Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

What's the Euphemism of the Year?

It's hard to believe another year has left the building, leaving us all closer to singing with the angels, talking a dirt nap, or insert your euphemism for death here.

Like any other year, 2015 was full of new words and old words newly prominent. While many of these terms were stalwart members of the lexicon, others were sneaky, sketchy, and suspect: there were euphemisms aplenty.

Here's a look at some of the top contenders for Most Euphemistic Word of 2015. As part of its Word of the Year voting later this week, the American Dialect Society will be selecting a winner in the Most Euphemistic category. I won't be in DC personally to contribute, but I will be sending my hologram over to master of ceremonies Ben Zimmer.

The nominees, please...

Netflix and chill

When variations of this term started clogging my Twitter feed, I thought this was an awkward slogan coined by the Internet service. Instead, it's an awkward phrase used as a euphemism for sex. If you ask to come over to Netflix and chill, you're actually interested in, to use a less contemporary and euphemistic term, horizontal barndancing.

justice-involved youth

As I mentioned last month, this is a recent term for a juvenile delinquent, though it would make more sense if it referred to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and other scofflaw-fighting young'uns.

joke aggregator

As someone who writes jokes every day, I find this to be one of the most offensive euphemisms of all: it's a term for a joke thief, especially the kind who cut and pastes jokes on the Internet, conveniently omitting credit while piling up page views. I'm just glad no one has found my debit card number and aggregated my savings.

pointed anti-climb feature

This three-word whopper is like a three-layer cake of cockamamie English. Like so many convoluted phrases, it refers to something simple: spikes at the top of a fence, in this case a White House fence.

overfirmly deny

Firmness usually conveys a sense of honesty or truthfulness, but if you overfirmly denied something, you lied, you prevaricating poltroon.

internationally transferred mitigation outcome

This glorious glob of gobbledygook comes from the world of climate-change negotiation. It stands for the fairly simple concept of carbon trading, which is when countries make economic agreements that limit carbon-producing pollution. But carbon trading is far too comprehensible to pass muster in the delicate internationally transferred mitigation outcome community, I reckon.

military-to-military deconfliction discussion

As Ben Zimmer pointed out, deconfliction isn't a new word, and it isn't particularly euphemistic, though it does have a euphemistic odor. Originally, it described efforts to keep planes from crashing into each other. In this recent case, military-to-military deconfliction discussion refers to potential peace talks between Russia and Syria. What military-to-military deconfliction discussion lacks in clarity, it makes up for in alliteration, which has long been key to international diplomacy and comic book character names.

fun-size terrorists

Speaking of conflict, here's a deadly term Edward Bannatt brought to my attention: it's a term used by drone operators for children they've targeted or killed. Such killings are described by another euphemism that's almost as awful: “cutting the grass before it grows too long.”

So what's the Euphemism of the Year?

Netflix and chill is the obvious choice, and I expect it'll win in Washington. It's very euphemistic, completely of the moment, and kinda funny, though not as funny as the endless jokes about it on Twitter would indicate. Netflix and chill jokes have quickly become the equivalent of airplane peanuts jokes.

My vote goes to fun-size terrorists. That is a euphemism so evil that I bet we'll be quoting it for years to come.

War-related euphemisms tend to stick in our collective memory, like collateral damage, enhanced interrogation techniques, and sunshine units. Calling fish sea kittens is fun and funny, but when euphemisms cover up something truly awful, they deserve permanent enshrinement in the Museum of What the Hell is Wrong With Humanity.


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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 2016, 11:59 AM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
The complement to "justice-involved youth," and also a candidate for EOTY as well as Passive-Aggressive Phrase of the Year, is "officer-involved shooting."

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