Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Rights for Robots and Other Alternative, Orderly, Restrictive Rubbish

Though I made a case for alt-right in this very space as 2016's Euphemism of the Year, the American Dialect Society (in early January) went in another direction, those rascals! They selected locker-room talk, which is a pretty solid euphemism, though I'm not sure it made the top ten twaddlesome terms of 2016, a year that shall live in hell.

This year is young, but there's already a candidate I suspect everyone and their uncle is going to support or at least suggest for 2017's euphemism of the year: alternative facts.

This term emerged from the Washington swamp, like Martin Sheen's head in Apocalypse Now, just two days after Donald Trump's inauguration. After White House press secretary Sean Spicer blatantly lied about the size of Trump's inauguration crowds, Chuck Todd grilled Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway about it on Meet the Press. That's when Conway called the lies alternative facts. Ay caramba. Todd deserves credit for immediately exposing this loopy lexical item: "Alternative facts aren't facts; they are falsehoods."

The term spread through the internet, inspiring many a hashtag, joke, and Orwellian reference. One thing is sure: it's going to be tough to find a more blatant euphemism for the rest of the year and eon. As Christopher Cerf, co-author of Spinglish: The Definitive Dictionary of Deliberately Deceitful Language with Henry Beard, put it on Twitter: "Thank you, #kellyanneconway, for 'alternative facts' — the best #Spinglish of 2017 so far. (It would be high on the list for ANY year!)." As the kids say, totes.

Here's a fact that has no alternate, substitute, or understudy: there's a lotta euphemisms out there, thanks to the world's press secretaries, PR experts, BS artists, and malarkey merchants. Please rest your weary head on these fluffy words.

overnight date
The other day a friend was telling a tale, and in the middle of the tale, she casually mentioned an overnight date. My unerring romance sense was activated, and I observed, "You kind of buried the lede," a practice denounced by journalists and gossips. She soon confirmed an overnight date is, to put it old-fashionedly, an episode of whoopee-making. Turns out my friend isn't the only user of this term: it gets Google hits aplenty. It's non-surprising that Match.com uses the term in the article, "Ready For A Sleepover Date?" but even the AARP gets in on the action, so to speak, with "5 Tips for Your First Overnight Date."

church key
In the ever-creative world of slang, words get coined and repurposed with mischievous glee: this term's creation likely involved some blasphemous glee too. A church key, in the slang lexicon, is an opener for a bottle or can which probably does not contain holy water. The term has been around since at least the early 1950s, but the Oxford English Dictionary collects an amusing use from Harold Hayes' 1969 book Smiling Through Apocalypse: "One soldier who didn't have a 'church key' to open a can of orange soda at the Coke stand had tried unintelligently with a 50-caliber bullet instead." That is not recommended by doctors.

restrictive housing
More and more people are becoming aware of the massive psychological damage solitary confinement does to prisoners. Who knows if this barbaric practice will ever be abolished, but in the meantime, it will occasionally be cloaked in jargon such as this whopper. A recent AP articles notes, "Virginia is participating in an effort aimed at reducing the use of segregation and restrictive housing in its prisons." That's great, but if the vague verbiage were taken down a notch, more readers might know what the heck this article is actually about. Another synonym is disciplinary segregation, though apparently that's not always solitary, despite its mumbo-jumbo mouthfeel.

orderly ramp-down
Lucy Kellaway is a kindred spirit of myself and all drivel collectors; I always look forward to her yearly roundup of "corporate guff." She recently presented an assortment of gag-worthy gems from 2016, including Infosys' heinous, horrendous, hilarious way to avoid saying people were fired: "orderly ramp-down of about 3,000 persons." Getting fired stinks, but losing your job and hearing it labeled an "orderly ramp-down" is enough to drive a UPS worker postal.

Finally, do you believe in civil rights for electronic persons?

A recent National Review story featured the eye-catching headline "European Parliament Committee Wants Robot Rights."

Man, the world has gone crazy. What's next? Privileges for droids? Citizenship for replicants? Nuclear code access for Cylons?!? Seems reasonable.

A report to the European Parliament Committee on Legal Affairs contained these intriguing words: "The most sophisticated autonomous robots could be established as having the status of electronic persons with specific rights and obligations, including that of making good any damage they may cause."

This may not be as weird as it sounds, since the idea of personhood is ever-evolving. The eviler among us used to, and still do, consider members of other races non-persons. Women aren't people in the eyes of some religions and jerks. The personhood of a fetus is, to put it mildly, sticky. Some groups seek personhood for animals, particularly our closest relatives, the other apes.

The goal of ape personhood isn't so Koko the gorilla can take American jobs or run for Congress, though she would do a better job than most. Personhood for apes isn't about treating them like humans, but not treating them like garbage. It's a shield against abuse. So if artificial intelligences get, like, really smart, maybe they will deserve similar protection.

Who knows? Maybe someday we'll see a massive robo-march on Washington, with slogans like "Robots are people too" and "01010101000101001111010101!" And I for one would welcome our new electronic fellow citizens.

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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.