Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

What, By Gosh, is Euphemism of the Year?

It's that magical, sorcerous time of the year when word nerds look to the American Dialect Society for the Word of the Year—and the Euphemism of the Year, too.

As ordained by the Malarkey Counsel, I must make my own selection, which I've whittled down to four candidates. These are the lexical equivalent of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Or maybe they should be called the Four Equine People of the End Times. Sounds pretty doomsday-y either way.

The envelopes, please…

tender age shelters
Let's get the most depressing euphemism of the year—which, even more depressingly, won ADS Word of the Year—over with first. As Steven Pool wrote in The Guardian:

George Orwell's Big Brother himself would be proud of the brutal euphemisms dreamed up to describe the separation of migrants' children from their families and their subsequent incarceration at the US-Mexico border. The latest rhetorical ploy is that young children are being taken to "tender age" shelters. The adjective "tender" here officially describes the youngsters' age, but it implies that the policy is itself an example of official tenderness. This idea is reinforced by the use of "shelter", as though the children are being protected from a storm or bombing raid, whereas they have in fact been deprived of the shelter of their parents.

Everything about caging children is a horror. Orwellian language is the least of the offenses, but it damn sure belongs on the list.

And now, the funnest euphemism of the year, as discussed in a New York Times article by Jess Bidgood. Regarding alleged corruption enthusiast Ed Pawlowski—mayor of Allentown, Pennsylvania—Bidgood wrote,

The question turned on whether Mr. Strathearn and Mike Fleck, a political consultant for Mr. Pawlowski, were really discussing meatballs — seared, simmered and sauced — in a series of phone calls, or whether they had taken a cue from shady deals of yore and were using 'meatballs' as a code word for a payoff.

By Thor's hammer, that's a meaty term, and a darn appropriate one, since every goldarn mob movie seems to show the crooks being cooks. In movies like The Godfather and Goodfellas, there were plenty of both types of meatballs.

executive time
This might be even funnier than meatballs, depending on your lexical palate. As Jonathan Swan wrote for Axios:

President Trump is starting his official day much later than he did in the early days of his presidency, often around 11am, and holding far fewer meetings, according to copies of his private schedule shown to Axios. This is largely to meet Trump's demands for more 'Executive Time,' which almost always means TV and Twitter time alone in the residence, officials tell us.

This preposterous term is a Euphemism Hall of Famer, and I foresee it transcending our current era, not to mention the space-time continuum. As long as businesses and governments exist, they will have executives, and some will be lazy and cranky. Just as a baby needs a pacifier and a dingo needs a baby, these executives will need executive time. This term is also well-suited to self-mockery. Few of us will command a company or country, but we might enjoy a modicum of leadership in a family, book club, or doomsday cult. So this is a term/joke with legs, I reckon.

racially charged
This was the ADS's pick for Euphemism of the Year, and it's hard to argue against. What's the difference between racially charged remarks and racist remarks? Other than the origin of the term—the first probably appeared in a headline—the difference is nothing, nada, zip, squadoosh. Anyone who writes the term racially charged should be electrically charged.

And the winner…


I almost picked executive time, but a louder voice in my head had a different idea: that cockamamie list PETA tweeted about animal expressions.

If you missed the tweet, it said, "Words matter, and as our understanding of social justice evolves, our language evolves along with it. Here's how to remove speciesism from your daily conversations."

Then there's a chart with expressions such as "Kill two birds with one stone" and "Bring home the bacon" alongside de-animalized suggestions such as "Feed two birds with one scone" and "Bring home the bagels."

As my grandpappy would say, hoo boy.

Look, I love animals, much more than humans, but I can't puzzle out how discussing scones instead of stones will help one bird, monkey, chicken, or sea kitten (to use one of PETA's older terms for fish).

But the list was a gift from the gods to several species, including the yellow-bellied humorist, the acid-tongued tweeter, and the middle-aged euphemism columnist. I'm all three, so I guess Santa does exist—no matter what non-marginal seven-year-olds have to say.

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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 14th 2019, 11:22 AM
Comment by: Alberta E. (South Plainfield, NJ)
You are too wonderful and I thank you for your articles.
Friday January 18th 2019, 12:00 PM
Comment by: Barbara D. (West Newton, MA)
A blast of humor to keep us from crying. Thank you.
Friday January 18th 2019, 12:00 PM
Comment by: Barbara D. (West Newton, MA)
A blast of humor to keep us from crying. Thank you.
Monday January 21st 2019, 2:03 PM
Comment by: sally L. (s natick, MA)
As much as I enjoyed the writing and expression of ideas....I must go back for the fourth time to find "The Euphemism of the year.... is it racially charged?
Tuesday January 22nd 2019, 10:16 AM
Comment by: Westy (Paris, OH)
We have been conditioned by one end of the political spectrum to believe that "racist remarks" have to do only with one particular race being unfair to THE other particular race, neither one of which I am willing to print out loud. Whereas "racially charged" is absent of the conditioning and seems more neutral as to the race of the accuser and accusee. To me, the difference is boldly evident.

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