Culture

25 Terribly Misleading Euphemisms

By Amber Healy - September 13, 2018

Just be direct, people say. Tell me what you really mean. Don’t sugar-coat it. Well, sometimes it’s not that simple.

Language is a Funny Thing:

Credits: Photo: CollegeDegrees360 / Flickr
Skip to the end for the video.

Language is a funny thing. We can say something 100% clear and cleanly and yet it’s still in code. A “spirited” student is one who’s always disrupting class, but the teacher doesn’t want to make the parents angry. A person doesn’t die. They “pass away,” or “move on” or “met Jesus.” It’s kinder and gentler that way.

The great thing about language is also one of the things that make learning a foreign language so difficult, and Led Zeppelin put it best: “You know sometimes words have two meanings.”

There’s a Certain Poetry to Euphemisms:

There’s a certain poetry to euphemisms, words or phrases that are used to make some events or situations a little more palatable, easier to discuss in polite company and less likely to prompt a screaming match among those with differing opinions. (Count the euphemisms in that sentence, why don’t ya.)

And let’s be honest: Sometimes things need, desperately, to be toned down in order for a conversation to progress. The debate over abortion, for example, has a minefield of delicate language: pro-life, pro-choice, right to choose, right to life, etc. And even with meek words, it’s a fierce debate in some regions of the world.

Here are some examples of words that sound like one thing but might mean something totally different, in order to keep the peace or at least delay the fighting.

1. Extraordinary Rendition:

Credits: Prisoners detained at a U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Photo: U.S. Navy

This might sound innocent enough. Maybe even something that would be said after a really well-acted play or an outstanding performance of a piece of music. “Extraordinary rendition! That’s what Shakespeare himself would sound like should the Bard still be alive to grace the stage!” or “Good grief! I can’t believe that extraordinary rendition of ‘Layla’! Clapton himself would be proud.”

Except the real meaning is far more sinister. Extraordinary rendition is “the process by which a country seizes a person assumed to be involved in terrorist activity and then transports him or her for interrogation to a country where due process of law is unlikely to be respected.”

You’ve heard of CIA “dark sites,” where people are taken in secret and might come back with bumps, bruises, cuts, symptoms of exhaustion, etc? That’s the subject of an extraordinary rendition.

That’s the British meaning. The American meaning is similar: “Secret or forcible rendition of a suspected criminal to another country, often a country known to violate human rights and due process of law.” So the Americans just straight-up take possible or suspected criminals to a place where they can use any and all means necessary to get information and/or try a person for crimes. It’s not pretty at all.

SourceExtraordinary rendition

2. Innovative Accounting:

Credits: Some accountants like fudge a lot more than others.

Probably no surprise here, but in most instances, honest accounting doesn’t want to be, and shouldn’t be, innovative. Numbers are numbers. Innovation means to be creative, to “think outside the box,” to take a rigid concept and make something new and different out of it. Innovative accounting is… well… not that.

“Innovative accounting refers to the rigorous process of defining, empirically measuring and communicating the true progress of innovation – such as customer retention and usage patterns—whether for start-up companies, for new products or business units within established companies,” the Financial Times says.

Er, what?

Traditional accounting and bookkeeping works well for established companies, but given the many loopholes and hoops new companies have to work with in their first year or two of existence, Innovative accounting is a better approach. Basically, it means fudging numbers to make things look better. True accounting would stifle or suffocate a new company and basically cut it off at the knees if using straight numbers the same way an established company would.

“In this context, financial ratio analysis, cash flow analysis and other standard practices shed an unflattering light on the new innovation, especially in comparison to existing products or businesses with established companies,” the Financial Times continues.

So, yeah. Innovative accounting is a euphemism for fixing your books to make things look better than they really are.

Source: Definition of innovation accounting

3. Compassion Zone:

Credits: Compassion isn't really the focus of this area in Kansas City. Photo: Garry Knight

Doesn’t this sound lovely? Or like some new age millennial kind of area? Like, maybe, if we spent more time in the compassion zone, we’d all get along a lot better? We’d be more empathetic, more considerate, more caring to our fellow persons, animals and the environment?

Yeah… the real meaning of “compassion zone” is anything but caring, empathetic or considerate.

