Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Reinventing Floating Transport for Special Guests

Have you ever been a special guest?

I hope not, at least not in the sense used in a Penn Live article, which includes this memorable sentence: "While the FBI would describe Nigel Farage as a 'person of interest,' Congressman Barletta clearly prefers the term 'special guest.'"

This is nearly a euphemism squared, since person of interest is itself a euphemism for (much of the time) suspect. One of the infinite recent police/CSI/procedural/whatever shows was called Person of Interest. I heard it was pretty good. Maybe this fall will bring the arrival of Special Guest on CBS, brought to you by our sponsors, Malarkey Meatballs and Twaddle Inc.

Anyhoo, I like to think all guests are special, but I can't say the same for all words. Please name, blame, and shame the following lexical varmints, which even my rat terrier can't seem to exterminate.

hard worker
Are you a hard worker? Most of us would like to raise our hand to say yes, though that sounds like a lot of work to me. But if the alternative is to be known as an opportunist—a word with a decidedly craven connotation—then I'll renew my lease on hard worker immediately. That was the same thought process of a South Carolina politician, as discussed in a Post and Courier article: "Republican Katie Arrington won't call herself an opportunist — she prefers the term 'hard worker' — but in the case of South Carolina's 1st Congressional District, she saw an opening and took it." Hey, taking advantage of opportunities is hard work, and so is self-branding, so Arrington has a point. Plus, the Opportunist sounds like a Batman villain.

If there's one word obsessive fans of long-term franchises dread, it's reboot. A reboot means a fresh start for a franchise, and the jettisoning of previous storylines, actors, episodes, and universes. Some fans also tend to feel jettisoned, especially the type with nothing better to do. They kvetch that all those movies, TV shows, comic books, or telepathic messages from space they've devoted their lives to absorbing and discussing no longer "count" in the new continuity. Given widespread reboot-phobia, rebooters avoid the word like a geeky plague or a geek with the flu, whichever is in sneezing range. So, regarding a reboot of horror classic Halloween, producer Jason Blum recently said, "The way to get people interested is to not reboot. The term makes my hair stand up on the back of my neck. What we're doing with Halloween is, I guess I'll use the term 'reinvention.' Reboot just sounds so corporate." True. But if you think reinvention doesn't sound like it smells to high heaven, you'd better consult an ear and nose specialist.

floating transport
Now here's an evocative term, suggesting a zeppelin of old or perhaps a newfangled city in the sky that might finally make up for all those jetpacks we were promised. But as discussed in a Wired UK article about dockless bikes in London, this term is a little less exciting and inflatable. On the issue of dockless bikes, Omid Ashtari (president and head of business at Citymapper) pooh-poohs the descriptive word dockless in favor of the buoyant term floating transport. Ashtari also made a comparison to a flying carpet, which would be even better than that jetpack. Flexible infrastructure indeed.

restrictive housing
All housing is a little restrictive in the sense that it restricts you from being destroyed by the elements. But some restrictions are more severe—and tortuous. As discussed in a Westword article, "Officially, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons doesn't hold prisoners in solitary confinement; the agency prefers the term 'restrictive housing.'" Well, who wouldn't, other than folks who aren't the solitary-confining type? As usual, a euphemism is the canary in the coal mine. Unfortunately, the prisoners in restrictive housing might be even worse off than that proverbial bird.

Finally, do you say what you mean? Or do you mean what you say…prospectively?

Thanks to Christopher Cerf—co-author of the wonderful book Spinglish: The Definitive Dictionary of Deliberately Deceptive Language—for noting this euphemism and throwing up the Bat-Signal on Twitter. Cerf commented on two tweets by Wall Street Journal chief economics correspondent Nick Timiraos, who wrote the following:

[Larry] Kudlow to FBN: "The deficit...is coming down. And it’s coming down rapidly." This isn't accurate. On a 12-month basis, the deficit as a share of GDP rose to 3.8% in May from 3.2% one year earlier.

Reached by phone, Kudlow told me his comment was meant prospectively. It reflects his view not that deficits have come down sharply, but that they will be coming down as growth rises "faster than virtually any forecasters think."

This prompted Cerf’s comment:

"I meant it prospectively" is the best new #Spinglish terms [sic] for "I lied" that I've seen in a while. In other words: "What I said happened didn't, but chances are it will some day...."

Since I'm not made of stone, I'm not only quoting this term but stealing it for my future pronouncements and prophecies.

Much like Kudlow, I wasn't lying when I said I was Batman. I just meant, prospectively, I might be Batman at some point, ideally without the murdered parents.

In fact, prospectively, I'm already a billionaire with a butler and an on-again-off-again romance with Catwoman.

And if it's the last thing I do, I'll keep Gotham safe, prospectively speaking, from the Opportunist and the Special Guest.

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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.