Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Remixing Lexical Rubbish

Have we already seen the Euphemism of the Year? It's possible, euphemism enthusiasts: brace yourselves for a major-league, double-tongued, weapons-grade whopper of a doozy.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer recently used some batpoo-insane language to non-describe the apparently indescribable act of laying people off. Here's the exact term, as discussed in The New York Times: "Ms. Mayer has steadfastly refused to use the word 'layoff' to describe the thousands of jobs eliminated since she joined the company. She even forbade her managers from uttering what she called 'the L-word,' instructing them to use the term 'remix' instead."

Remix! By Odin's beard, this makes terms like rightsizing appear honest and straightforward. Mayer has set a new standard for corporate crapola with this nonsensical term. How in the wide world of hooey is a layoff a remix? Because it allows employees to mix with new people, like the nice folks at the unemployment office? If 2016 coughs up a more demented euphemism, I'll be shocked (and also happy, since I have more columns to write).

If you've been recently remixed, you have my deepest sympathies. But you have no excuse not to read about the following euphemisms, which are 15% malarkey, 45% rubbish, 17% mumbo-jumbo, 23% folderol, and—sadly—100% real.

meat in the room

Trigger warning: this term may offend anyone who believes in vegetarianism or participation. I was rewatching the savage political satire In the Loop recently and spotted a euphemism in the 5% of this filthy movie that is printable. British Cabinet Minister Simon Foster is invited to a Foreign Office meeting, but Foster misunderstands the invitation. He thinks he's been asked to share his thoughts on a possible new Middle East war. Alas, Foster is merely meant to be meat in the room or room meat: a chair-filler. Of course, he screws up by talking more than a roast beef sandwich.

false narrative

Here's a term so subtle and pretentious and boring that it's glided under my euphemism-dar for decades—but it is, in fact, a grade A euphemism, and a popular one at that. Recent news stories refer to false narratives about the demise of Twitter, power couples, Ted Cruz's thoughts on immigration, and the idea that America is doomed. But there's a simpler way to describe a false narrative: it's a lie, maybe even a damned lie. But lie is a dangerous word because it's honest. Lie also does nothing to feed the syllable-humping, vain pretensions of the writer. Folks just feel smarter when they subvert false narratives than when they call bull pucky.

white stuff

This time of year, white stuff brings to mind the flakes and flurries that tend to bury cold locales such as my hometown of Buffalo, NY and the ice planet Hoth. But since at least the early 1900s, the white stuff has referred to several illegal and dangerous drugs, mainly heroin and cocaine. William S. Burroughs used the term appropriately in his novel Junkie: "I had never been able to drink before when I was on the junk, or junk-sick. But eating hop is different from shooting the white stuff." There's a certain poetry in this 2013 use from Ireland's Sunday Independent: "Plenty of media stars are hoovering up so much of the white stuff at the nightspots where they hang out, they should have a Dyson installed up each nostril and be done with it." That example scores bonus points for hoovering, a very non-euphemistic term for snorting that can also refer to filling your piehole.

drink the Kool-Aid

This Jonestown-inspired phrase is a very common way of saying someone has bought into some type of devious groupthink. But it has another use that's closer to its origin and the city limits of Euphemismopolis: to kill yourself. The Oxford English Dictionary records a 1978 example from the Milwaukee Sentinel that shows that Kool-Aid-swilling is bad for more than your autonomy: "You know, basketball is such a part of me... And when it all stops, when it's all over? That's when you drink the Kool Aid."


A recent Mashable article about the new crop of Barbies (tall, curvy, petite, centaur) points out that "…body positive dolls that consumers have been itching for have been available for the better part of the decade." I'll all for body-positivity, but I doubt these dolls are truly corporeal-optimistic, much less capable of instilling such ideas in children: they're just larger. Larger bodies are what toy companies are trying to embrace while never, ever, ever mentioning, which in no way sends a mixed message, thank Zeus. I look forward to the day when Starbucks markets their sizes as tall, grande, body-positive, and body-I-give-up.

bar steward

Bastard is a somewhat old-fashioned word for a child of unmarried parents or a no-good, dirty jerk. It's far from the worst of obscenities, but it's never been exactly polite—thus, euphemisms. I like this British term because it's somehow transparent and opaque at the same time. If you shout at your nemesis something like—"I shall follow you to the gates of hell, you bar steward!"—you're likely to cause more confusion than offense. If your friend is actually a bartender, he might even be flattered. But bar steward contains the entire word bastard, barely masked by a few extra letters and a bonus meaning. That's a slick euphemism, folks.

Finally, have you recently engaged in a bilateral telephonic meeting?

That's the preposterous term I've yoinked from Lucy Kellaway's spectacular roundup of 2015 twaddle. As Kellaway puts it, this term "reveals the sad truth that the conference call is so much the norm that a conversation between two people needs a special term to describe it."

This euphemism is so overblown and unnecessary that it's inspiring. Next time I go on a date, I'm going to consider it a bilateral romantic meeting. Next time I see two people arguing, I'm going to shake my head at the bilateral aggression incident. And if humanity is ever unfortunate enough to be wiped out by a doomsday asteroid, I hope we'll all look on the bright side and consider it a bilateral apocalyptic whoopsie.

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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.