A “compassion zone” refers to an area within Kansas City designated for homeless people. Those who have nowhere else to go are herded into a specific location where they could be easily controlled, monitored and watched for activity. The rest of the city was a no-fly zone, so to speak. It was a kind of prison without walls, a roof or any amenities at all afforded to those who have not actually committed a crime.

The “compassion zone” encompasses City Hall, police headquarters, courts and jails, half-way houses, shelters, missions and the main library building. Well, the library was originally included until people complained it was infested with vagrants. Then they moved it. You know, because this is the “compassion zone,” not the “vagrants in libraries” zone.

Sources: 12 Euphemisms Used to Mislead You, The Security Chief’s Kansas City Compassion Zone

4. Depopulate:

Credits: Destroyed businesses and municipal buildings in Long Beach, Mississippi, from Hurricane Katrina.

Ok, there’s no saving this phrase. There’s no niceness hidden here, there’s no ulterior motive. There’s no sugar-coating.

To “depopulate” an area is to get rid of living beings who make that place their home.

An area can be “depopulated” by forces of nature: fire, famine, drought, flood, natural disaster. People do up and move when their homeland is destroyed and becomes inhabitable. If you’re a farming society and the land you’ve worked for generations suddenly can’t grow weeds, you’re going to pull up stakes and move to a new area and try to start again in the hopes of feeding your family and earning your keep.

The phrase is also used to denote a strategic decision made by farmers to kill their herds or flocks if they become overrun with a disease.

Think of the H1N1 swine flu crisis and the H5N1 bird flu scare. Cramped markets all around the Asian world eliminated their flocks of chickens in order to eradicate the disease and to make chicken coops clean and habitable for new birds in order to end the transmission.

This can also refer to people moving from one area to another due to war or crisis. Think of the refugees moving hundreds if not thousands of miles due to war in Rwanda, Syria, Kosovo and other places.

Sources: depopulate, Definition of depopulate, An investigation into human pandemic influenza virus (H1N1) 2009 on an Alberta swine farm

5. Normal Involuntary Attrition / Uninstalled:

Credits: That moment when all of the phrases you've had nightmares about suddenly get directed at you.

Here we have a situation with many flowery names. They all mean the same thing and it’s almost always a huge bummer. You’re sitting at work, doing your job, minding your own business and you get the tap on the shoulder. Or the HR representative comes looking for you. Do you have a moment to talk? Let’s go into their office. The door closes. It’s the middle of the morning, or just after lunch, or the end of the day. Suddenly the proverbial lightbulb goes off: you’re getting fired.

Normal involuntary attrition is just that: the dismissal of employees from a company. Getting fired. Being laid off. Receiving a pink slip. Being shown the door. Downsizing. A “change in course.” “Going in a new direction.” Call it what you want, but you’ve been canned.  It’s corporate-speak 101. It sucks. And calling it “normal involuntary attrition” doesn’t really make it any better at all.

Sources: Weasel Words: Translating Deceptive Corporate Language, Spinglish: The Definitive Dictionary of Deliberately Deceptive Language, Plain Speaking Also Falls Victim to Cisco’s Ax

6. Debarking:

Credits: How much is that doggy in the window that can no longer make a sound? Photo: Emily 2000-2007

Is this related to paper birch trees losing their ultra-thin bark? Or maybe how young deer will rub their antlers against tree trunks, all part of the maturation process? That’s gotta be it, right?

There are a few definitions of debark. One means to unload, like getting off a plane or ship. Disembark might be an evolved or newer version of the word, so this makes sense.

But it also means to alter or remove the vocal cords of an animal, like a dog, so it can no longer vocalize.

We’ve all had that neighbor with the loud dog that barks all night, that just won’t shut up, that won’t stay quiet when you’re trying to sleep and it’s driving you batty. The in-poor-taste joke is to make it so that the dog doesn’t bark at all.

But to actually go through the trouble of putting a dog under anesthesia, removing or surgically altering the poor creature so it can no longer make a sound that it uses to scare predators, alert its owners to danger or to greet its friends and its people? That’s just flat-out cruel. In some places, it’s also illegal.

