Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

What is the Euphemism of the Year?

Every January the American Dialect Society—of which I am a member, if you didn't see my zircon-encrusted membership ring—has a sacred duty. From January 5th through the 8th, they'll be meeting in Austin, Texas, to present papers and share research about our ever-evolving language, but they'll also pick the Word of the Year, along with many other categories—including Euphemism of the Year.

No matter your political affiliation or home planet, I'm sure you can agree this was a year chock full o' balderdash, twaddle, mumbo jumbo, and horse cookies. The year-long meal of malarkey was a buffet of bunk in which every appetizer was apple sauce. Amongst the horse apples were euphemisms aplenty.

As the only euphemism columnist in this quadrant of the multiverse, I am needed elsewhere and can't make it to Austin, but I'm putting this column in a bottle for my colleagues to consider. The contenders please…

lovely, beautiful, gorgeous
Lingerie company Neon Moon continued the trend of treating women's bodies as a taboo subject and women's psyches as fragile eggshells with their ninny-ish nomenclature. CEO Hayat Rachi bunk-splained their terminology in an interview, "...why not compliment yourself and say, 'Hell yeah, I'm a size Beautiful!' rather than judge yourself on whether you've gained or lost inches?" Mama mia! Size beautiful makes curvy and plus-size sound like no-nonsense straight talk.

basket of deplorables
Hillary Clinton famously used this term to describe half of Donald Trump's supporters. The full (well, fuller) context here: "You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it." Though deplorable does accurately describe the folks Clinton was talking about, this term still has to go in the euphemism bucket. A more honest description would be bucket of hatemongers.

Speaking of deplorables, here's a term that's been slammed left and right (so to speak) for euphemizing clear, easy to understand labels such as white nationalist and neo-Nazi. This unloved lexical load is so loathed it may even change the meaning of alt. Confused citizens might soon wonder if an alt-country band sings about panzers rather than pickup trucks, and if performing innocent commands such as control-alt-delete might betray an unconscious leaning toward fascism.

banking task force
It's not easy for comedy writers to keep up with the euphemisms and drivel of the real world, but some are up to the task: particularly the writers for Veep. This year, that show produced many pointed euphemisms, including massive capital infusion (a bailout) and personally photoshopped (had plastic surgery). But the gem in their writer's crown is banking task force, which may have become the least sexy term for sexytime in the history of humanity. The discussion of quick and discreet banking task forces was a comedy classic and Festivus miracle.

Lying is one of the most euphemism-lade`n topics in the horsepucky stable, and every year is bound to produce a new example of two. The most memorable to my squishy brain was a Hillary Clinton statement about Those Damned Emails, which should be their official name: "What I told the FBI, which he said was truthful, is consistent with what I have said publicly. I may have short-circuited and for that I will try to clarify." This term would make a lot more sense if Clinton were one of those self-aware robots from Westworld, and we're all living in a cowboy-filled hellhole, but that would be slightly more ridiculous than reality.

Speaking of Westworld, I love this HBO show about people pretending to be cowboys and robots pretending to be people. Much like The Walking Dead never uses the term zombie, Westworld avoids the term robot. Rather, the mechanical cowpokes are cowpokettes are called hosts. This term seems unlikely to join droid, Cylon, and other words for robots, but who knows? In case of robo-apocalypse, euphemisms may be the only solace of the remaining fleshy ones.

And the winner is… Was there any doubt?

Alt-right has to be the euphemism of the year. It's a first ballot entrant in the Euphemism Hall of Fame and the Humanity is Doomed Hall of Infamy.

Alt-right is Exhibit A in a process named by another popular word this year: normalization. Alt-right, by giving a cute name to white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and hate groups, and others has normalized them as part of American life, welcoming them from the fringe of hell. You can talk about the alt-right on the front page of the newspaper, and you can talk about the alt-right with your kids over a bowl of Count Chocula. Yay?

This was a dark year in human history, and journalists helped turn off the lights. One can assume alt-right is used to avoid the "biased terms" that actually mean something, like white nationalist, etc. But some of our journalists are so afraid of perceived bias that they sacrifice another virtue: accuracy. Too many news outlets would rather soften up the truth with vague, fluffy, BS words than use accurate, clear language.

This isn't a new problem. As Hunter S. Thompson once wrote about a White House resident: "It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place."

I tend to regard euphemisms as amusing byproducts of humanity, like vests and children. But 2016 (in Latin, accursed year of hell) was a strong reminder that euphemisms can do real damage. Let's hope 2017's Word of the Year isn't alt-pocalypse.

Click here to read more articles from Evasive Maneuvers.

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.