Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

The Euphemism of the Year

Like any year, 2021 spewed forth plenty of euphemisms. Years produce euphemisms like Spider-Man produces disgusting web fluid.

2021 euphs include community helper (a vigilante), elevating one’s pricing ecosystem (raising prices), glass facades that facilitate visual exchange (windows), smurf (a dead person), gifted pleasures (guilty pleasures), experience device (a car), volunteer (a weed), and interaction (shark attack). In 2021, pigs were rolling in lipstick.

The recent meeting of the American Dialect Society (ADS) celebrated (that might be the wrong word) a bunch of other euphemisms, including TFG, an abbreviation for “the former guy,” as a way to not say the name of Donald Trump. The ADS winner for Most Euphemistic was unalive, a very depressing term for a very depressing topic: people use unalive on social media when discussing suicide, as a way to avoid filters that might alert someone to the user’s mental health crisis. Folks, these are bad times, but please don’t unalive yourself.

My pick for Euphemism of the Year is a far more common term, and not new enough to qualify for the ADS award, but it was used so often that I must recognize it, demonize it, and maybe perform an exorcism on it, if anyone knows the recipe for lexical holy water.

The Evasive Maneuvers George Carlin Memorial Euphemism of the Year, and maybe the worst word of the year, was woke.

Here’s a sampling of recent headlines that use this accused word:

Black Democrats Are Fighting Back Against 'Woke' Progressives

Woke capitalism is a smokescreen

Fliers put on New Yorkers' vehicles telling them to leave Florida if they are 'woke'

Trump’s ‘Non-Woke’ Twitter Alternative Plans To Launch February 21

Air Force goes woke and allows the use of gender pronouns in email signatures

What will the woke cancel mob accuse JK Rowling of next?

James Carville: 'Stupid wokeness' is a national problem for Democrats

Merriam-Webster defines woke as “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” But the above uses, and bazillions of others, show the term has broadened like Plastic Man, flat as a crepe and wide enough to smear anything that smacks of not just racial or social progress, but progress, period. Even progress might be too broad and specific for the current uses of this term.

The appropriation and deterioration of woke happened depressingly but predictably fast. In The New York Times, John McWhorter, Columbia University linguist and author of Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, looked at how this term originated with African-Americans, was borrowed by supportive white folks, and then weaponized by, let’s just say, not-so-supportive white folks, until it became the new politically correct. It’s all part of the euphemism treadmill, a lexical workout device that makes our words and spirits flabbier. As McWhorter describes:

A well-used word or expression is subject to ridicule or has grimy associations. A new term is born to replace it and help push thought ahead. But after that term spends some time getting knocked around in the real world, the associations the old term had settle back down, like gnats, on the new one. Yet another term is needed. Repeat.

Like politically correct before it, and alongside tag team partner cancel culture, woke is a lexical pillow that can be used to smother anything remotely beneficial to anyone. Republicans, Democrats, and anyone else who wants to maintain the status quo or drag us backwards can use woke to dismiss calls for justice, equality, decency, etc. When someone blames wokeness, the woke mob, or woke warriors, they’re spared from stating their true agenda, which might be, “I don’t think Black people should be able to vote” or “The masses should be ground into hamburger to feed capitalism.” When you hear woke, your BS detector should vibrate at light speed.

If only people would say what they mean. But then I’d be out of a job. So, never mind, please carry on with the societal collapse.

But seriously, happy new year and take care out there. Please stay un-unalive.


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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:

Saturday January 15th, 6:32 AM
Comment by: Adolf V. (Lawrenceville, GA)
I agree with your choice of WOKE. I always write it in all capital letters. One of my sources states that it originated in early 1920s Germany alongside the Nazi party and was later embraced by a sociologist at Columbia University. It is definitely socialist and shares much with the Nazis, viz. totalitarianism and lack of personal freedom. Just like the Communists and Nazis, it is my way or the highway.
Saturday January 15th, 8:56 AM
Comment by: Westy (Paris, OH)
Beware of words used by the lunatic fringe.
Saturday January 15th, 11:12 AM
Comment by: anne F. (Speen United Kingdom)
Absolutely agree with the subterranean threat of "woke", quite apart from the almost physical pain its grammatical transgression causes me. But might I put in a kind word for volunteer, since it is used to describe the stubborn capacity for plants of all kinds to lie dormant and then spring to life again? There are wonderful white roses that found their way into the light again in my ancient garden. And weeds are only weeds to those who insist that plants need to conform to our view of where and when they should grow. I think there is merit in biodiversity in landscaping but you are free to enter the concept into your euphemism data base.
Saturday January 15th, 11:08 PM
Comment by: Martin (Vancouver Canada)
Sorry, but I think you misunderstand what a euphemism is.

Visual Thesaurus definition: "an inoffensive or indirect expression that is substituted for one that is considered offensive or too harsh"

'Woke' isn't being used as a euphemism by the people you so dislike; it's being used because they don't have another word that captures the behavior that they're trying to describe and critisize. Or perhaps they don't know that "politically correct" is a synonym.

But it's not euphemistic. They're not trying to tone things down.
Sunday January 16th, 11:31 AM
Comment by: Joann Z. (Rockford, IL)
Woke: one who subscribes to the set of ephemeral beliefs to signal high status. Mostly used by wannabes.
Sunday January 23rd, 5:41 PM
Comment by: Rain
What other word can be used to describe being aware of injustice, inequality, and indecency? How about, "awake"?

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