Sources: debark, Debarking

7. Public Diplomacy:

Credits: Iraqi Army soldiers take time to hand out candy to children of the poverty stricken neighborhood of Shuhada in southern Fallujah. Photo: Pfc. Brian D. Jones

Well this sounds nice and friendly! Public diplomacy must mean helping people out, right? Giving them assistance to improve their lives, helping to become better citizens and making the community and, therefore, the world at large a better place?

Eh, not so much. Public diplomacy is a series of government-sponsored programs that try to influence the residents of a different country to agree with them. Remember during the Bush administration, there was lots of public talk about winning the “hearts and minds” of people in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq? How soldiers would take candy, toys and other little treats to young kids in order to show them Americans are the good guys and to build trust? That’s one aspect of public diplomacy. Dropping propaganda brochures from planes to foster dissent against a government in power is public diplomacy too. This goes all the way to the media as well: planting articles or quotes to make the foreign government seem beneficial and win favor from people in another country to start turning the tide toward a different leadership regime.

Source: Public Diplomacy

8. Flashlight Therapy:

Credits: A light at the end of a very dark tunnel? Nope.

In the winter, especially in northern climates where the sun doesn’t shine as much, people sometimes use special lamps to help increase the amount of Vitamin D in their bodies to fight depression. It’s a common practice against seasonal affective disorder, the super-appropriately acronym’d SAD. So flashlight therapy must be a form of that, right?

WRONG. “Flashlight therapy” is another way of saying a person beaten by a flashlight, usually one carried by law enforcement officers. This might be an easy tool at hand, as it’s on their tactical belts, especially if an arrest is happening at night and the flashlight’s already out to look inside a vehicle. Why grab a billy club to hit and subdue a non-cooperative suspect if the flashlight is already in hand? Whether to the head, face, torso or other body part, a solid metal flashlight sure can change someone’s tune quickly.

Sources: The Language Of Police: Cop Slang, flashlight therapy

9. Transfer Tubes:

Credits: In today's Internet world, one incorrect statement can be spread globally in minutes.Source: Militarysupplyhouse.com

Here’s an interesting case where a word was misheard and misunderstood and it led to false information spreading around the Internet like wildfire.

During the Iraq War, in 2006, someone suggested they heard that the Pentagon was no longer using the term “body bag” for the plastic bags used to transport fallen soldiers’ remains back to military bases in order to send them home for burial. Instead, this person said, the Pentagon was calling them “transfer tubes.”

In truth, the Pentagon doesn’t call these items by either name. Since 1965, the manufacturers and suppliers of such containers refers to them as “pouch, human remains.” The Pentagon refers to them as “human remains pouch,” or HRP, since the first Gulf War in the 1990s.

The miscommunication comes from a misunderstanding between a reporter from the Toronto Star and a military spokesperson. The reporter was covering the U.S. military’s decision to ban cameras at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where soldiers killed in action are returned home. The reporter misheard the military spokesperson say “transfer case,” wrote down “tubes” instead, and the urban legend was born.

Source: How Does the Pentagon Say “Body Bag”?

10. All-Out Strategic Exchange:

Credits: A nuclear bomb explodes.

What could this possibly be? Let’s break it down:

All-out means everything’s on the table, all options are available, it’s an all-encompassing approach.

Strategic means tactical, with specific purpose, a set of moves or options designed to give someone an upper hand against an opponent.

Exchange usually means trading one thing for another, whether it’s currency, ideas or that awful sweater you received as a present.

Put them together and you get…. Nuclear war. Yeah. That’s what the military term means, at least the way it was originally used during the Cold War.

An “all-out strategic exchange” meant warring factions would have exhausted all other options or were looking for a quick solution to a problem and felt no other avenues were open or available. If one country pushed the big scary red button or gave the super-secret words, the other would do the same. This is the same kind of idea as “mutually assured destruction”: If you fire yours, we’ll fire ours and we’ll all be dead.

Source: How to Speak in Spinglish

11. Binocular Deprivation:

Credits: A slightly weird name for a cruel practice.

This doesn’t mean taking away someone’s binoculars as they watch a baseball game or the opera or because a teenager found out that the lady across the way likes to sunbathe without all or part of her bathing suit. It’s far worse.

Scientists wanted to know how quickly a living being’s mental and neurological systems adapt to the loss of eyesight. So they sewed shut kittens’ eyes to see what would happen, both as the kitten learned to live without sight and how quickly they went back to normal after the sutures were removed.

