Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Come On, You Know the Euphemism of the Year

Picking the Euphemism of the Year isn't usually easy. It's like choosing between my children, if I had any, and in fact had dozens of them, and I hated them all.

In a normal year, I'd go through various candidates one by one before making my pick. I'd discuss the preposterous Pause Pod, which is merely a tame tent. I'd hoot at Black and Orange Spirit Day, a bonkers replacement for Halloween. I might discuss community cats—please don't call them feral. As I fan of sci-fi, I'd have to mention electronic persons, which the uncouth among us still call robots. Maybe I would hire a travel designer—not a travel agent, no sir—to help me revisit every twaddle-ish term.

But that stale role call feels especially stale this year, when one term emerged in January and haunted the year like Caspar in a tinfoil hat. This term is a clear Euphemism of the Year. I know it. You know it. My comrades in the American Dialect Society knew it. What else?

Alternative facts.

This is not only the euphemism of the year, but perhaps of the decade, the century, the millennium, the multiversal timestream and anything beyond that. It's the ultimate cloaking device for lies, BS, and any theories that involve hordes of dinosaurs up to funny business on the moon.

Alternative facts has a clear origin, which was televised. On Meet the Press, host Chuck Todd interviewed Kellyanne Conway, President Trump's senior adviser, about some dubious attendance figures put forth by the administration, specifically by former press secretary Sean Spicer. Ultimately, Conway had to admit/brag that Spicer had employed alternative facts. After Todd somehow avoided a spit-take, he responded, "Alternative facts aren't facts; they are falsehoods."

Oh, but they're so much more than that.

This term is a bigger than one senior advisor or administration or type of horsefeathers. In some ways, we're all clinging to alternative facts nowadays, with one side insisting President Obama was a secret Muslim who'd been to Mars as a teen and the other side insistent that President Trump and Vladimir Putin made a secret pact to cover up the true architects of the pyramids: space lizards. Whether you like your earth flat or hollow, there's a conspiracy theory and a matching set of alternative facts for you.

Alternative facts fits this conspiracy-soaked era like a government implant in your brain. For example, take my favorite conspiracy theory, which was discussed in an article with a wonderfully understated title: "NASA Politely Clarifies It Is Not Running A Child Slave Colony On Mars." This Huffpost piece discusses the idea—really and truly believed by some—that, as Robert David Steele told Alex Jones, "…there is a colony on Mars that is populated by children who were kidnapped and sent into space on a 20-year ride." One aspect of this nutty notion is that the bone marrow of these children is being harvested to produce, as Jones put it, "the original growth hormone." I wonder if they test NFL players for that.

If you're wondering what evidence supports Martian child slave labor and bone marrow extraction—or what evidence suggests there's anyone on Mars, full stop—you're playing the wrong game. When it comes to alternative facts, the lack of evidence is proof enough, and every fuzzy photo is a Rorschach test proving whatever you want to believe.

Even if your alternative facts aren't the wackiest, I bet you have some. We all lie to ourselves sometimes, and we're all a bit like the protagonist in Memento. The "hero" Leonard suffers from a weird but real form of amnesia in which he knows who he is but can't make new memories. So, in those barbaric days before social media, he has to rely on tattoos and Polaroids to know who he can trust. After realizing that he's not as innocent or righteous as he feels, Leonard makes a choice: to record a lie in his photo files, ensuring that the person who told him the ugly, nasty truth would become a future victim. Leonard embraced alternative facts.

Alternative facts greatly benefit from the weaselly power of alternative (and alt). As I discussed back in May, alternative is employed in a dizzying and nauseating and chilling array of contexts to form vague terms such as alternative music, alternative science, alternative dispute resolution, alternative birth, and the triply tortuous alternative interrogation technique. Alternative stakes no specific claim other than "not X," which makes it the Swiss army knife of euphemism-makers.

Someday English may produce a more relevant and versatile euphemism than alternative facts, but that day isn't today. Even as real facts, evidence, science, and sanity get harder and harder to find, I suppose there's small comfort in knowing our language is still stretchy enough, like lexical spandex, to cover it all, however unsightly the results.

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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.