Friday, February 26, 2010

What you meant to say

Renee Petrina, who professes journalism at Ball State, is “developing a workshop on euphemisms for communications students (not just journalism majors).”

“My goal,” she says in a Facebook post, “is to point out words and phrases that students hear a lot but don't think twice about.

“I also want to discuss sins of omission: The message media outlets send when they fail to talk about certain groups.”

She givs these examples:

urban - used to imply black, inner city, with a negative connotation
blue-collar - used to imply rednecks, uneducated, poor
effeminate - stop trying to out people already
downsizing - just say you're firing people even though they work hard
family values - other than people in prison for patricide, does anyone NOT have family values?

I replied initially:

“Flamboyant” is also a traditional code word for “gay.”

“Leafy” and “tree-shaded” neighborhoods are affluent and white. “Gritty” is another code for “urban/black,” though it may sometimes refer to blue-collar white neighborhoods.

Private Eye developed a whole set of euphemisms to get around Britain's stringent libel laws. My favorite is “tired and emotional” for “drunk in public.”

I have since been adding examples, which you may wish to comment on or supplement:

harsh interrogation techniques = torture
enhanced interrogation techniques = torture
collateral damage = dead women and children
strategic withdrawal = retreat
ethnic cleansing = genocide
adult entertainment = porn
exotic dancer = stripper
escort = hooker
replacement worker = scab
restructuring = panic firing of the staff
rightsizing = panic firing of the staff
voluntary separation agreements = panic firing of the staff
pre-owned = used
sanitary landfill = dump
person of interest = suspect, but we won’t say so
correctional facility = jail, prison, Big House
stately home = overpriced McMansion
full-figured = fat
Rubensesque = fat
husky = fat
waiflike [for model] = anorexic/bulimic
television personality = person famous for no identifiable talent
gadfly = crank
outspoken = rude, won’t shut up
loquacious = tiresome, won’t shut up
misspoke = (a) lied, (b) doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or (c) was drunk
matriarch = bossy older African-American woman
elderly statesman = senile
venerable = old, probably senile
veteran lawmaker = party hack
entrepreneur = huckster
blockbuster movie = best scenes already shown in the trailers
laugh riot = guys being hit in the crotch, flatulence
rehab = drying out
contrition = simulated regret after being caught
principled opposition = obstructionism
reform proposal = what the lobbyists paid for
town hall meeting [non-New England] = freak show
tea party rally = freak show

I could go on like this all day, but perhaps you would like to take a turn.


  1. "Inner city" is a euphemism itself, and not so accurate -- especially today, when the "inner" areas tend to be pretty desirable real estate.

  2. (an obit for a young person) died unexpectedly = suicide or overdose

    someone described as a "bulldog" = pain in the ass

    a "staple" or "fixture" at some regularly scheduled event = person is always around but brings little to the table

    community activist = self-appointed person with a sense of grandeur and righteousness

  3. refurbished=used
    the former governor of Alaska = someone who "can see Russia from my house"
    Sorry. I couldn't resist.

  4. Learning cottage. That is what the Fairfax County (Va.) school system calls the trailers they use as classrooms at many schools. These are the same trailers you see used as field offices at construction sites.

  5. I really dislike the use of the word "challenged"--we are all challenged one way or another.
    But I like to think of myself as a Matriarch--and I'm white.
    I inadvertently used basketball and football players in a comparison with golfers--and was called on it as being black v. white.

  6. Deploying ordinance = Dropping bombs

  7. Wasn't "confirmed bachelor" once used in social columns as a euphemism for gay?

    Then there's "feisty," which is used to refer to older women who have the temerity to still be in possession of all their faculties; sometimes used to refer to old men who are smarter than the person labeling them.

    There's also financial sleight-of-word. When politicians characterize project funding as a grant when the money comes from state "walking around money" in Pennsylvania or from federal earmarks, the word grant may not be a lie, but it doesn't tell the whole story.

    Don't forget the many readers who object to the word die, particularly in headlines. I've heard editors field those calls and try to explain why "passed" or other euphemisms aren't in headlines. The readers who call rarely seem to be satisfied by any explanation, tactful or otherwise.

    My current bugaboo is "stakeholders." The term refers to anyone who might have an opinion about some government or corporate action. For me, it conjures up visions of peasants pursuing Count Dracula and his kin.

