Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

What's the Euphemism of the Year?

It's never easy picking a Euphemism of the Year (EOTY). Well, sometimes it is. Back in 2009, I don't think anything other than sea kittenPETA's batty term for a fish—could have taken the prize.

For 2014, it feels like a four-horse race—or should I say a four-pronged equine competition. My picks for EOTY are a Gwyneth Paltrow special and three other mounds of mumbo-jumbo. Read them and weep for clear, honest, non-sneaky language.

The first nominee and front-runner... conscious uncoupling.

This historically unnecessary term appeared on Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop website, on a page that's since been replaced with a lengthy explanation of this loony concept. But here's the original paragraph, which is worth quoting in full. If you have an anti-goopiness helmet, please don it now:

"It is with hearts full of sadness that we have decided to separate. We have been working hard for well over a year, some of it together, some of it separated, to see what might have been possible between us, and we have come to the conclusion that while we love each other very much we will remain separate. We are, however, and always will be a family, and in many ways we are closer than we have ever been. We are parents first and foremost, to two incredibly wonderful children and we ask for their and our space and privacy to be respected at this difficult time. We have always conducted our relationship privately, and we hope that as we consciously uncouple and coparent, we will be able to continue in the same manner."

(Good gravy. No wonder so many people find Paltrow insufferable. She's as down-to-earth as a space station.)

Euphemisms are interesting because they consistently reveal what we most want to hide—or at least not talk about. Paltrow's adamant refusal to say divorce borders on a type of aphasia. She talks about separating, parenting, co-parenting (another trendy and silly term), family, privacy, hearts, and perhaps the latest findings of the Mars rover, but she can't say divorce. That would acknowledge failure, and failure is not an option—but obliterating words is.

Her choice of euphemism is also revealing. Conscious is a transparent way to desperately assert that "We did this! We decided this! We are captains of the ship! Nyah-nyah!" I assume it's more appealing to emphasize divorce as a choice than to admit your marriage simply fell apart.

Meanwhile, uncoupling is a word sterile enough to be used during surgery, and this word does get a lot of use in the world of science. The Oxford English Dictionary has examples of uncoupling chain, uncoupling lever, uncoupling pole, uncoupling rod, and uncoupling agent. However, the first recorded meaning of uncouple, from the 1300s, is oddly in tune with the Paltrow sense: "To release (dogs) from being fastened together in couples; to set free for the chase." At least canines only protest their separation with barks, not balderdash.

And the second nominee... tender undoing.

Bizarrely, conscious uncoupling has a close relative and strong challenger for EOTY: tender undoing. When announcing her d-word, Jewel went full Paltrow:

"Ty and I have always tried to live the most authentic life possible, and we wanted our separation as husband and wife to be nothing less loving than the way we came together. For some time we have been engaged in a private and difficult, but thoughtful and tender undoing of ourselves."

If only these celebrities embraced the philosophy of Louis CK, who has declared that "Divorce is always good news" because "no good marriage has ever ended in divorce." But comedians tell the truth: actors and singers just swaddle themselves in new forms of twaddle.

And the third nominee... EIT.

What's EIT, you say? A cousin to ET perhaps? Some new age form of therapy, like existential immersion tomfoolery? Nope. EIT stands for enhanced interrogation techniques—itself a euphemism for torture. EIT is like the linguistic equivalent of the KFC Double Down: a euphemism of a euphemism.

EIT seems too preposterous to be true, but it is true. Some writers really use it, like Brady Cremeens: "If our government's actions reflect our society's mores (as we have certainly projected them to be), then what does the use of EIT say about our culture and value system?" Unshockingly, that's a pro-torture article. In another article, Dr. James Mitchell is referred to as an EIT architect, which I guess sounds nicer than torture czar.

To quote Matt Yglesias on Twitter: "Journalists adopting this 'EIT' euphemism should be ashamed of themselves."

And the fourth nominee is... rapid disassembly.

This term brings us full circle. It was used by Julia Roberts when discussing her quickie divorce from longtime beau Abe Vigoda.

Wait, let me recheck my sources.

Ah. It turns out rapid disassembly is, for real, the term used by airbag maker Takata for airbags that go kablooey rather than inflate. In other words, a rapid disassembly is an explosion. Ye gods. This term is enough to rapidly disassemble your mind.

And the winner is...

These euphs are all wonder-awful, but conscious uncoupling has to win Euphemism of the Year.

