I've been writing about euphemisms for almost 10 years: I believe my column-versary is this October. I've noted hundreds of doozies, from talent calibration (layoffs) to conscious uncoupling (Gwyneth Paltrow's insane term for a divorce).
The story of euphemism, which I learned from listening to George Carlin bits, is small and clear words morphing into long and vague monstrosities. Increased syllables pack a term with extra truthiness every darn time.
Or so I thought.
Turns out evasion can take the form of a Trojan horsepucky so subtle and tiny most would not recognize it as evasive at all. But Maggie Balistreri (who, full disclosure, I work with in the naming business, though I've followed her writing from afar for over a decade) isn't most writers. Her expanded edition of The Evasion-English Dictionary shows how small, everyday, nothing-to-see-here words can hide as much hokum as the longest and vaguest jargon.
Balistreri modestly announces, "This is a short book about short words—like and but, it and you, the mainstays of speech that can go unexamined, those throwaway words by which we reveal what we mean, no matter how hard we try not to." Right there Balistreri shows her concern with words, truth, and the nanoparticle of Venn diagram they share.
A sample of this terrific book is available at McSweeney's, where Balistreri dissects one of the most dissectible words of our time: actually. It's not news that this term is an early warning sign of mansplaining, but no one has plumbed the nuances of its nincompoopery like Balistreri.
For example, there's "The Pleasant Surprise Actually," which means "My low expectation has been exceeded." Balistreri's examples are perfect:
"You're funny. You actually just made me laugh out loud."
"That's actually a very good question."
"I mean it was a wedding but actually I kind of had a good time."
Among other forms of actually and types of twaddle in her sights, Balistreri casts a suspicious, laser-focused eye on the notion that technology is eroding society—or doing anything of its own will, as if it had an agenda and point of view, which it doesn't yet in these precious pre-Cylon years. The idea that technology makes us do things is far too passive for Balistreri, who uses her lasso of truth to reveal reality: technology lets us do things. Change making to letting in the following sentence and it's hard not to agree with Balistreri while weeping for humanity (and laughing at the wit):
"Technology is making people socialize less."
"Technology is making us become hate-spewing and antagonistic. Just look at the comments!"
This is the format for most of the book, and it's a smart one, forcing the reader to get off their metaphorical hiney and do something. Few books are active in this exact way. Balistreri decodes evasiveness, arguing why X = BS, but doesn't make the substitutions herself. It's up to the reader to take "I can't believe it's been six hours. I should watch less TV" and make the translation of "I can't believe it's been six hours. I won't watch less TV." That activity creates a Mad Libs-like workout even lexical couch potatoes will enjoy. I believe Balistreri's nonsense-dispelling proclamations even more because I put the puzzle pieces together myself.
In chapter after chapter, Balistreri is a surgeon, cutting to the heart of the horsefeathers and stanching the flow of drivel. Balistreri writes off "the relationship" as a unicorn, a nonexistent MacGuffin disguising the true subjects and culprits: you and me. The substitution of "me" is illustrated by sentences such as "Are you even committed to the relationship? Because I can't tell." The substitution of you is a perfect fit in sentences such as, "Even my friends can see there are problems with the relationship." Either way, what a clever dodge.
Most of this smart book involves taking out a soft word and inserting the hard truth. But some words can't even be replaced: they just need to be cut. A chapter on superfluous words is especially fun, allowing Balistreri to flame-broil a buffet of bushwa:
becoming the sort of person who ignores homeless people."
"It's just a fluke that I even saw it since I
never watch those types of shows."
These two examples give a good sense of the range of Balistreri's observations about evasion and language. Evading, for just about all of us, is somewhere between a habit and a body function. We cover up our terrible taste in TV as readily as we downplay our disregard for humanity. We're evasion sapiens, and Balistreri has written the ultimate field guide to our verbal droppings.
But there's hope. Maybe? This book will haunt you like a sarcastic Caspar, but it may also firm up your verbiage like a lexical Charles Atlas. Insistently, Balistreri challenges readers to say something, dammit: "Change your words and you change your deeds. It is, for example, harder to look someone in the eye and say 'I am unproductive' than it is to say 'I feel unproductive.' Easy is easier than hard, and if I cringe at the admission that I am unproductive, maybe that will spur me to industry." Maybe can be another worthless weasel word, but it's better than nothing.
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 other articles by Mark Peters