Name Those Euphemisms!: Not a game

Yesterday I wrote about the public relations thesaurus, an imaginary repository of euphemisms. If you want to use a euphemism to sell your company’s cheap airline seats, go right ahead; in the end, the only thing you’ll damage is your company’s reputation.

But as someone—maybe Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes—said, “Your right to free speech ends at my nose.” Or something like that. (Okay, I paraphrased—the real quote is much clunkier, but have a look if you like.)

In the political realm, euphemisms can be dangerous. In the 1990s, the Serbs in the multicultural former Yugoslavia got tired of fighting their Croat neighbors. So they started killing them instead. Genocide? Oh no, no—nothing like that. “Ethnic cleansing.”

Beware the clunky two-word term that replaces a perfectly serviceable single word. But politicians—er, “elected officials”—don’t like people to think they’re genocidal. And because they called their policy “ethnic cleansing,” journalists and others followed suit. And everyone slept snugly in their beds (except the Croats).

Euphemisms like "ethnic cleansing" kill people. The guy with the pot belly inspired it.
Head of the Serbian Radical Party leads a rally in Belgrade, August 2016. Photo: Getty Images

Fun fact!—the guy who came up with the idea of “ethnic cleansing” held a Trump rally in Belgrade this summer. See how diverse the crowd was?

We’ll be seeing more euphemisms in the U.S.A.—the “Euphemism-S.A.”—under the Trump administration. Like “alt-right,” a new term in most of our vocabularies.

One journalist friend of mine wrote that alt-right “sounds like an indie music festival.” She suggested we call those folks “right supremacists” instead.

I’d go for “white supremacists.” On the plus side, it’s immediately recognizable; no one will wonder what it really means. On the minus side, it’s sadly not inclusive enough. Some of the people these partisans feel superior to—LGBT and Jewish people leap to mind—also come in white-skinned versions.

And Steve Bannon, primary mouthpiece of the alt-right white supremacists, is not a dangerous racist, misogynist, homophobic anti-Semite. Nope. He’s “controversial.” Good to know, CBS. Very enlightening. For significantly more accurate descriptions, see the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “A Field Guide to Identifying a White Nationalist.”

Join the euphemism police

If you care about language, and justice, and, um, not killing people just because they’re different than you, then join me in the Euphemism Police. Help people understand the power of euphemisms to normalize the unthinkable: It’s not homicidal hatred, it’s an “alternative” view. It’s not genocide, it’s “cleansing.” Doesn’t that sound cozy? I mean, who doesn’t want a cleaner home?

Wherever you stand on the genuine, important issues facing our country, please do not let our language become another victim of politics. Call out euphemisms wherever you find them. Translate them into honest English. And let’s have an open discussion about facts.


Discover how to say what you mean and mean what you say. Register for my free webinar “The Courage to Communicate”—Wednesday November 30th, 8pm Eastern, 5pm Pacific.

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