Tag Archives: euphemisms

Necessary Information

In colonial New England, the “necessary” was the room where you took care of necessary bodily functions — in other words, the toilet, restroom, lavatory, bathroom, latrine, powder room — pick your favorite term. (Off-topic but interesting: Why are there so many words for the same place?) The people in charge of these facilities appear to believe that they have to supply information to those who use them, as you see in this sign, which states what I would have thought was fairly obvious:









Okay, is there someone out there who thinks leaving the door open is standard procedure? I should point out that this restroom is right next to the eating area of a small café. You can hear people munching through the closed (and locked) door when you’re inside, and I guess the people outside occasionally hear you. So is a reminder really necessary? Plus, the first statement cries out for a direct object (“before you use the facilities” or something similar). I’d also like to see a period after “Thank you,” which isn’t, I admit, a sentence but seems to need closure.

Onward and ungrammatically upward, as in capital letters:

The sign wants to direct your throwing arm (actually, hand, according to the illustration), but the sign writer throws capital letters around at random. Also note the absence of a period at the end of the sentence — which really is a sentence.

One more:









Aren’t restrooms constructed for “conducting personal hygiene practices”? Isn’t that the whole point? This beauty, by the way, sat atop a sink. I washed my hands anyway. I hope everyone else does, too. It’s necessary.


Busting what?

Recently The New York Times quoted a politician’s reference to “ordinary people busting their necks.” Instead of thinking about the presidential campaign, socio-economic class, and other important issues, I got stuck on one question: Why “necks”?

When I was a kid, “busting” (or “breaking”) your neck was a description of physical danger, as in “slow down or you’ll bust your neck.” However, the politician was talking about people who work hard, day in and day out. What “ordinary people” were busting, linguistically, were body parts considerably closer to the floor than their necks.

Not to be coy: The phrase the politician should have used was “busting their butts.” But — “butt” isn’t always accepted in polite company. Hence the proliferation of euphemisms, such as “seat,”  “rear,” and “bottom.” And “butt” isn’t the only body-part word to land in the improper column. In the 19th century, ladies ordered “seat fixing,” not “rump steak,” and ate “chests” or a “slice of bosom” instead of chicken breasts.

But we’re in the 21st century, not the 19th. I searched the Internet to see whether the expression had changed. I found some videos with disturbing titles like “busting pimples on your neck,” which I wisely decided not to watch. I also found  references to “break ya neck” in song lyrics. Those were about sex — I think — not jobs.

So the politician’s comment was inaccurate. There’s a shock! At least this time the mistake was in word choice, not facts. I admit I may be missing something because I spend a lot of time “busting my neck” at the computer, composing this blog and writing books. And I also admit that in a campaign season filled with outrageous statements, retaining a bit of shame is somehow comforting.

A lie by any other name . . .

A recent reference to “false facts” in an article in my hometown paper, The New York Times, set me to thinking about the ways journalists talk about lies. Given the current presidential campaign, this is a hot topic. My first reaction to “false facts” was that the phrase is an oxymoron . . . a contradiction of itself. If something is false, it’s not a fact. If it’s a fact, it’s not false. Other popular ways to refer to lies are “misstatements,” “misunderstandings,” “exaggerations,” “stretches,” and “wrong impressions” (this last from the liar who says something like “I’m sorry if I gave the wrong impression” when caught).

Despite my reference to lies, I do know that a “false fact” may simply be a mistake, not an attempt to mislead. I am holding onto that belief with both hands lately, with flashbacks to the days when I hoped for, but did not expect, the Tooth Fairy to be real.

Yet how should the media characterize what Politifact (note the name) calls “pants on fire” assertions? One tactic is not to label something as true or false but instead to present information alongside contradictory claims. The problem, of course, is that this approach sometimes leads to the mere appearance of fairness and gives credence to the ridiculous, as in “a member of the Flat Earth Society countered NASA’s claims of that Earth is a spherical planet.”

Nor is the opposite approach perfect. If we rely on pundits to decide what’s factual or fanciful, we’d better make sure that we have great pundits. Extraordinarily wise pundits. Impeccable pundits! All of which are as abundant as unicorns. Complicating the problem, of course, is the fact (and I do assert it as a fact) that many people seek out an expert who will confirm what they already believe.