To be fair, this is kind of like when doctors put an eyepatch over a child’s eye to help make a lazy eye stronger without having to resort to surgery. And it’s likely experiments like this helped make such an option for children possible. But it certainly doesn’t sound all that pleasant.

Source: The Extent Of Visual Recovery From Early Monocular Or Binocular Visual Deprivation In Kittens

12. Biosolids:

Credits: Poop by any other name is still poop, Photo: SuSanA Secretariat / Flickr

If you’ve ever driven past a farm on a warm summer’s day and smelled something a little pungent, you know what biosolids are. The same goes for anyone who has paid a visit to the local water treatment plant. Or lived close to a river or creek that’s downstream from a water treatment facility that’s overflowed due to a particularly heavy rainstorm.

Poo. Biosolids are poop.

Or to use the technical and scientific term, biosolids are “nutrient-rich organic materials resulting from the treatment of domestic sewage in a treatment facility. When treated and processed, these residuals can be recycled and applied as fertilizer to improve and maintain productive soils and stimulate plant growth.”

Poop. Manure. Great fertilizers but really stinky business.

Source: Frequent Questions about Biosolids

13. End of Life Decision-Making Pills:

Credits: The talk no one likes to have. Photo: E-Magine Art - Flickr

Here’s another incident where something sounds kind of positive but might not be.

This doesn’t mean writing out a will, picking a plot in a cemetery, talking with a funeral director and taking some of the pain and stress out of your death in order to help make things easier for your loved ones after you’re no longer alive.

End-of-life decision making is something you’ll see in people with suicidal ideations and intentions to go through with it. This is giving away all possessions, maybe withdrawing from friends and activities that the person really enjoyed and otherwise making arrangements to end their life. This is something that health care workers have to watch for in hospitals as well: terminally ill patients might start stockpiling medications to speed their death.

It can also mean having frank discussions with doctors and caregivers about a person’s wishes if they are terminal: whether to sign a “do not resuscitate” order or refusal to force-feed a person, etc.

Sources: End-of-Life Decision Making in Intensive Care, Consent and end of life decisions

14. Negative Patient Outcome:

Credits: Death comes in many forms and so do the words to describe it. Photo: Don LaVange / Flickr

When we get sick, we go see a doctor or nurse practitioner who assesses our symptoms and devises a course of action to make us well again. In each prescription administered, there’s a list of possible side effects: Drowsiness, cottonmouth, loss of appetite, sensitivity to sunlight, that kind of thing.

Some medications can have more severe reactions, especially in people whose immune systems are compromised due to serious illnesses like cancer.

For those people, or others who are undergoing treatment for chronic illness, they can suffer a negative patient outcome, which is just a technical term for death. It’s a softer-sounding way of saying it, but the result’s still the same.

Source: negative patient outcome

15. Ethnic Cleansing:

Credits: Adolf Hitler did his sinister part in demonstrating the horrible truths behind the term 'ethnic cleansing'. Photo: US National Archives and Records Administration

In Archie Bunker’s world, this is probably how he’d describe a weekly housekeeper whose skin tone was a few shades darker than his own, especially if that person spoke with an accent.

Anyone who’s been awake, alive and alert in the world over the past 20 or so years knows ethnic cleansing is far more sinister and outrageous: it is the systematic killing and/or imprisonment of a specific ethnic group, which forms the minority population of a nation, by the ruling power of a country that is of a different makeup. The end goal of ethnic cleansing is a homogenized ethnic gene pool.

This happens over and over throughout history, from slavery through the Nazi into the 21st Century in Syria and India.

Sources: ethnic cleansing, U.S. declares attacks on Burmese Rohingya Muslims ‘ethnic cleansing’

16. Turn a Trick:

Credits: For some, 'trick' just rolls off the tongue better than the word 'sex.'Photo: Torfo / Flickr

Most people know that to “turn a trick” is common slang for the act of sex-for-pay. The “trick” could also be the person paying for such pleasures. People have been dancing around and creating terms for what’s known, in another equally common cliché, as the transactions performed as part of the world’s oldest profession.

