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.

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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 4th 2017, 9:08 AM
Comment by: Nathan C. (Yorktown Heights, NY)
"amusing byproducts of humanity, like vests and children"

That's going to stick.
Friday January 6th 2017, 3:52 AM
Comment by: Lisa W.
Hmmm... they're all bad, boring, and not 'alt-right'!
Friday January 6th 2017, 3:25 PM
Comment by: Peter A.
Alas, my suspicion is that "alt-right" is probably a likely choice for euphemism of the year, and for the reasons you noted. We should be identifying the scourge it represents, but the media is, for the most part, to "politically correct" to call it like it is ... which leads me to my actual comment: for THIS year, 2017, an early nomination would have to be "normalization" ... we're going to be seeing a great deal of "normalization" in the coming "Era of Trump" in which falsehoods, half-truths, and outright lies are served up and normalized as "the way things are" for the American people. It is a process, but it shouldn't be accepted. Normalization is something to be resisted, just as the Neo-nazi or white-supremacist movements should be called out and identified whenever they rear their ugly heads--particularly whenever they get within a hair's breadth of the Oval Office and the most powerful man in the world.

This is NOT normal, nor should it be considered as such. Accepting the "normalization" of hate, of a blizzard of lies coming from the Executive Branch (and the Legislative Branch, for that matter), is ridiculous.

Alternatively, we might think of "Post-fact" or "Post-truth" as an option ... though I shudder to think of either of those being adopted.

As the Chinese curse goes, "May you live in interesting times." Interesting indeed.
Sunday January 8th 2017, 8:25 AM
Comment by: Basil H. (Bonita Springs, FL)
I am sad to see left-leaning politics creep even into this feature. Mr. Peters' resume says it all. Name calling by Peter A. Back to definitions for me.
Sunday January 8th 2017, 9:09 AM
Comment by: Sue B.
One comment "against" Peter A's; gets mine in support of, just to keep the record straight. I don't want his eloquent content removed simply because of one other person's tender feelings.
Monday January 9th 2017, 10:11 AM
Comment by: Larry B.
Did I detect a slight veering into PC-ness in your comments regarding Hillary Clinton's "basket of deplorables"? Are you saying that half of Donald Trump supporters are "racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic"? Or just that the kind of people who match those descriptors are in your suggested "bucket of hatemongers"? I'm hoping for the latter.
Tuesday January 17th 2017, 12:55 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
Is there a way to edit my comment?
It doesn't like some of my characters.
As a proofreader, this makes me sad and I would like to fix it.
Tuesday January 17th 2017, 2:45 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
While I hate to disagree with Prof Peters, whose play with euphemisms (and whose Twitter feed) has given me oodles of pleasure, I think "alt-right" is a poor choice. I believe his view from inside the ctl-left bubble has become increasingly silvered over from the inside. It’s not even a euphemism, if anything, it's a dysphemism for the left and who knows what from other perspectives.

Perhaps Hillary Clinton and the rest of the Control-Left (that's the opposite of Alt-Right) sincerely believe half of Trump voters are -ists and -ias, but that doesn't make it true. Such ubiquitous name-calling, which has moved from the social justice left to the mainstream, is one reason why you got Trump(tm). For example, I am a racist because I think affirmative action has been a bad idea with bad results. Even Martin Luther King's famous statement about skin color is racist by the current definition. Someone could do a column on Dysphemism Creep and the Social Justice –isms (sounds like a Harry Potter parody).

I participated via Twitter in the rise of the alt-right, and there is no consensus definition. The left thinks it's a euphemism for "white supremacists," which is apparently a genus of Nazi, but I believe that is in large part fantasy and projection. This is a lovely example of how social media supercharges new lingo and how slippery is meaning, despite reification efforts from different ideological perspectives.

There are sources that explain the alt-right much more carefully and accurately (and less unsympathetically). Mark, start with Know Your Meme, and look outside your bubble.

Or you could read Nicholas Pell http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/the-alt-right-movement-everything-you-need-to-know-1.2924658
“Outsiders can have a hard time telling sincere beliefs from edgy jokes.” Even more, with a movement like this, who defines insiders and outsiders? At the risk of more reification, the alt-right itself doesn’t know what it is!

There are undoubtedly some neo-Nazis, skinheads and white supremacists who consider themselves alt-right, but there are some who do not (like the KKK, such as it is). See my comment on normalization for another view of this.
Tuesday January 17th 2017, 3:31 PM
Comment by: Sue B.
I don't think Ellen M. hates to disagree with "Prof Peters." I, however, have no trouble disagreeing with several of her own mis-applied labels and fanciful definitions of her "others."
Monday February 13th 2017, 6:58 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
Sue B.
Since my response was about Dr. Peters "Othering" of the alt-right, I'm not sure I get your point. And shouldn't "Others" be capitalized and in scare quotes?

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