Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Demising and Shaming the Euphemisms of 2013

Losing your job is scary. It raises many frightening questions.

Can you find another job? How will you pay the bills in the meantime? Where will you get health insurance? Most importantly, what tacky and ridiculous euphemism will mask your firing so a corporate supervillain can sleep at night?

VT contributor Nancy Friedman tipped me off to a euphemism discussed in a recent New York Times article by David Gillen and Will Storey. They brought to light the latest of the many euphemisms for downsizing, rightsizing, or otherwise pushing-out-of-a-job-sizing that are beloved by corporate America. As Gillen and Storey write, "The big bank HSBC took the language of layoffs to a new low this year when it announced that it would be ‘demising' the roles of nearly 1,000 employees."

Demising the roles! How telling that it's not even the employees who are being demised, but their roles. If only it were possible to resuscitate or reanimate those poor, stiff, lifeless roles.

Fortunately, even the jobless can enjoy the simple pleasures in life, like debating the Euphemism of the Year. This year had many strong contenders, like demising, plus all of the following. Read on to find my pick for the euphemism that most fuzzily defined 2013.

send to Belize

2013 was the year Breaking Bad went from a critically acclaimed show with a cult following to a critically acclaimed show with a humongous following. Walt, Jesse, Hank, Skyler, Saul, and the rest of the gang will be part of pop culture forever, and so will a little expression used by Saul Goodman, Walter White's sleazeball lawyer. When discussing a colleague who'd become a problem, Saul asks, "Have you given any thought to, uh, sending him on a trip to Belize?" That means kill him, and I expect this term will be used for years to come by TV fans and murder enthusiasts alike. I dig this expression as much as a 2012 gem coined on Sons of Anarchy: meet Mr. Mayhem.


This is a Fox News alternative to shutdown, as in government shutdown, which sounds so negative and, even worse, clear. Slimdown replaces honesty with malarkey, like a good euphemism should. In these calorie-conscious times, who can resist a slimdown?

big foreign policy initiative

This four-leafed clover of crapola was used by Oliver Willis as an alternative to the somewhat war-like word war. The great George Carlin famously observed how the honest term shellshock morphed into battle fatigue and then post-traumatic stress syndrome, adding syllables and drivel over time. Carlin could've wrung a whole new HBO special out of big foreign policy initiative.


I don't know if this word is a euphemism per se, but it is being stretched so thin that its very lexical fabric is threatening to rip like lexical tissue paper. I've written for Slate and OUPblog about how words such as body-shaming and slut-shaming have yielded preposterous cousins such as fedora-shaming, creamer-shaming, and leggings-shaming. As shaming moved from sexism and misogyny to silliness and malarkey, a once-clear word became a blanket term used to cover all criticism, no matter how small. I'm comforted to know that if you disagree with my inclusion of this term, I can accuse you of euphemism-shaming or column-shaming.

These are great candidates, but my vote for Euphemism of the Year goes to a gem used by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, whose name doomed him to a life of claptrap.

In an interview regarding previous statements to the Senate about the NSA's surveillance of foreign leaders, Clapper said, "I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful manner."

Least untruthful! In past columns, I've mentioned factual shortcuts, statements that differ from history, and creating a fiction: three ways to avoid the word lie. Least untruthful might be my favorite yet, and it's my pick for Euphemism of the Year.

In fact, least untruthful points the way toward many other coinages that could get us out of our toils and troubles.

If your teacher accuses you of plagiarism, claim that you wrote the paper in the least academically dishonest manner you could.

If the government accuses you of selling secrets to Russia, Iran, or lizard people from space, claim that you behaved in the least treasonous way possible.

Finally, if you comment on this column, don't call me an ill-informed dolt. I'd much rather be known as the least informed dolt on the block.

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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 December 4th 2013, 4:31 AM
Comment by: Victor G. (Vancouver Canada)
Wednesday December 4th 2013, 8:53 AM
Comment by: Richard S.
Great observations, great fun. Thanks, Mark.
Wednesday December 4th 2013, 10:07 AM
Comment by: W Noel B. (Harbert, MI)
In the New Zealand Parliament, it used to be that you could not accuse another Member of lying. But you could say that they were "a stranger to the truth."
And there is a lot of that going round......
Wednesday December 4th 2013, 12:05 PM
Comment by: Craig J.
Your coverage of euphemisms is entertaining and instructive; thank you. It doesn't, however, get into the role of good "spin", an example of which follows. Please bear with me through the initial paragraph, which is set-up.

For an economy to function properly, people have to lose their jobs; that's just the way it is. Only government jobs (and jobs propped up at government instigation--think General Motors and Chrysler)are immune to this painful circumstance, because they are funded by unavoidable taxes taken by government force. Unfortunately, the job losses averted by government are necessary if we're to stop making buggy whips and shoddy, and build better quality things people actually want or need. One reason the Soviet Union failed is that most jobs were government jobs, so what the economist Schumpeter called "creative destruction" didn't happen, or at least not enough to save our comrades from economic disaster.

Now introduce members of the chattering classes in the democracies who don't know, or care, about economic reality. They generally dislike business people in an almost instinctive fashion, and they lead a large portion of the voting population around by the nose. The chattering classes create a demand for socialism (in the form of "job security" in this example), which sounds really nice, kind of like Santa Claus 365 days of the year. In self defense the poor fellows who are responsible business leaders hire their own voluble verbalists to minimize the damage wrought by assaults from people who should know better, and from the politicians who may or may not know better but don't care.

The demand for euphemisms goes up every time someone is thwarted or seriously impeded in realizing a real or perceived need by talk, talk, talk; this gives us a verbal arms race. "Spin" can support reality and morally defensible efforts just as much as it can support fantasy and immorality. We all need to do our best to penetrate the chaff used to fog our understanding of the real, so that spin meisters who are on the side of fantasy or outright evil don't prevail.
Friday December 6th 2013, 5:25 AM
Comment by: Nick Shepherd (London United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
In reply to Craig J, I suppose I am a member of the chattering classes, and - funnily enough - I don't dislike business people; I often admire them, and regard their contribution as essential to a healthy society. But a well-run society is balanced, and Craig J makes the excellent point that the Soviet Union was unbalanced, with far too much weight given to (or rather taken by) central government.

But the reverse is now happening in the West, with far too much weight being given to (or rather taken by!) the big corporations. Just as government excess caused Soviet failure, so corporate excess will cause (has already started to cause) failure in the West.

Craig J is so right when he says that the politicians "may or may not know better but don't care," but he misses the key point: imbalance is the problem, not the choice of ideology.
Monday August 11th 2014, 5:25 PM
Comment by: Kara T. (AZ)
Awesome and informative. Something to which I have not given much thought in the past, but will now enjoy learning.

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