Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Othersourcing All the Right Things

After last month's keen analysis of remixperhaps the most obnoxious euphemism for a layoff ever—fellow contributor Nancy Friedman tweeted me another example from this bottomless genre: "A friend was told that her layoff was 'a continuation of growth that was started in the department a couple of years ago.'"

I've found that any term consisting of three words has a phenomenal chance of being a devious drab of drivel. Imagine how much crapola is contained in a euphemism made of fifteen separate words. This could be a new Guinness record for longest euphemism and deepest pile of horse cookies.

That euphemism isn't just long: it puts a smiley, blame-free face on terrible news in the way only the most brazen euphemism-slingers dare. By framing a layoff as "a continuation of growth that was started in the department a couple of years ago," the job loss almost sounds positive. After all, it's a continuation of growth! That's never bad, except when it comes to cancer, which would be a better metaphor for most business activities. Also, by stating that this growth "was started in the department a couple of years ago," the layoff-er is absolved of blame. Continuous growth is simply a natural process, like soil erosion, and we're all helpless to stop it—especially the people responsible for the actual job erosion.

I may never again see a euphemism so long, but I'll never stop searching for euphs of all shapes, sizes, and body types. Here's a sample of the other truth-dodgers and reality-hiders I've spotted in the last month. As usual, you are encouraged to use them in your corporate memos and insane rants.


There are a lot of good things about beagles. They're damn cute. Snoopy is a beagle. A beagle's nose is as powerful as Superman's. True, they bark a lot, but they're great dogs—or are they even dogs at all? It turns out the sniff-happy nature of this floppy-eared hound has spawned a few dubious euphemistic uses over the years. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a beagle can also be "a spy or informer," which is a depressing thought. I hate to think of Snoopy as a snitch. Another meaning is a little more respectable: "a constable, sheriff's officer, bailiff." That sense is the exact place where sniffing out squirrels and sniffing out justice meet.

saying all the right things

This expression, on the face of it, seems like a good thing. Who wouldn't want to say all the right things? And yet, as Brian Curtis pointed out in Slate , "When a sportswriter records an athlete 'saying all the right things,' he is saluting the athlete for lying to him." This phrase is like a trophy for grade A, prime-cut twaddle. Then again, we all have to say the right things sometimes. On a job interview, it's best to not mention that time a hole in your tinfoil hat led to an intergalactic war, even if that incident was a highlight of your professional career. Saying the right thing is really telling the right lie or omitting the wrong bunch of truths.


While working on a Boston Globe column on terms related to outsourcing and crowdsourcing, I chatted with one of my favorite sources, Kory Stamper, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster. She produced a plethora of terms, but the most euphemistic might be othersourcing, which is "having work that was formerly done by people now done by robots or computers." Unsourcing is also pretty sneaky: that's "moving operations from a paid in-house staff to an unpaid or low-paid online community." I cannot confirm that nethersourcing refers to the relocation of jobs to the deepest pit of hell.

section eight

This is a military euphemism that popped up just after World War II. As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, it refers to "discharge from the Army under section eight of Army Regulations 615–360 on the grounds of insanity or inability to adjust to Army life." This can refer to the regulation itself or someone subject to it: it can also be a verb as seen in a use by Ernest Hemingway from 1950's Across the River and Into the Trees: "You stay in until you are hit badly or killed or go crazy and get section-eighted." Not sure why the armed forced don't use that one in recruitment brochures.

underwear zone

It's difficult to talk about sex with kids, and I feel the pain of sex educators, because this column also exists in a PG-rated zone. But the upside of using family-friendly language is the production of euphemisms, including one mentioned in a Mother Jones article by Becca Andrews. Andrews quotes Matt Boals, a sex-ed instructor for a group called Life Choices, as telling a group of middle schoolers: "We define 'sexual activity' as when the underwear zone of another person comes into contact with any part of your body." I suppose underwear zone has a more positive connotation than no-no place, but it's still a tad goofy. It reminds me of where Superman sends supercriminals: the Phantom Zone.

Finally, are you a person with complexities?

If you are, don't tell me, because then I would be legally obligated to report you to the authorities as a vigilante.

I heard this euphemism in the finale of season two of Daredevil, and I'm lucky I didn't miss it, because I was cuddling my laptop in bed, watching my fifth episode in a row. Thankfully, I retained enough of my facilities to take note when sleazy lawyer Jeri Hogarth was wooing noble lawyer Foggy Nelson to her firm. Hogarth suggests that the insane world they live in will present a lot of legal opportunities, and when Nelson says she's talking about vigilantes, she corrects him with the term people with complexities.

That puts metahuman (used on The Flash) to shame. Or is it just shameless? Either way, that's a doozy of a whopper of a euphemism. People with complexities is a cloaking device worthy of Star Trek, but I suppose it makes a sort of sense. Whether you're the type of vigilante who punches clowns, fights ninjas, sends cosmic loonies to the Phantom Zone, or leaves webbed up crooks for the cops, you've got complexities aplenty.

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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 April 6th 2016, 5:21 AM
Comment by: Adolf V. (Lawrenceville, GA)
Mark, your article was both fun and informative to read. Thanks!
Wednesday April 6th 2016, 10:26 AM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
I hadn't known about the military "section eight," but I do know about Section 8 of the Housing Act of 1937, which provides rent assistance to low-income households. "Section 8" is sometimes code for "shabby" or just "poor."
Wednesday April 6th 2016, 4:39 PM
Comment by: Dan F. (Minneapolis, MN)
I think one of the most over-used euphemisms is "challenge," or "challenged."
True, one can see a bad situation as a problem, or accept it as a challenge. "Challenge" makes it sound positive, even noble.
Is a handicapped person "physically challenged?" I'd let the person choose the classification.
Is a white-collar criminal "ethically challenged," or just a crook?
It may have legitimate uses, but to me, "challenged" is frequently mushy, cynical, and offensive. It's the essence of political correctness.
Sunday April 10th 2016, 3:43 PM
Comment by: Peggy (Cary, NC)
I agree with the comment of Dan F. above. Through a friend on FB, I have recently been learning about the preferences of the "handicapped." That is really all of us,in one way or another. Does a handicapped person want to be called "physically challenged"? Does being so timid in our use of language serve anyone well or just call attention to discomfort with names and labels?
Monday April 11th 2016, 2:37 PM
Comment by: Jerry G. (Fort Myers, FL)
My favorite recent euphemism was uttered by (I think) Loretta Lynch, the US Attorney General, when she referred to young people in trouble with the law as "justice-involved youths." Heck, we used to call them juvenile delinquents.
Jerry Greenfield
Wednesday April 13th 2016, 11:55 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor

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