Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

The Euphemism of The Year That Shall Not Be Named

This is the column where I usually pick Euphemism of the Year contenders, which I then either bring in person — or send via Odin's ravens — to the American Dialect Society conference, which was supposed to be in San Francisco this January.

Then 2020 happened. You know the rest.

ADS 2021 was canceled, but Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer and A Way With Words co-cost Grant Barrett blew the Lexical Horn, summoning dozens of dedicated wordinistas (such as emoji wrangler Gretchen McCulloch and WOTY founder Allan Metcalf) plus hundreds of word-loving civilians to a Zoom meeting on December 17 to decide the Word of the Year and many other categories.

For Euphemism of the Year, I suggested the following:

freedom seeds: an NRA term for bullets

vault of hope: the Arctic World Archive's rebrand of doomsday vault

twin flame: a celebu-coinage of Megan Fox's, meaning soulmate

humaning: a marketing term for an approach to consumers that is, I guess, less inhuman? Jesus

reverse financed: used to describe an internship in which the intern has to pay for that particular honor

But my own selections paled before the wisdom of the crowd. Nominations included the following (defined by Grant Barrett):

officer-involved shooting: shooting by a police officer

Toobin, v.: to expose oneself on Zoom in the manner of Jeffrey Toobin

everything is cake: expression of extreme distrust, based on memes in which objects turn out to be hyper-realistic cakes

I'm still wrapping my head around everything is cake as a euphemism, but please have patience with me: I have an old head that is probably cake. Officer-involved shooting is a strong contender given the plague of police brutality. As for Toobin, well, I'm sure people will be Toobining far into the future. In fact, I seem to recall an episode of Star Trek in which Captain Kirk was demoted to cafeteria monitor after an incident that violated the Prime Directive ("Do not Toobin").

But the Euphemism of the Year, which I ended up supporting, was essential. This was probably the most contested, contestable, and detestable term of the year.

Caveat time: By labeling essential euphemistic, neither the ADS nor moi mean to diminish the heroic actions of the truly essential, but to slam the corporations that slapped essential on any job that kept the wheels of commerce spinning, no matter who was crushed beneath. Grant's definition is well-crafted: "essential (workers, labor, businesses): used for people, often underpaid, who are actually treated as expendable because they are required to work and thus risk infection from coronavirus."

The most preposterous example came from — duh — Florida. This New York Times article by Mihir Zaveri makes a better case for essential as Euphemism of the Year than I can or did:

In a pandemic, as state officials desperately shut down parts of society to keep people away from one another, there are some services that most would agree must go on: Grocery stores feed the public. Health care workers tend to the infirm. Others maintain law and order, deliver goods and keep the lights on.

The list, typically, does not include the WWE.

Nevertheless, in Florida, World Wrestling Entertainment has found itself among the services considered "essential," according to Mayor Jerry L. Demings of Orange County, where the sports entertainment business has a sizable training facility and has held recent events, including its marquee show, WrestleMania, this month.

Hey, I've enjoyed the likes of Ric Flair and Roddy Piper since my carefree childhood in the paleolithic period of the 1970s. But when scantily clad folks performing athletic soap opera is considered essential during a pandemic, well, our whole society probably deserves to be smacked in the head with a folding chair.

I've considered smacking myself with furniture more than once this year. Like most sentient life, I am beyond ready for a new year, even if it's going to be more of the same for months. At some point, for the love of pancakes, 2021 has to be better than 2020.

Which brings me to a euphemistic suggestion — or rather a suggested euphemization.

Some of my divorced friends share a language pattern: they won't say the full name of their ex. They use nicknames (not derogatory ones) and other evasions such as "they who will not be named" to refer to their now-insignificant other. Call it rebranding as self-preservation.

In that spirit, let's give "2020" back to the ophthalmologists and leave us with "the year that shall not be named," "that accursed year," "that flaming toilet of a year," or "a year that will live in infamy." This bleeping year bleeped us, so the least we can do is bleep it.


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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:

Monday January 18th, 3:58 PM
Comment by: Dr. Don (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Someone suggested that 2020 might become an epithet.

"Obviously, she had no idea how to prepare a meal. That dinner was a real 2020,"

"You can't imagine how bad the date was. That guy was a real 2020."
Wednesday January 20th, 10:54 AM
Comment by: Joseph P.
Visual thesaurus is a WONDERFUL resource and this is a funny posting but, please, please, spare us from your political opinions. As one example, not subscriber believes that we have had "a plague of police brutality." Keep up the good work but stick with non-political opinions.
Wednesday January 20th, 10:55 AM
Comment by: Joseph P.
...should be "not every subscriber...above
Saturday January 23rd, 1:13 PM
Comment by: Michael S. (Newton Falls, OH)
Nicely done.

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