    Barbara Phillips Long

  8. encore presentation = rerun
    for your convenience = for our convenience
    exclusive = (practically anything)

    Real estate, of course, has an entire lexicon of special terms:

    cozy = cramped
    elegant = cosmetic veneer applied
    retro = out of date
    historic = out of date and probably non-functional
    territorial view = no view
    fixer = ready to be condemned
    opportunity = no one wants to buy this

    Incidentally, re: "refurbished." It's true that "refurbished" probably means "used," but the term is also used for the scenario, which is fairly common with technical gadgetry, that the item was simply returned for whatever reason. Once the package has been opened, the manufacturer cannot sell it as new, even if the device was not really ever used. I once returned a computer that was perfectly fine except that one easily-replaced memory bank (SIMM) was faulty, and the stupid customer service people wouldn't just replace that for me. So they got the entire computer back, essentially unused, and I'm sure within a day the SIMM was replaced and the item was being flogged as a "refurbished" item.

  9. I completely agree with Anonymous....when people say "passed" I'm always tempted to say "to where."

  10. Reminds me of Richard Pryor's word association interview on Saturday Night Live.

  11. I've always felt that 'Reubenesque' meant that the person was, yes, fat, but was also considered by the speaker to be attractive.

  12. Recorded live = recorded

    Recorded earlier today = happened earlier today

    Experienced = has writer's approval

    Statuesque = stacked

    Breaking news = please bear with us

  13. really sweet = boring
    sex addict = horny

  14. To serve you better = To annoy you even more

  15. newsroom integration=staff cuts
    visual editor=not a word person
    bankruptcy advocate=someone you don't want to do business with

  16. So many of these are a simple exercise in cynicism, especially the euphemisms for firing people. "Reduction in force" further sanitized by being shortened to "RIF" (as in "I've been RIF'd) is quite prevalent in these times.

    I particularly liked "entrepreneur = huckster". I've known a few of those. "Con artist" would also fit.

  17. Romantic leads lacked spark = one of them is gay.

  18. "Urban" also is used to describe African-American pop music styles, such as R&B and hip-hop. (It derives in this case from the name of a radio format, such as Adult Contemporary or Modern Rock.) Its usage in that context does not have a negative connotation.

    Also, I think what Constantia means is "dropping ordnance," not "ordinance."

  19. J.D., you beat me too it.
    Although, in fairness to Constantia "dropping ordinance" could be your borough council passing an ordinance banning cars from parking in areas with a lot of bars for street sweeping when it really means clearing out the drunks.

  20. "Tired and emotional" for drunk was not invented by Private Eye, although it was much used by them. If I recall correctly, George Brown, a Labour MP who was at one time Minister for Defence, appeared on a TV interview speaking in a decidedly slurred manner. The Labour party flacks explained this the next day saying that Mr Brown had been "tired and emotional" on account of some personal matter.

    And I think it was the Daily Telegraph obit column that made famous the phrase "a lifelong [or confirmed] bachelor," usually applied to public figures or members of the aristocracy whose preference was well-known among those in the know but not talked about in public.

  21. "Friendly fire" = killed by someone in his own squad.

    Don't mean to be flippant about it. But there's nothing friendly about a shot that kills a buddy.

  22. There's an L.L. Bean heiress who has started a small chain of lobster restaurants in Maine. She thinks "lobster claws" sounds scary, so she's calling the appendages "cuddlers."

  23. Being a Brit, I can't help taking you Americans (assuming that you are Americans) to task for what you've done to the language of the political spectrum. Please compare:

    In the UK:
    Conservative = misses Mrs Thatcher
    Socialist = someone who detests Mrs Thatcher
    Communist = someone who wants the USSR to come back
    Marxist = a counter-culture idealist undergrad
    Liberal = someone with principles that are a bit too ideal to ever become reality.
    Neocon = Fascist

    In the US:
    Conservative = Respectably extreme right
    Socialist = Communist
    Communist = A traitor or enemy
    Marxist = a non-Islamic terrorist regime
    Liberal = Communist
    Neocon = Extreme right and doesn't care who knows it

  24. One that's annoyed me for years:

    Annual Percentage Rate (APR) = interest