But this is a post about language, not politics. Back to “false facts”: I’d replace that term with “false information” or “false statements,” with accompanying proof.  And if it’s intentional, I vote for “lie.” This political season, that may be the only choice I have.

Pregnant Persons

On the subway this morning I heard a recorded announcement begging riders to give up their seats to “elderly, disabled, and pregnant persons.” In my experience – and contrary to New Yorkers’ reputation for callous disregard of others – all sorts of people leap up to offer seats to those with gray hair (me, for example) and to others with obvious physical needs. Still, I was pleased to hear the reminder.

M for MTA

A kinder, gentler MTA









I must confess, though, that I spent the whole ride thinking about the phrase “pregnant persons.” The writer wanted three adjectives (elderly, disabled, and pregnant) to modify the noun persons. But because only females can give birth, the gender-neutral term, pregnant persons, sounded odd.

I considered alternatives. Substituting pregnant women doesn’t work, because then you’re being polite only to females, as the other two adjectives attach to women. With that wording, a fragile 90-year-old guy is out of luck, as are men of any age who have broken legs or other conditions that make standing on a moving train a bad idea.

Nor can you simply turn those adjectives into nouns, ceding the seat to the elderly, disabled, or pregnant. This wording reduces complex human identity to one characteristic. I’m old, but age is just one part of me. I imagine that wheelchair users and others with physical issues feel the same way.  (For a longer discussion of age-related terms, check out “Euph and Old Age” in this blog. Here’s the URL:  http://www.grammarianinthecity.com/?p=479.)

One solution is to rearrange the sequence, so that you’re talking about pregnant women, and elderly and disabled persons. That works, but it’s awkward and may too easily be misread as excluding women from the more general category, persons.

So what’s a train-riding grammarian to do? I’m voting for something like this: “Please give up your seat to anyone who has difficulty standing.” But I’m open to suggestions from every person, including pregnant ones.

Have a Good Whatever

The New York Times reports that Starbucks  has unveiled the 2015 holiday coffee cup, a Rothkoesque shading of reds adorned only with the corporate logo.

Controversial coffee

Noncontroversial coffee cup available here! Or at least that’s the goal.









The official line is that the company wants to encourage creativity and doodling on cardboard vessels in those willing to pay far too much for a beverage. (Okay, “pay far too much”  isn’t part of the official line. It’s my observation.)  According to Starbucks, the goal of the 2015 cup is “to usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories.”  In other words, aim for everyone and offend no one.

Of course, critics immediately blasted the company for “erasing Christmas” and even “hating Jesus.” I must confess that I’ve never thought of turning to a coffee cup for spiritual inspiration. Plus, the official symbols of Christmas in New York City, as far as I can tell, are the giant tree in Rockefeller Center and brightly decorated, strident pleas to spend money on presents. So at first the Starbucks controversy puzzled me.

But then I realized that Starbucks’ new cup is part of a trend toward meaningless generalities. Employees in local stores used to wish that I  “have a nice day,” or, from the over- perky, that I “have a really great day.” Counting my change and trying to remember the next item on my to-do list, I paid little attention to these fervent hopes for my wellbeing. But somewhere in my consciousness was a bit of gratitude, and I did notice when the comments changed. Now shopkeepers generally tell me to “have a good one.” A good what? Not that I was crazy about “nice” or “really great” day, but seriously, were those expressions too controversial? And is the next step, “have a good whatever” or, with a nod to Seinfeld,  “a good yada yada”?

Sir Isaac Newton held that every action is balanced by an equal and opposite reaction.  The rise in blandness, it seems, makes extremism not only possible but inevitable. In other words, that  plain red coffee cup sets the tone of the US presidential campaign. Who knew?

What’s in a name?

Google and others are currently investing a billion dollars or so in . . . well, in what? An invention that has, at best, a dubious name.

Now, assigning a name that attracts attention and doesn’t intentionally mislead is no easy task. (I’m ignoring, for now, names whose sole purpose is to deceive consumers – something akin to “Healthy Cigarettes.”)  So consider for a moment the race to develop a car that moves along without an active, engaged, human driver. Of which, judging from what I see when I walk around the city, there are many.

