Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Deinstitutionalizing Policy Time and Other Mischaracterizations

We've known for a while that President Donald Trump's schedule included executive time: a nebulous slice of the space-time continuum devoted to important tasks such as watching TV, tweeting, and yelling at clouds.

Recently, according to Newsweek, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly added a new item to the most powerful person in the world's daily agenda: policy time.

Maybe this isn't quite a euphemism, since policy time is literally time to focus on policy. It's just a lexical oddity that makes you wonder what Trump is doing the rest of the day. An equally insane example would be if a dentist scheduled tooth time or Batman scheduled punch-clowns time. Aren't they supposed to be doing that stuff most times?

Anyhoo, it's my policy to crank out a new roundup of euphemisms each month. Around these here parts, it's always malarkey time.

bonus mom
I tend to make fun of euphemisms and other things, probably because I wasn't hugged enough as a child, but I think this euph is as sweet as a bag of candy corn. As discussed in a Yahoo Lifestyle article on Abby Wambach, "Wambach may technically be a stepmom, but, she explained, 'We like to use the term 'bonus mom.'" That's a pretty cool term that could be extended to bonus dads, bonus siblings, and even bonus cousins and pets. This article also includes a term that's not a euphemism but is probably a good idea: divorce vows. When kids are involved, divorce vows could be more important than marriage vows.

This doozy isn't new. The Oxford English Dictionary has found an example at least as old as 1955, and this euphemism rages on, as seen in a recent Boston Herald article by Rich Lowry: "We 'deinstitutionalized' the mentally ill, too often a euphemism for dumping them onto the streets and into jails. About 20 percent to 30 percent of the homeless are mentally ill." This term has been hornswoggled into the evasive lexicon, but it wasn't always a cloaking device. A 1974 issue of Science shows the term/concept can come from a better place: "A major current trend is toward deinstitutionalization. People who are down on jails believe that the institutional setting is too dehumanizing for any meaningful rehabilitation to take place." Words are like spoons. They can be used for good things like eating ice cream, or bad things like scooping out eyeballs.

chain-link partition
The U.S. currently has a policy of separating families seeking asylum at the border and putting the children in cages, which I so wish was the premise of a dystopian movie and not reality. But the term cage is evaded by some who would like to justify these atrocities. Enter chain-link partition, an actual term used by some cage-friendly news sources to soften the blow of caging children. If George Carlin were alive, terms like this would kill him.

universe partner
Partner is a common substitute for husband, wife, spouse, or significant other that you'd have to be pretty mean-spirited to pooh-pooh. But I recently spied a bloated version of this term that is cosmically goofy: universe partner. Ye gads! Also, ye gods. This term is what euphemismologists call "a bit much." That said, perhaps I object to this term out of spite, which I spitefully acknowledge. I'm lucky to get a second date, much less a universe partner or galaxy companion.

Finally, does your nose grow when you mischaracterize?

That's a rather transparent euphemism noted in Mother Jones recently. The catalyst was this Washington Post headline to an editorial by Catherine Rampell: "Republicans are mischaracterizing nearly all their major policies. Why?"

And here's the response by Kevin Drum:

Maybe this was just tiredness on my part, but I read about half this piece thinking that Rampell was making some kind of policy critique of Republicans. It wasn't until the second half, when her sarcasm became stronger, that I realized she was merely saying that Republicans are lying about nearly all their policies. I don't know if the choice of "mischaracterizing" was hers or the copy desk's, but it shows the danger of getting too fond of euphemisms. There's a point at which it tiptoes around your meaning so much that readers have a hard time understanding you.

True that.

Mischaracterize has been performing similarly dubious tasks in English since the late 1700s. But it flourishes today, as liars and the journalists who avoid the l-word struggle for the right words.

We're all familiar with alternative facts, and the noteworthy observation that "over time, facts develop." If those expressions are too trendy, you can always take factual shortcuts or be economical with the truth. Or the truthiness.

At least no one—until now, true believers—has dared called a lie a bonus truth.

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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:

Sunday December 9th 2018, 5:08 PM
Comment by: Jacquelyn M.
Mark Peters, I'm "laughing my head off!" and delighted that this article was my first read today. . . "Make my Day". . . so funny, I'm still smiling! Thank you!
Friday December 14th 2018, 10:58 AM
Comment by: Brendan L.
"A minor-aged migrant worker (and possible enemy combatant) had a dehydration episode during her time in a taxpayer-funded, chain-link partition. Due to an abundance of caution, those claiming to be representatives of the worker were allowed to stay in a separate chain-link partition while staff members allowed for the worker's unusually high body temperature to come down naturally. While current her refugee status is unknown, it is clear she is back to room temperature, and no medical treatment or additional hydration will be needed. Ever.

Also, we have space for an additional migrant worker." - White House Spokesvillain, Steven Miller

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