Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Special, Authentic Distractions

In The Atlantic, Peter Beinhart called out a euphemism that was somehow common and under-the-radar at the same time: "Newspaper editors, lend me your ears: Please, never allow the phrase 'muscular foreign policy' to blight your pages again."

As Beinhart correctly points out, this silly euphemism has a pretty straightforward meaning: warlike. But warlike sounds so... warlike. Politicians and journalists would rather dodge the w-word while encouraging or celebrating its grim reality.

Muscular is a useful, if bizarre, metaphor/euphemism/ball of tripe. While muscles are a sign of health, they also suggest angry green monsters who speak like toddlers. (Uncle Sam smash?) Since athlete muscles are no longer trusted in the era of performance-enhancing drugs, I'm a little surprised muscular foreign policy hasn't died out on its own. Does anyone really want a foreign policy that could plausibly pose on the cover of Muscle and Fitness, like some drugged-up, over-veined goon? Please don't answer that.

Euphemisms are, like so many people, flabby rather than muscular. But maybe that's a good thing. At least these soft, out-of-shape words won't ruin the body image of any young, impressionable terms.

authentic life choices

I'm not sure if this is really a euphemism. It might just be annoying. But there is something evasive, sneaky, fishy, and suspect about it, so I'm blowing my euphemism whistle (not a euphemism) and calling out this term as a lexical load of lunchmeat—specifically baloney. This hideous term appears to part of the self-help world that is so hopelessly narcissistic and pretentious. Case in point: life coaches love this term. In fact, this life coach uses the term as his web address. Hoo boy, once you start digging into a website like this, the horse apples pile up quickly. I suppose self-discovery isn't the worst term in English, but self leadership? Good gravy. That's almost as bad as collaborative thought leadership, a bit of corporate jargon I still suspect comes from the forked tongues of alien lizard people.

lifelong learner

As best I can tell, this awful acorn of alliteration has a simple meaning: old student. The word old is avoided for obvious reasons: no one wants to admit they're closer to the grave than the placenta. The word student is dodged because... it makes you sound too young? I don't know. In my scientific opinion, this term is dumb. Give it a dunce cap. Do we still make those?

special housing unit

There is a prison term for solitary confinement, an incredibly overused and devastating practice in our massively screwed-up prison system. The word special is a huge red flag for euphemisms, since it can mean anything on God's green earth or beyond, especially things you'd like to conceal or pretty up with vague, antiseptic verbiage, like special renditions, special relationships, and the Special Olympics. I don't know who coined special housing unit, but they probably have a special place in hell.

creative accounting

Speaking of words that are as suspicious as a fake mustache, creative is up there with special. In a better world, creative accounting would refer to a poem written in an Excel spreadsheet or perhaps a watercolor painting of a tax auditor. But in the only world we have, creative accounting refers to practices ranging from sneaky but smart to almost criminal. The helpful site Investopedia defines it like so: "Accounting practices that follow required laws and regulations, but deviate from what those standards intend to accomplish. Creative accounting capitalizes on loopholes in the accounting standards to falsely portray a better image of the company. Although creative accounting practices are legal, the loopholes they exploit are often reformed to prevent such behaviors." In an honest world, creative accountants should be called financial loophole bandits.

Chelsea smile

If you've ever seen The Dark Knight, you've seen an example of this term. To recreate the Joker for a more realistic Batman world, Christopher Nolan gave the villainous clown a Chelsea smile: his mouth had been cut on both sides, and the upward scars gave the creepy appearance of a permanent grin. According to Green's Dictionary of Slang—which I value almost as much as my Batman comics and the Ark of the Covenant—the term has been around since at least 1999 and originated with the Chelsea Football Club. Apparently, soccer fans make the Joker seem like Pee-wee Herman.

Finally, are you suffering from any distractions?

As Joel S. Berson pointed out on the American Dialect Society mailing list, this sketchy word is popular in resignations, making serious offences appear trivial. In Berson's words, such offenses are portrayed as "Not disqualifying from office, not having the potential for conflict of interest or for malfeasance, not hindering or handicapping the performance of official duties -- merely 'distracting'. Paul L. Barrett pulled out this tried-and-true term when resigning from a review panel of the MBTA: "I regret that my personal financial issues have become a distraction and have voluntarily offered my resignation to the governor." Those issues apparently include—whoops—$200,000 in unpaid taxes.

This term falls solidly in the Denial of Responsibility wing of the Euphemism Museum, taking crimes and indiscretions and reducing them to the level of a pesky fly. In fact, this term not so subtly manages to blame everyone else. It's as if the user of this word were saying, "It's not that I cheated/connived/stole/lied, etc. It's that all of you are so gosh durn distractible! Honestly, you must have ADHD. If only you could focus on what's important, I wouldn't have to resign from my position like a hero. Maybe lay off the coffee, guys!"

Well, I hope you enjoyed this column. If not, it couldn't possibly be my fault, so I'm sorry you experienced a non-special reading experience. Next time, try to make a more authentic life choice.

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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:

Friday April 3rd 2015, 7:25 AM
Comment by: Phil H. (Thessaloniki Greece)
I’m with you on all of them except ‘lifelong learners’. They’re not necessarily ‘old students’: they tend to be self-directed learners, I believe. Wikipedia, for example, says that lifelong learning “is the ‘ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated’[1] pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons.” I’m a little uneasy, though, telling you that, according to the same source, “The concept of Lifelong Learning was introduced in Denmark as early as 1971 (see Bologna Process).”
Friday April 3rd 2015, 9:30 AM
Comment by: Ted G. (Fairfax, VA)
I do know that the local radio stations broadcast an alert when classes let out at the Lifelong Learning Center at nearby Geo Mason Univ.
Friday April 3rd 2015, 9:50 AM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
"Creative accounting" has its origins not in business-business but in show business. It's often credited to Mel Brooks, who used it in his screenplay for The Producers (1968):

Max Bialystock: You were saying that under the right circumstances, a producer could make more money with a flop than he could with a hit.
Leo Bloom: Yes, it's quite possible.
Max Bialystock: You keep saying that, but you don't tell me how. How could a producer make more money with a flop than with a hit?
Leo Bloom: It's simply a matter of creative accounting. Let us assume, just for the moment, that you are a dishonest man.
Max Bialystock: Assume away!
Saturday April 4th 2015, 3:37 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
"Life long learner", "Special Housing unit", Suffering from "distractions"---these three euphemisms made me laugh and I noted the analogies presented here very humorously. Especially suffering with 'ADHD' if I pay attention to other peoples unpaid bills--that's real fun. And to talk about special housing unit--also has a true special meaning.
As we know, students sometimes compelled to attend some special courses designed to complete ones graduation program. Those special courses in many cases are "anything on God's green earth or beyond", especially courses that conceal or express vague, verbiage meaning. Like special performance or special relationships, attending those courses will just guaranty a graduation certificate making it an absolute achievement.
No one will ever ask that question -- "what are those courses"?
Thanks for touching these topics.

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