Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

The Euphemisms of the Decade

What a decade it was!

I moved to Chicago. I got a dog. I spent 800,000 hours watching The Shield. I had a torrid, on-again off-again romance with Number Six, the shapely Cylon on Battlestar Galactica, a tryst that made quite a splash in the tabloids I invent in my brain. It's been quite a ride.

In the universe that (according to sources) exists outside my own melon, folks have been having a time of it too. These times are reflected in euphemisms, and one organization — the American Dialect Society — has been picking a Most Euphemistic Word of the Year all decade long, in addition to their much-vaunted (sigh... I always wanted to be vaunted) Word of the Year (WOTY).

Much like the WOTY choices, some Most Euphemistic winners hold up beautifully, others make sense in the context of that year, and a few make you scratch your head enough to cause brain damage. Here's a look back at the ADS choices — to be followed by my exclusive pick (make that picks) for Most Euphemistic Word of 2009.

2000: courtesy call

Solid winner. This name for the telemarketer game takes the word courtesy, stands it on its head, and then drops it down a manhole. Some courtesy! That's like calling an atomic wedgie an etiquette adjustment. Yeesh.

2001: daisy cutter

Another excellent choice. While the military could hardly call a missile a people-and-stuff-blower-upper, daisy cutter is just a little too cute. Speaking of adorableness, the runner-ups seem more cutesy than euphemistic to me — women of cover (traditionally garbed Muslim women) and sneakers-up (a variation of belly-up for the dot-com crowd).

2002: regime change

This year had a tremendous field of candidates, a real murderer's row... Well, since we're talking about euphemisms, I guess I should say oxygen-depriver's row. Winner regime change is one of the most successful terms of any kind from the past decade, and the runner-ups featured some real gems, like newater — sewage water that's been re-spiffied and pumped back into the tap water. Mmm. Another runner-up displayed a frightening level of audacity: unorthodox entrepreneur, a term for a "panhandler, prostitute, or drug dealer in a Vancouver park."

2003: pre-emptive self-defense

This is not only a first-team all-American euphemism, but a candidate for the oxymoron hall of fame. It was used in reference to the Iraq war, but don't hesitate to pre-emptively self-defend yourself in the tea shops and shopping malls, because who knows what those punks are plotting.

One of the runner-ups — extraordinary rendition, or just rendition — would also have made a fine winner. It means "the deportation to a country that will receive a person unkindly, such as with mean anonymous comments on the web." Ahem, I mean "torture."

2004: badly sourced

This is a journalism-ism I must remember to use more often, when my own stories are badly sourced because of unfortunate circumstances that could not be avoided because I simply made everything up. Speaking of bad, I don't know how runner-up wardrobe malfunction didn't win. That dab of doubletalk was popularized in the aftermath of the Janet Jackson strip-a-thon during the 2004 Super Bowl, and it's a contender for euphemism of the decade.  

2005: internal nutrition

Meaning "force-feeding a prisoner against his or her will," this is a solid winner, since it is so befuddling and evil — two great qualities for a euphemism or teacher. But I have to admit still being miffed that my suggestion — holistic practitioner — did not win. That's a term used in Toronto for an unorthodox entrepreneur, specifically a prostitute.  

2006: waterboarding

Seems like an odd choice... How euphemistic is waterboarding? There's a board, there's water... I guess the idea was that it should have been called drowning, but that's about as likely as my voluntarily changing my nickname from "The Supreme Avenger" to "The Blueberry Muffin". Surge — that still popular term for a troop escalation — probably should have won.

2007: human terrain team

This term for "A group of social scientists employed by the US military" is pretty vague, but it's not very diabolical, so I don't like it. I'd have gone with runner-up shmashmortion — which was used in Knocked Up — since it's a perfectly preposterous evasion of the word abortion, an evasion the movie is both mocking and perpetuating.

2008: scooping technician

My boy, my boy! In San Francisco, I was there, and I suggested this title for the kind of trained professional who cleans up dog poop, and it won. It's my greatest accomplishment in 2009 other than scoring 119,000 at Ms. Pacman.

2009: ???

As for this year, I feel there are only two strong contenders, two euphemisms that are cuckoo for enough Cocoa Puffs to represent an entire year. Since I won't be attending the ADS meeting this year — sadly, I have too many duties around the ranch — I'm going to count on VT beloved leader Ben Zimmer to talk up these terms to the gathered throngs. Don't let me down, big guy.