But where did it come from? Possibly a series of French words whose usage and translation shifted and changed over time. “Trique” was a word used to denote a wooden stick, a tool used to help motivate donkeys pulling carts to get a move on. But a “triquer” was the word for erection. It could also mean rough sex performed by a man on a partner, eventually leading the way for “triquer” to mean sex with a prostitute. And there you have it.

Source: Where did the “trick” in the phrase “turning tricks” come from?

17. Relocation Center:

Credits: A young woman waiting at a relocation center in East Africa. Photo: Oxfam East Africa

Y’know, there are words and phrases that you wish would never become relevant again, those that you’d hope we as a civilization would evolve beyond and that would never need to be used ever again, because then it would indicate we’ve learned from our mistakes.

Enter “relocation center.” It is not, as it might suggest, a place where families moving into a new neighborhood would go to learn about community services, the good schools, the better grocery stores and the best playgrounds.

No, a relocation center is an internment camp; god-awful places where a government locks up a population (due to ethnic group, social status, nation of origin, etc) and keeps them until they are sorted out and the government decides what to do with them.

Relocation centers were used in the United States during WWII for Japanese immigrants and Japanese-American citizens after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. They were also used, to a much smaller extent, for Germans, Italians and other ethnicities. And now they’re being used for children and parents trying to emigrate into the U.S. from Mexico and other nations.

Source: relocation center

18. Putting to Sleep:

Credits: This phrase helps make a difficult time a little more comforting. Photo: Padoniavets.com

As a child, if someone was putting you to sleep it usually involved a bedtime story, lots of hugs, maybe a lullaby or two, some snuggles and off to dreamland you went.

As a grown-up, it can be a side-effect of medication, especially allergy meds that warn against operating heavy machinery when taking the pills. It can also be the effect of alcohol, a warm bath, warm milk or any number of other things that help people doze off or quiet an active mind.

But at some point, we learn the other meaning of “put to sleep” when a beloved pet doesn’t come home from the vet. Putting an animal to sleep is sometimes an act of kindness, euthanizing the pet to end suffering and allow the pet to die a painless death. It can be a heartbreaking decision, which is why the phrase used to allude to it is so much kinder and gentler.

Source: put to sleep

19. Economical With the Truth:

Credits: Politicians have come to love this one a lot. Photo: Chris McAndrew

Another phrase with lots of layers: To be economical usually means to be smart with money, to not waste or spend too much on frivolous things.

Politicians are most likely to be economical with the truth, which is just a nice way to say they lie a lot. It can also mean avoiding an uncomfortable situation by revealing only so much information as to answer superficial questions without providing the full, whole and complete truth.

This is the same field of operation as being hypocritical by revealing parts of information without divulging everything in order to make the speaker appear superior to an opponent or to win an argument.

This phrase reportedly originated in the 18th Century but was rarely used at the time. It got a good social boost in 1986 during the “Australian spycatcher” trial, thanks to UK Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong.

Sources: economical with the truth, The meaning and origin of the expression: Economical with the truth

20. The Birds and the Bees:

Credits: It's just easier to chat about chirping birds and insects that sting you with the parents. Photo: Pierre Dalous / Wikimedia

Of all the uncomfortable moments we have in life throughout the course of our existence, having “The Talk” with parents or teachers has to be among the most wince-inducing. Maybe that’s why explaining the hows, whys and particulars of sex is often referred to as “the birds and the bees.”

But why? And how? Well, the origin of that story isn’t abundantly clear, but most kids have seen bees buzzing around flowers, using pollen from other flowers to create new ones and expand their population. Birds hatching eggs also works well to explain how new life is created.

Of course, try explaining that to a six-year-old.

Regardless, it seems no one knows where “the birds and the bees,” as a euphemism for trying to explain where and how babies come about, came from, which is kind of ironic.

Sources: What is the ‘Birds and the Bees’?,The meaning and origin of the expression: The birds and the bees

21. Dear John Letter:

Credits: The letter no one wants to get. Photo: Airman 1st Mya M. Crosby / U.S. Air Force

In the late 1980s, there was a sitcom called “Dear John,” in which Judd Hirsch comes home from work one day to find a letter on his mantle from his wife, informing him she’s leaving him to start a new life.

The phrase itself came from the World War II era, when men were running off to join the war, dreaming of the girl they’d left behind, promises of marriage in the air if only he makes it home alive.

