Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Metahuman Anomaly Activity and Other Character Concerns

When potential tourist-carrying SpaceShipTwo crashed, resulting in one death, you just knew there would be some euphemisms to explain the disaster. The euph of choice was anomaly.

Virgin Galactic representatives have referred to both a "serious anomaly" and an "in-flight anomaly." I guess both sound better than, "Good Lord, our spaceship blew up and we have no idea why."

Though Virgin Galactic has some bugs to work out in the space-travel department, they have proven to be euphemistic pros, reminding us of the versatility of anomaly. This term also got a workout in recent sci-fi epic Interstellar, when it described some weird gravitational activity that was either a ghost or a sign of the power of love to reach through even the most preposterous sci-fi technobabble. Recent news stories refer to anomalies that involve NBA players, fetuses, the stock market, and Tunisia. Paradoxically, anomalies are common.

After doing this column for over six years, I can say this with confidence: no euphemism is an anomaly. Euphemisms are a standard, time-tested, dictionary-approved feature of English. In that spirit, here are the latest ones to catch my eye or that of my euphemism-detecting drone army.

metahuman

On The Flash—an outstanding TV show by the way, which captures the fun of comic books as well as anything ever—there's a little term for people who do neat tricks like control the weather or run a jillion miles an hour: metahuman. That's not a terrible term, but it does feel like a sorta clumsy way to avoid saying superhuman, because I guess the word super is embarrassing or something. This reminds me of how the folks on The Walking Dead always refer to walkers and biters and rotters, but never zombies. What's next, I can't call my kid a hellspawn?

inequity aversion

This term could only be a product of the gibberish-loving land of academia. It was coined by economists Ernst Fehr and Klaus Schmidt for people who have a tendency to want to spread the wealth around. This is in contrast to the attitude preferred by Scrooge McDuck, who, like many oligarch waterfowl, believes the perfect amount of money to swim in is all of it. If you have an aversion to inequity, I'd say the real quality you have is fairness. I guess you could also call it communism, if we were still living in the Cold War and therefore concerned about pinkos. Sadly, neither of those terms is likely to help anyone get tenure, so inequity aversion exists. But maybe Fehr and Schmidt were onto something. I suppose Robin Hood was the world's first inequality-aversion bandit.

operator

While riding my private jet—er, a public bus—I recently saw a sign that seemed a tad silly. "Now Hiring! Part-time Bus Operator." Operator? Is driver somehow a demeaning term that should be avoided? Oh well. At least the ad didn't seek a bus technician or public transportation associate.

character concerns

On sports and pop culture site Grantland, Brian Curtis recently wrote a piece all word-lovers should enjoy: "Grantland Dictionary: Sportscasting Edition." Several of these clichés were euphemisms, including all-access ("A type of sports documentary, like Hard Knocks or 24/7, notable because it is one of the few vehicles in which athletes offer the press any access") and in-depth ("A warning that a TV segment will last more than 30 seconds.") But the most extreme euphemism defined by Curtis was character concerns, a common and innocent-seeming term. As Curtis puts it, character concerns include and conceal a wide range of behavior: "Murder charges, assault, drug possession, bad grades, bad attitudes, and unexcused absences from practice." If sportscasters did all the news, there would be no criminals, mobsters, corrupt politicians, or terrorists: only people with character concerns.

tornadic activity

One of the most time-tested and patience-eroding types of euphemization/jargonification involves slapping an unnecessary word onto a term that was doing just fine by itself, thank you. When a weekend becomes a weekend experience, language is full of more air than a bouncy house but far less fun. Thanks to a tweet by Tom Chivers, I learned an extremely unnecessary term for a tornado used by a spokesblatherer for Met Office: "The set-up was conducive to tornadic activity and we have had some reliable reports." Tornadic activity! Is that supposed to make anyone feel better about the situation?

Actually, hold on: my blood pressure is lower. Hmm.

Let's conduct an experiment, dear readers. Take your blood pressure or cholesterol or Myers-Briggs or whatever you measure to see how close you are to death. Then take it again after saying each of the following three times in a hushed voice, preferably while not in public, but hey, I'm not your mother:

  • Tornado
  • Tornadic activity
  • Tornadic issues
  • Tornadic activity anomalies
  • Significant tornadic whoopsies
  • Holy crap, a tornado!
  • Profound tornadic hellstorm experience with a chance of sharknado
  • Tornadogeddon

Send all results and research grants to me. New England Journal of Medicine and Euphemisms, here I come.


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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 3rd 2014, 6:03 PM
Comment by: Richard F. (San Diego, CA)
After reading your fun article, I just took an EKG test, while repeating your list of words. I think I've just had an anomalous cardio-related near stoppage event experience. But after saying that last sentence, I feel much better. Or at least think I do.

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