Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Predictive Human Balderdash and Other Managed Malarkey

Some euphemisms are so preposterous they are almost begging me to make fun of them. It’s hard to believe the term sea kitten (fish in Peta-ese) was created without the knowledge it would become more embarrassing than Aquaman.

Other euphs are far more subtle, and therefore more evil. Like this word choice:

Some people – including many in Ukraine who suffer from the war, or who have had to flee their homes – are frustrated by the ICRC’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or to even call it a war (the ICRC prefers the term conflict).

Jeez Louise on a trapeze. While war isn’t a comprehensive term for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—it could use an adjective such as unnecessary, illegal, horrific, or evil—it does at least describe what’s happening there. Conflict is softer than a pillow you’d let infants play with, and it inherently implies two sides. Logistically, there are two sides to the Russia-Ukraine war, but there sure aren’t ethically, morally, or any other way that requires a conscience.

I hope you can read this column with a clear conscience because guilt can be distracting. Please put aside your own errors, omissions, sins, and crimes to gape at other people’s lexical lunacy.

predictive human behavior
Here’s one of those euphs that is so egregious it broke my egregiometer. Brace yourself for bullpucky:

Ann [Mukherjee, Chairman and CEO of Pernod Ricard North America] shares that while reckless alcohol consumption led to the loss of her mother’s life, her work in evolving the image of brands like ‘Absolut’ can create a culture of responsibility around alcohol consumption. Ann later shares that she prefers the term “predictive human behavior” rather than marketing when it comes to the business.


Marketing, the lifeblood of the twaddle ecosystem, is plenty annoying enough with an accurate label. Only a true supervillain (sorry, Ann, I’m sure you’re only a regular villain) would abandon this clear term for a three-course word salad stuffed with cretinous croutons and lame lettuce. Predictive human behavior sounds like it involves controlling every aspect of human behavior like a garage door. I think I need a drink, so maybe it’s working.

business leader
Jack Welch, who I think invented not paying for grapes, once made the kind of lexical suggestion only a big-brained business bozo could produce, as discussed in Forbes:

“…it is insightful to consider something that the late Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric, said in 1989 in a Harvard Business Review interview. When asked about what makes a good manager, he replied ‘I prefer the term ‘business leader.’ Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.’”

I sure hope Dwight Schrute never hears about this. He might have to declare himself the assistant regional business leader, which is a lot of horse apples, even for Dwight’s cart.

In the days of bygone yore known as the 90s, George Costanza did so much to promote the idea of opposites. Lexical flip-flopping is a proven euphemistic starter kit, as seen in an article about grades:

There’s a new trend going around schools and higher education classrooms across the nation right now. This idea, some call it “going gradeless” while others prefer the term “ungrading,” is changing the way educators, students and parents think about assessment by removing grades from student work. Yes, you read that right, removing grades. Instead, students get detailed feedback that encourages reflection and revision until they achieve mastery.

I’ve graded plenty of student papers in my day, but I’ve never ungraded one. Synonym silliness aside, I would like to try it, though. I’ve always preferred giving advice to passing judgment on student writing, and if that’s ungrading, it wouldn’t make me unhappy.

Finally, are you engaging in managed retreat?

An excellent article by Helen Bromhead for Slate explains:

Pacifica, California, is a beautiful coastal town located 12 miles south of San Francisco. But the exquisite Pacific Ocean is now turning on it. As sea levels rise due to global warming, the occasional backyard falls into the water. In 2018, the town proposed a response: the relocation of houses, businesses, and public assets away from areas under threat. There was resistance. Naturally, people don’t want to leave their local communities and homes, which some residents originally paid a lot for. But the language may have made it worse. The proposal used the term “managed retreat”—the most widely used name in English for this practice and one that brings to mind “defeat.” One local stated: “‘Managed retreat’ is a code word for give up—on our homes and the town itself.”

Well, heck. That term is kind of a doozy, which could make the plainspoken woozy. But I get it. Managed retreat sounds a lot better than running like hell before the doomed planet drowns us.

This creative term even gives me a new way to look at the origin of a great America immigrant, Superman. Firing your baby into space as your planet explodes because no one listened to scientists is the original managed retreat, I reckon, and recommended by nine out of ten galactic pediatricians.

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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.