The current leader in the name-race is driverless car. I have a problem with that term. You can’t invent what already exists. True,  humans sit behind the steering wheels of today’s driverless cars, but because the drivers are applying makeup, changing the CD, or uploading to Instagram, the vehicles are essentially driverless.

First runner-up is self-driving car, building on the tradition of self-cleaning oven, self-defrosting freezer, and other devices that replace human labor. In my view, this term is better, but picky grammarian that I am, I question the self portion of the name. Can an inanimate object have a self? If the lasagna drips out of the pan and sizzles on the oven floor (a frequent occurrence in my household), can the oven object? Does the freezer know that I have expired food stored in it? I rest my case.

Then there’s the robotic car. But how to differentiate between the sedan that turns left at the corner while human occupants send out selfies (Look at me! I’m inside a robot car!) and one that moves along, sans humans, to sweep the streets or scoop up poop? Plus, a robot car sounds like just the thing to transport sci-fi creatures that have artificial intelligence, unlimited working hours, and no need for health insurance beyond the occasional reboot.

On to autonomous. I liked this one until I looked up the official definition of autonomous and found that it means “independent,” “operating according to its own laws,” or “not governed by outside forces.” Do I have to mention the hefty DMV manual filled with rules a potential driver is supposed to know before receiving a license?

Not that licensees actually obey those rules. In fact, in tests of driverless, self-driving, robotic, or autonomous (pick your favorite label) cars, accidents occurred for the most human of reasons. Other vehicles – those with a human in charge – didn’t follow the rules. Hardly any came to a complete stop at a stop sign, for example. Non-human operated vehicles sat indefinitely, waiting with machine patience, for their chance to cross the intersection. I’d nominate that last term but  somehow,  somewhere (and probably in New York City) a German Shepherd is tooling along behind the wheel while its human companion considers the pros and cons of doggy daycare and leaves the driving to the canine.

If you have any suggestions for this automotive achievement, let me know. I’m off to walk the streets of Manhattan, self-walking and semi-autonomously. I’ll let you know if I run across any driverless cars, or if any run across me.

No workers, but lots of work

The famous command of the Communist Manifesto — “Workers of the world, unite!’  — is obsolete, and not just because communism proved to be, as the old joke says, the most painful route from capitalism to capitalism. The communist ideology  failed, but the slogan bites the dust for a completely different reason. Those who labor are no longer workers. Somehow it has become crass to refer to employees as the underlings they are, as this sign illustrates:


Who are we playing?

Who is the opponent?









The idea that “we’re all in this together” may appeal to management (where you’ll find many managers but few coaches), but I doubt that the store displaying this sign shares power and profits equally.

Another popular word for employee is partner, which is what you are when you work full time at Starbucks and Whole Foods, among other New Age enterprises. Barnes and Noble invites you to join its community of booksellers, not apply for a job. At Walmart you’re an associate, either management-level or hourly. Traditionally, an associate worked as a colleague, not always as an equal, but close to the power center. New lawyers become associates on their way (they hope) to partner status. Walmart has many employees (sorry, associates) who complain about forced overtime and underpayment. These claims may be without merit, but it’s hard to see the people at the registers of a discount store truly associating with those higher in the company structure, as associates in law firms do.

Conferring titles instead of power and increased pay isn’t confined to the business world. Just ask a distinguished professor or a professor emeritus. True, some with these designations see a small bump in salary, and many an adjunct (a college-level instructor paid a subsistence-level salary with no job security) would love to join their ranks. But the point is the same: Symbolic gestures, whatever the field, have come to replace concrete advantages.

Just ask the partner who bags your groceries.


You are what (you think) you eat

I didn’t bat an eye when I read two separate references to “artisanal pickles” in yesterday’s New York Times. I live in Manhattan, where signs advertising “artisanal food” or as in this sign, “artisan bread,” abound:

Sign  by an adjective-challenged writer.

Sign by an adjective-challenged writer.


So I was fine with artisanal pickles, which I presume are soaked in brine lacking any ingredient with more than three syllables in its name. But an article about “artisanal fish” stopped me cold. What would an artisanal fish be? I pictured busy little fins, fluttering around watery workshops as they fashioned – well, what would an artisanal fish create? Seaweed cooked according to an old family recipe?

