John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and random topics. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. The original site,, at, and now at

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.