Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Re-accommodating the Latest Euphemistic Twaddle

By now, everyone and their monkey and their monkey's uncle has heard about the awful incident in which a man was viciously dragged off an overbooked United flight. You've likely also heard about the subsequent euphemism United CEO Oscar Munoz used in the immediate aftermath: "This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers."

To say this word choice did not go over well would be an understatement so understated it's looking up at the mole men. A day later, Munoz did a bit better, describing this atrocity as a "truly horrific event." He used accurate descriptions such as "the customer was forcibly removed" and offered his "deepest apologies for what happened." It's funny how a plummeting stock price and imploding public image can make even a soulless CEO begin speaking clear language, using words that have a grain of truth. If Munoz had gone the honest, contrite route from the start, he might have minimized the damage.

Flying the flummery-soaked skies aside, I've noticed a bit of a twaddle trend. I don't wish to alarm you, but the re- suffix is starting to make my euphemism decoder ring shake and shimmy like a doomsday clock. Last month, I discussed the dubious terms reclaimed (unpaved, as in a street that the government can't afford to maintain) and renatured (referring to a park that also can't be maintained and is now just urban wildlands). Is there something inherently suspicious about re- in the lexical water? Be sure to light the euphemism signal if you see any examples to support this important theory.

Deep down, we're all clueless airline executives. When we're ashamed or just want to dodge blame, we use or concoct terms that create a bubble of balderdash around the truth. Here are some of the latest and lamest.

compliment card
This would appear to be a pleasant synonym for business card—and it kind of is. But it has a more sinister sense. As discussed in a Chicago Reader article: "Long before Chicago gangs took to social media to stoke violent feuds, the street crews of the 1970s and '80s…gilded their reputations and recruited new members in the customary manner of the professional class: by handing out business cards, known more commonly as 'compliment cards,' that displayed cryptic symbols of pride, lists of members' nicknames, clues about controlled turf, and no shortage of emblems of disrespect to enemies." I would usually make fun of such a weird term, but I'm holding my tongue. I watched Sons of Anarchy, and I would hate to meet Mr. Mayhem (get killed).

endless summer
Global warming, to some, sounds like some kind of gosh-darn planet-wide catastrophe. That's where the soft term climate change came in, putting a soft, feathery pillow over the evolution of a bountiful planet into a living hell. But comic James Corden came up with an even gentler term, all in the interests of humor: endless summer. That makes sulfurous torment and devastation sound divine. I expect actual politicians to adopt this term yesterday.

incentivized witness
Once again, valiant VT contributor Nancy Friedman tipped me off to a tremendous euphemism: in this case, one that has to do with what is unkindly but commonly referred to as snitching. An incentivized witness is better known as a jailhouse snitch. Often, such talkative citizens are called stool pigeons and dirty rats, so incentivized witness is a step up, branding-wise. The incentive is presumably a shorter sentence or some other favor—perhaps a sweet deal at Kinko's for your next compliment cards.

championship opportunity
Professional wrestling is a strange world. One of the strangest elements is that the largest wrestling company in the world (WWE) doesn't even use the term professional wrestling: they've been using the euphemism sports entertainment for decades. That's just the tip of the steroid-pumped jargon-berg. WWE head Vince McMahon, like so many other CEOs, likes to bury the world in BS, forbidding announcers and wrestlers from using the term title shot, presumably because it's clear and understandable. Instead, his employees must discuss championship opportunities. Hey, if you owned a wrestling promotion, you'd probably get weird too.

Finally, have you ever given or received a political bonding agent?

In one of his many perceptive and funny articles, Matt Taibbi spotted this torturous term. Taibbi quoted Brookings Institute Fellow Jonathan Rauch with the following whopper: "Overreacting to the threat of corruption… is just as harmful. Political contributions, for example, look unseemly, but they play a vital role as political bonding agents."

Mama mia!

You don't have to be an extremist on any side of the political spectrum to acknowledge that political contributions are a legal form of bribery that causes all sorts of damage. You do have to be a weasel of the highest (lowest?) order to rebrand those bribes as some kind of democratic glue. Politics is, in theory, about the people's choice—not Elmer's.

Still, this crapola could create many lexical possibilities if I'm correct about the re- prefix becoming a prolific agent of rubbish. In the future, a series of political contributions may be referred to as a process of political re-bonding. Re-gag me with a spoon.


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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:

Sunday May 7th, 1:22 PM
Comment by: Steve C. (Glenmont, NY)
Thanks for clearing up the re-wording of political and civil discourse disguiesed as non-clever word subterfuge.
It will take alot to exceed the re-accomodate with a truly horrible tragedy.

Trump uses lies and populist errors to re-accomodate his base. However we can be sure that he means what he says-almost anyway.

Thanks for re-imaginating word BS.
Sunday May 7th, 11:25 PM
Comment by: Yvonne P.
Did you mention "alternate facts?"
Monday May 8th, 9:19 AM
Comment by: Steve C. (Glenmont, NY)
oops I forgot so re-minding me is great.
Monday May 8th, 1:16 PM
Comment by: Dan F. (Minneapolis, MN)
As you say, Munoz did better with "the customer was forcibly removed" and "deepest apologies for what happened." But he's still hiding behind the passive voice, as in "Mistakes were made," my all-time favorite blame vaporizer.
Friday May 12th, 10:25 AM
Comment by: JoAnn Z.
UAL stock did not "plummet". It was down 3% for a few hours, on an overall down day in the S&P. Since April 11 UAL stock is up 10% / 15 trading days. ....would have made a great short term trade.
Friday May 12th, 11:32 AM
Comment by: Jan S. (Brookline, MA)
Are you sure an "incentivized witness" isn't one who's been tortured to a point where he'll say anything? We have some pretty zealous prosecutors (aided by political bonding agents).
Monday May 22nd, 2:00 PM
Comment by: Jerry G. (Fort Myers, FL)
The list, of course, is endless, especially in this era of "alternate facts." But one of my favorites was when someone from the Department of Justice described "justice-involved youths." We used to call them juvenile delinquents.
Sunday June 11th, 11:44 AM
Comment by: Gwynn P.
In the third paragraph you say "...re-suffix..." Don't you mean re-prefix?

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