Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Substantial Informal Activities Due to Malarkey

Lying is one of those embarrassing things—like being in the pudding club or pushing up daisies—that demands euphemisms. No one wants to say "I lied" or "I fibbed" or "I wrote fan fiction." So when called on the carpet for a lie, people reach into the lexical abyss for euphemisms.

As reported in a BBC News article, Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps said a real whopper—and then made things worse with a whopping euphemism. Apparently, Shapps "…said he 'screwed up' in a recent interview when he suggested he never had a second job while an MP." That claim turned out to be major malarkey, so Shapps had to admit "he had ‘over firmly’ denied continuing his work as a web marketing expert under the name Michael Green, after being elected in 2005." Oopsie-whoopsie.

So, in essence, to over firmly deny is to under firmly be truthful. What a gift from the euphemism gods.

This term displays a clever approach to responsibility evasion by using the trustworthy word firm. Shapps essentially says, "I didn’t lie my gazoomba off! I was just too firm in my denials, probably because I’m a stalwart pillar of the community and not some squishy softie blowing in the wind."

I won’t deny—firmly or otherwise—that I’ve found a damn fine bunch of euphemisms in the past month. I’ve been doing this column for six years, and I could probably keep doing it for 600 years. People produce euphemisms as regularly as cats inspire cat videos.

provide substantial additionality

On Twitter, Stan Carey noted this horrendous term, which I almost couldn’t believe was real. I should have known better. Here it is used in a 1993 World Bank document: "These measures are expected to provide substantial additionality of funds for the power sector and help in minimizing the demand/supply gap." In English, I reckon that means a serious cash infusion, but I guess you could provide other types of substantial additionality—as long as you have a firm commitment to wordy gibberish. However, every time you use this awful expression, an angel gets bludgeoned with a thesaurus.

opportunity youth

Thanks to VT contributor Nancy Friedman for alerting me to this weird and wooly and ultra-corporate euphemism. Coffee overlords Starbucks used and defined the term in a press release that mentioned "…young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither in school nor employed. These young men and women are often referred to as 'opportunity youth' because with the right skills and training, they represent a huge, untapped opportunity for an infusion of productivity and creativity in the workforce. Across the U.S. the opportunity youth population is approaching 7 million." Like many euphemisms, this one comes from a good place: trying to help kids who are struggling. But come on. These kids may deserve opportunities, but to call them opportunity youths is bizarre, sneaky, and tone-deaf. There are plenty of unemployed adults: should they be called opportunity geezers?

engineer’s confetti

I found this term in a terrific book I stumbled upon in a used bookstore: Hash House Lingo by Jack Smiley. Originally published in 1941, this book collects the jargon of American diners from the 30s and 40s, and it is a glorious glossary that I’m pretty sure will get its own column shortly. In the meantime, this term for toilet paper should tide you over. I demand this replace the soft, lame euphemism bathroom tissue immediately.

scatter artifact due to patient’s body habitus

I heard this euphemism from a little birdie: a little birdie who is a lawyer. Apparently, it has to do with problems during an MRI. Though I watched all of Daredevil (about blind lawyer/vigilante Matt Murdock) in one weekend, my law knowledge is still a bit spotty, but from what I can gather from my friend, scatter artifact due to patient’s body habitus means something along the lines of "the image is screwed up because the patient is fat." A similar bit of convoluted language was used when an X-ray was "compromised due to overlying soft tissue." Though we live in the obesest country in the nine realms, Odin forbid we admit it anyone is fat.


No, that’s not a typo, since this is from an Australian source . It turns out an employee of the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) had a crazy idea: he referred to customer complaints as complaints. That’s as wacky as calling a poodle a dog or a vampire undead! A supervisor demanded that the complaints be called enquiries, because reasons—Orwellian reasons. Once again, euphemism-spotter George Carlin is rolling over in his Buffalo garage (a place he once announced all souls go).

Finally, have you done anything informal lately?

I hope not, because that can be a euphemism for illegal. Really.

In a New Yorker article on mining, David Finnegan identified my favorite euphemism of the month (along with a strong runner-up): "Many mining towns are company towns. La Rinconada is the opposite. Nearly all the mines and miners here are ‘informal,’ a term that critics consider a euphemism for illegal. Ilasaca prefers 'artisanal.' The mines, whatever you call them, are small, numerous, unregulated, and, as a rule, grossly unsafe."

Now that’s a euphemism, folks. Think how useful it could be if broadly used.

Organized crime could be informal crime. Crimelords could be informal supervisors. A crime spree could be a string of informalities. A career criminal could be a lifelong informality enthusiast.

I suppose someone who’s a true kingpin of crime could be an informal, artisanal personpin: which sounds like a bowling enthusiast who wears jorts while baking overpriced muffins. And if that’s not a crime, what is?

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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:

Wednesday May 6th 2015, 2:03 AM
Comment by: Sue B.
I DO write fan fiction. Those inclined to snicker about that, would do well first to consider how many great works of literature (and other art, come to that) are what is euphemistically called "homages" (or "based on", or "inspired by") before they find themselves unexpectedly on a different side of that line than they thought.
Wednesday May 6th 2015, 9:15 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I know a guy who has been giving high-$ writing workshops to World Bank execs for many years. Someone did not come out ahead in this!
Friday May 8th 2015, 6:03 PM
Comment by: Joann Z. (Rockford, IL)
illegal aliens can be informal migrants.
Wednesday May 20th 2015, 3:39 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
Am the only one to notice some oddly absent verbs?

"...16 and 24 who neither in school nor employed. These young men and women often referred to as 'opportunity youth because"

[Fixed! —Ed.]

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