War was a crazy time back then and emotions ran high, understandably. It was also a common occurrence that, sometime later, especially if the soldier was on a long and treacherous deployment, he’d get a letter in the mail from home. “Dear John,” it would begin, as his lady love used ink and paper to break his heart with the news she’d moved on with someone else and was likely already married, possibly with a child on the way. (These were desperate times!) These letters also describe notes telling husbands that their wives wanted a divorce.

Now we have social media and text messages, so it’s possible this phrase will fall out of fashion as suddenly as it showed up.

Sources: Dear John, Dear John

22. Bun in the Oven:

Credits: Some euphemisms are simply more fun to say than what they're covering for.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, in the very early days of television, no one had sex in Sitcomland. No one slept in the same bed unless it was kids sharing a set of bunk beds. Until Lucille Ball had Little Ricky, no one on TV had ever been pregnant. But when Lucy tells Ricky that they’re going to be parents, he doesn’t use the word “pregnant.” He dances around it, singing the song “We’re Having a Baby, My Baby and Me.”

Obviously, that was going to have to change. But the first recorded use of the phrase “bun in the oven” might have been inspired by its close sound to “bunny” and doesn’t show up until 1951, in the book “Cruel Sea,” in which a character says “I bet you left a bun in the oven, both of you.” Since a woman will keep her unborn child within her womb until it has reached full term and can survive in the world, the womb is an oven and the baby is a bun, staying inside where it’s warm and safe until fully “cooked” and ready to come out.

Source: The meaning and origin of the expression: A bun in the oven

23. Enhanced Interrogation Methods:

Credits: The candy-coated term for torture. Photo: Karl Gunnarsson / Wikimedia

The Geneva Conventions spell out, pretty clearly, how prisoners are to be treated during their captivity as well as explaining what types of questioning techniques can be used on them for the purposes of gathering information.

“Enhanced interrogation methods” are almost always in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

These techniques include things like waterboarding, abdominal slaps, confinement in very small spaces, grabbing the person’s collar and shouting loudly at their face from a very close distance or directly holding onto their face, switching up their diet to an all-liquid one, public nudity, putting them in stress positions to inflict pain and exhaustion, sleep deprivation or, in the most humane instance, forced playing of music from a difficult culture at ridiculously loud volumes.

After all, it was a playlist including Van Halen, U2, Bruce Cockburn, Guns ‘N’ Roses and The Doors that broke Manuel Noriega.

Sources: Music torture: How heavy metal broke Manuel Noriega, These Are The 13 ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques’ The CIA Used On Detainees

24. Collateral Damage:

Credits: Let's not avoid the obvious - war is cruel. To everyone. Photo: Daniel Etter / The New York Times

War is hell. It is awful and destructive and usually pointless. But in some extreme circumstances, a government decides the best way to settle a conflict or avenge a wrong is to blow another country or place to smithereens.

“Collateral damage” is the destruction of innocent lives during wartime. It is the leveling of buildings that are not the intended targets but were close enough to be in the path of the bombs.

Collateral damage can be caused to forests, schools, hospitals, farms, even wedding parties. It can also be the stress inflicted on secondary trade partners during a bidding war or trade war over goods and services, with prices going up for everyone even if it’s just two countries in a dispute.

Source: collateral damage

25. Wardrobe Malfunction:

Credits: The new term that almost destroyed a career. Photo: CBS

For a very long time, one of the most searched for videos on YouTube was from the Super Bowl in early 2004. This was the year that Janet Jackson was the halftime show performer, a night that would live in infamy. She brought out Justin Timberlake, in the process of or having just recently left *Nsync, for the grand finale. No one knew it would be THAT grand, as he grabbed the front portion of her costume and exposed her nipple to millions upon millions of people.

The phrase “wardrobe malfunction” did not exist before February 1, 2004. It has been used countless times since.  Timberlake coined the phrase but Jackson has to live with the humiliation and fines.

He got more famous, she had a real setback in her career. And when he was announced as the halftime performer in 2018, many many MANY people were hoping he’d bring her out to make things right. Of course, that didn’t happen.

Sources: Definition of ‘wardrobe malfunction’, Janet Jackson’s ‘wardrobe malfunction’ occurred the last time the Super Bowl was in Houston