Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Pivoting Toward Neutral-colored Nesting Enclosures

Have you pivoted lately?

Pivot is the euphemism du jour of this election season. Check out these headlines:

Donald Trump's pivot to the center — of darkness
Chicago Tribune, July 22

Why Trump's 'Pivot' Is Fake And Laughably Late At That
Huffington Post, July 17

Hillary's Pivot Problem
Commentary Magazine, Jul 13

Bernie's Big Pivot: Sanders Will Now Campaign Nationally to Elect Progressives and Reform DNC Superdelegate Process
AlterNet, Jul 12

Clinton, pivoting to the general, sees boost in fundraising
CNN.com, Jun 29

Unless each candidate is secretly pursuing a career as a circus contortionist, one can assume these uses don't refer to a physical twist or turn. So what do they mean?

As best I can tell, a political pivot is a flip-flop that's somehow not flip-floppy: a reversal, backflip, or malarkey infusion that manages to stick the landing somewhere other than in a pile of horse apples. Political pivotology requires great metaphorical agility and a limber set of beliefs—or hordes of gullible voters and packs of lousy journalists, but that's another story.

I'm not sure I've sufficiently pivoted from this introduction, but it is time to discuss the other euphemisms that caught my wandering eye this month. Please use them the next time you scream to the heavens, preach to the choir, or whisper back to the voices in your head.

sweep and clear

This sounds like a downright wholesome pair of terms—or at least a pair clean enough to eat off of, like they say. However, this is a deeply duplicitous term I heard while rewatching Full Metal Jacket, the Stanley Kubrick Vietnam classic. After the devastating first half of the movie, featuring the drill sergeant from hell, the second half takes place in actual hell (the war). Our hero, the Marine nicknamed Joker, ends up with a cushy spot: writing for military newspaper Stars and Stripes. In an editorial meeting, Joker and the rest receive a vocabulary lesson:  sweep and clear should replace the altogether too honest expression search and destroy. I'm sure this was very comforting to everyone who was, ahem, cleared.

naming opportunity

I spied this term in a Vanity Fair article by Michael Kinsley. While naming opportunity could describe a blessed event, such as the birth of a child or adoption of a pet, the actual meaning is not carbon-based. Kinsey describes naming opportunities as "the equivalent of building a pyramid," meaning a preposterous chance for a rich and powerful person to ensure that their ego remains stroked beyond the grave. Specifically, naming opportunities are those times when a super-rich type donates major bucks and gets the chance to stick their name on a building, a wing, or maybe even a whole chicken. A recent Trussville (Alabama) Tribune article used this twaddlesome term, "With the opening of two brand-new elementary schools, Trussville City Schools Foundation is offering naming opportunities at both Magnolia Elementary and Cahaba Elementary Schools. Recently the Trussville City School Board granted management of the fundraising effort to the Foundation." In other words: "How much are you willing to pay to satiate your vanity, you monster?"

neutral-colored enclosure

Last month I mentioned pre-success, a godawful euphemism from the Silicon Valley satire aptly named Silicon Valley. Just as the real Valley is a garden of jargon and euphemism, so is the show. When our sorta heroes—the masterminds behind compression app Pied Piper—are setting up their workspace, they feel the need for some separation and privacy. As everyone sees where this is going and objects, ever-helpful Jared says, "…don't think of it as a cubicle. Think of it as a neutral-colored enclosure about yay-high around your work space." Another amazing euph from this show was used by robotic CEO Laurie Bream: "Jack Barker has been exited." Translation: "I fired Jack Barker." No wonder the passive voice is widely considered to be as trustworthy as a bag of snakes. 


I just have one last question: are you and your spouse nesting?

(Note to editor: I'm relatively sure this does not refer to anything inappropriate and aviary).

I learned about nesting from a friend going through a divorce: at first I thought I hadn't heard him correctly. Nesting sounds like an activity from the beginning of marriage, not the end, at least according to my matrimony-dar.

But this term doesn't lack logic. When a separating or divorcing couple with children nests, they stay in their home: they just don't stay there at the same time. This allows for less schlepping the children around town and seems to work best when the spouses are not, as the kids say these days, "consumed by hatred from the depths of hell."

Still, this is a bit of a euphemism. I would say "shifting" might be a more honest term, since the couple is essentially parenting in shifts. Or maybe this should be called "staying-the-hell-out-of-each-other's way." The nest hardly seems the point: it's about avoiding the other bird and making sure the eggs don't go all Humpty Dumpty.

But I guess that's why my grandpappy used to say, "You can't make an omelet without coining ridiculous terms."

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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 August 3rd 2016, 10:42 AM
Comment by: Pat
Thank God there are still some people like you in this world.
And thank you for your humor!
Wednesday August 3rd 2016, 11:02 AM
Comment by: Sue B.
I actually prefer the term "nesting" to the others you suggest because it does what the activity itself does: it puts the focus on the children instead of the adults who couldn't behave themselves.

Great euphemisms, though. I'll keep my ears open for them--thanks!
Thursday August 4th 2016, 11:02 AM
Comment by: Phil S. (Thornton, CO)
Those are road apples in my part of the country.
Sweep and Clear by the nature of the euphemism would not leave anyone to be uncomfortable.
Thanks for your artful treatment of todays most PC related subject.
Saturday August 6th 2016, 11:31 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
I noticed that all the examples for 'pivot' are from the media. Are they the originators or is this term actually used by the likes of Clinton and Trump or by their PR people?
Sunday August 21st 2016, 3:27 PM
Comment by: Purette M.
Thank you for these clarifications....very helpful, useful, and keeps me 'in the know'!
Sunday August 21st 2016, 3:28 PM
Comment by: Purette M.
Thank you for these clarifications....very helpful, useful, and keeps me 'in the know'!

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