The first is the only euphemism I have ever devoted a whole column to: Mark Sanford's hiking the Appalachian trail. Even though some (on the ADS mailing list) think this term has already flopped, I'm not so sure about that. The huge Tiger Woods adultery-fest has inspired numerous tweets that show Mark Sanford's lexical lunacy hasn't been forgotten. Hiking was referenced frequently in the early days of Golf-harem-gate and sporadically since:

Tiger Woods' Appalachian Trail hiking trip was just announced. (Nov. 30, Roy Bragg)

@tvamy Tiger issues statement denying being in Escalade at the time of the wreck...says he was hiking the Appalachain trail??? (Dec. 2, Keith Jordan)

Tiger should've just said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. We would've completely understood. #fb (Dec. 2, Terry Biddle)

I guess Tiger's been doing a lot of 'hiking'. Now I get the whole 'athlete of the decade' thing. (Dec. 17, Mandy Vaughn)

Popular writers have helped the cause too, including Dave Barry: "In sports, roughly 40 percent of the U.S. bimbo population announces that it has at one time or another hiked the Appalachian Trail with Tiger Woods." Long live the Appalachian trail!

The other ultra-awesome candidate was coined very early in 2009, but it should not — cannot, must not, please not — be forgotten: PETA's reinvention of fish as sea kittens. Respect must be paid to a euphemism of such 5-alarm, weapons-grade, 24-carat quality.

It's like my mom always said, "Give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day. Give a man a sea kitten, he'll chuckle periodically for decades to come."

Isn't that the future you want? Save these word kittens and give them a home.

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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 January 6th 2010, 6:24 AM
Comment by: Kip (Brookfield, WI)
Bottom dwellers are as bodacious as a bundle of bromides
Wednesday January 6th 2010, 8:36 AM
Comment by: Tom W. (New York, NY)
"Daisy Cutter" is the euphemism of the year in 2001? That moniker goes back to the Vietnam War. I still remember vividly the picture in Life magazine of what it could to an area of jungle. It was also called "instant landing zone." Does Peters have no memory?
Wednesday January 6th 2010, 9:42 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Tom: To be fair, "daisy cutter" wasn't Mark's choice for 2001 -- it was the American Dialect Society's, as part of their Word of the Year voting. The term had achieved prominence that year because of the war in Afghanistan, but it's true that it dates back to the Vietnam era. OED editor Jesse Sheidlower noted on the ADS mailing list that there are citations back to 1971, referring to the BLU-82 weapon system.
Wednesday January 6th 2010, 10:11 AM
Comment by: LeanneF (Winnipeg Canada)
A brilliant walk down this decade's memory lane.
Wednesday January 6th 2010, 2:52 PM
Comment by: Mary P.
One of my colleagues happens to be a human terrain analyst. His business card labels him, "Mayhem Mitigation Consultant." How's THAT for euphemism?
Wednesday January 6th 2010, 3:02 PM
Comment by: Mark P. (Chicago, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
"Mayhem Mitigation Consultant"?

I think that made my day. Thanks for sharing! Wow.
Wednesday January 6th 2010, 4:42 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Delightful list - my faves are "pre-emptive self defense" and "courtesy call." Of course "wardrobe malfunction" is a gem; I hope that "hiking the Appalachian trail" becomes as permanent a part of our national lexicon. I had not made any New Year's resolutions yet this year, but this cause is calling my name ... I hereby resolve to make frequent and mighty efforts to keep these and all other worthy euphemisms alive, thereby enriching and brightening our language for the coming decade and beyond! Euphemisms are invented to make the subject appear less distasteful than it is; when instead they reveal that the inventor is more of an idiot than he/she previously appeared, then they are truly priceless and should be preserved and celebrated forever!
Friday January 8th 2010, 10:35 AM
Comment by: Harvey C. (Little River, CA)
Hey, I only occasionally dally around, about & within the abiding joys of VT. I took this trip this morning just to move beyond stochastic -- in itself a boon, since I work with nonprofit organizations, and find myself horrified by their unwillingness to plan, so now I get to refer to them using today's entry. So, it may well be that I am woefully out of this loop (howzat in & of itself?), but would not "pre-owned," of Detroit-receding, qualify as a dilly?
Monday January 18th 2010, 1:03 PM
Comment by: Peter R.
2008/09: "unwind"
Tuesday January 19th 2010, 11:44 AM
Comment by: Alina I.
Personaly I think people-and-stuff-blower-upper is better than daisy-cutter.
Thursday January 21st 2010, 8:14 PM
Comment by: DONALD F. (AUSTIN, TX)
In the liberal thesaurus you may find drowning associated with waterboarding, but in my conservative thesaurus it has been replaced with "The Chappaquiddick Treatment." Neither are accurate but either use would expose the political leanings of the writer.

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Gov. Mark Sanford set the gold standard for euphemization.
PETA's inspired rebranding of "fish" as "sea kittens."
"Scooping technician" won "most euphemistic" in last year's WOTY voting.