Paltrow's BS is the deepest and smelliest, the weirdest and worst. Conscious uncoupling is to a euphemism collector like me as a new dinosaur is to a paleontologist. Thank you, Gwyneth. Thank you.


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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:

Friday January 2nd 2015, 10:09 AM
Comment by: Joann Z. (Rockford, IL)
"Euphemisms are interesting because they consistently reveal what we most want to hide—or at least not talk about.".............thanks for the clarity
Friday January 2nd 2015, 2:56 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Coupling is a regular very useful term used by scientists in all divisions. In coupling phenomena, two (bond oscillators, absorption frequencies or stretching vibrations etc.) share a common atom, they seldom behave as an individual entity unless the individual concerned property is widely different. In science, "decoupling" is also a widely used term "that removes coupling" state from somewhere. Decoupling, sometimes is used to characterize complex, overlapping of properties that are difficult to interpret.
A "conscious uncoupling" situation here is comparable to a decoupled state of mind I think. The couple needs an MRI check up from a hospital immediately to determine their exact state of mind.
Words and phrases knows no bounds. Or, is it? Did the actress use the term "conscious" conscientiously here? If this is true, then I've doubt that any uncoupling is happening there.
I liked most the author's (Peter,M) use of the analogy "down-to-earth as a space station." A very perfect match!
Because, space station is approximately 250 miles above the earth's surface, and the actress use of the term "conscious" is phony, the analogy characterizes perfectly the commentator's state of mind and the in depth-meaning of the painful word "divorce".
Friday January 2nd 2015, 3:01 PM
Comment by: Thep
Abe Vigoda!!! Perhaps you mean Lyle Lovett?
Saturday January 3rd 2015, 8:16 AM
Comment by: Alberta E. (South Plainfield, NJ)
Very good article but there are two typos: "...to emphasis (emphasize) divorce..." in the seventh paragraph and in the eighth, "still a word sterile enough to be use(d) during surgery.."

A negative proofreadingt outcome?

[Now fixed! —Ed.]
Saturday January 3rd 2015, 12:47 PM
Comment by: Martha N. (Mandeville, LA)
I read all of above and I have to say, I'm laughing into 'unconscious' :-)
delirium!! So funny! How truly funny, '...As down to earth as a space station..' I do enjoy
this hysterically funny reference.

...And, I enjoy and use Think-map a lot and tell people about it all the time, however, I have
to say here that I don't see value or merit to using this brilliant opportunity
'make fun' to the point of defaming Gwyneth Paltrow are anyone for that matter.
People make decisions based on what they feel is right for them. If she or anyone
else wants to call divorce, unconscious uncoupling, it doesn't hurt anyone. In truth,
the term, 'divorce' has become a 'nasty' word and carries quite a bit of baggage with it.
Let's have fun and poke fun and toss the character attack, hmmm? Happy New Year.
Saturday January 3rd 2015, 2:40 PM
Comment by: Aydelette K.
I think EIT - is certainly the most appalling euphemism in the history of the United States. Makes me a tad queasy to see it in this otherwise mostly humorous list. I guess that means it's done it's work, eh?
Monday January 5th 2015, 3:24 PM
Comment by: Joann Z. (Rockford, IL)
@Martha,
What , exactly, do you have against attacking someone's character? It is an essential cognitive skill to analyze character, no?
Monday January 5th 2015, 4:44 PM
Comment by: Alberta E. (South Plainfield, NJ)
Unfortunately, euphemisms most definitely hurt us. EIT is a case in point.
Monday January 12th 2015, 11:11 AM
Comment by: marcia F. (oklahoma city, OK)
"It was used by Julia Roberts when discussing her quickie divorce from longtime beau Abe Vigoda." I'm sorry but what did you mean to say here?
Thursday December 10th 2015, 12:38 AM
Comment by: Judith D.
A great proofreader could make a fortune if paid for correcting these comments by the word.

I wonder if anyone else has noticed that the targets of these snide assertions about language choices - mostly concerning how people talk about their private lives - are all about people who mostly have no private lives. Perhaps the lack of respect for their privacy that plagues them and the arrogant assumptions people make about them are good enough reason for whatever obfuscating language they may use.

I wonder, too, what it means that, except for the nameless EIT practitioners, all of these wretched euphemisers (hmmm....the possibilities there) are famous, beautiful, talented women. Can anyone say "the color of lime jello with a craving for the creme brulee on someone else's plate?"

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