybody Loves Raymond", "Golden Girls", "Friends", "Seinfeld", et al, which are character driven, unstructured, and generally pointless vehicles for mindless conflict, one liners and sight gags.
Wednesday November 5th 2014, 9:15 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom)
I love your sense of the ridiculous Mark. Amusing and entertaining
Sunday November 9th 2014, 11:24 AM
Comment by: Mark R. (Paradise, CA)
I thought "High concept sitcom" was an oxymoron. (;-
Monday November 10th 2014, 8:27 AM
Comment by: Augustine R. (Mc Farland, WI)
Here is an email I received from a classical music online vendor:

"I am afraid that I do not think we will be able to assist here at the Customer Services Department for the Online Store."

Evasive maneuvers indeed:

I "think" this is what was meant: "I'm sorry but we can't help you..."

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