After some digging, I discovered that artisanal fish is the term for the opposite of large-scale, commercial fishing, with its miles-square nets and other ocean-destroying practices. If I eat an artisanal fish, I’m chewing on something caught on a hook at the end of a line held by a real person, plying the waters in a small boat inherited from a crusty-but-kind, weathered ancestor who patiently explained ancient methods before he sailed off beyond the horizon. Or at least that’s what the label hopes I think.

The term, though, has no real legal definition. At least the definition of “organic” has evolved from “any carbon-based life form” into “free from pesticides and genetic engineering,” with some legislation or certification to back it up. But artisanal, like its linguistic cousin craft, resides in the eye of the beholder. Or in this case, the mouth.

That got me thinking about other phrases I see on signs and menus. They may have meaning, and the products themselves may carry more flavor and nutritional value than others — but how do we really know? The term green in this sign hints at earth-friendly, natural (dare I say artisanal?) cooking, but the term may be either completely appropriate or totally undeserved.



P1010585 (2)




Contrast the above sign with this one, whose products are identified only by color:

P1010583 (2)







Or shape:





To be honest, these food products may not be as tasty as artisanal cheese and meat, but at least you know what aspect of the food they’re promoting. Which brings me to the main point. In our over-mechanized world, advertisers know that consumers often want to hurtle  into the past – which they will find with the help of their voice-enabled, speech-recognizing, GPS-loaded, smartphone apps. The product may not be real, good, or natural.  That’s fine, as long as it seems that way. You are what you eat, or in this case, what you think you’re eating.

“Euph” and Old Age

The New York Times recently referred to a “residence for older adults.” My attention snagged on the term older. “Older than whom?” I wondered. The unfinished comparison brought to mind of one of my pet peeves: all the signs reporting that a shop’s coffee, beer, hamburger or whatever was “voted best” without explaining who cast the ballots — chef and spouse, 300 million Americans, everyone at the corner table . . . you get the idea.

Then I realized that older adult is just one of the many euphemisms for, well, the old. Somehow older sounds softer than old. The elderly is somewhere in the middle . . . not as harsh as old, but not as sappy as older. In the past (which we older adults remember well), retired people were known as Golden Agers, living in their Golden Years. Ironic terms, if the stats about the retirement income of most people aged 65+ are correct.

These terms replaced some fairly accurate, descriptive, but unpleasant labels: long in the tooth (just wait – your gums will recede someday too), graybeard (can’t shave with reading glasses on), and declining years (what’s not to sag?). These  terms are the reverse of euphemisms (mal-misms?) but in some ways I prefer them to the shinier autumn of life or advanced age.

Think about advanced for a moment. “To advance” is “to move forward.” And where are you going at an advanced age? What is ahead of you? This expression is a close relative of senior, a term that showed up in the 1930s when old people ate free food at senior centers.


Senior. Sigh.

Senior. Sigh.

As a former high school teacher who dealt mainly with 12th graders, I shepherded many seniors toward graduation and college. Applying the term to the last stage of life (insert  your favorite euphemism here) makes me think about my own graduation — from senior to . . . well, whatever’s next. And I’m not sure I’m ready for that one!

Maybe this sign has the best answer. From now on you can call me major, the opposite of minor.


"Under 40"?

“Under 40”?

Following Guest?

Some years ago, I stood on Fifth Avenue waiting for the next convoy of buses to arrive. (FYI, Car People: New York City buses travel in packs, apparently under orders to stay within sight of another bus driver at all times.) I remarked to a fellow potential passenger that I was going to be late. “I can’t be late,” he replied. “I’m a physician. I’m ‘delayed,’ not ‘late.’” So I get why doctors have patients, because patience is what you need when your healer is attending to someone else’s life-threatening condition or waiting for public transportation.

My lawyer and accountant have clients, but the stores in my neighborhood have customers — or at least they used to (more about that later). Why the difference? The official definition of a client is someone who receives services. A customer, according to several dictionaries I consulted, pays for goods or services. The term client seems to elevate the service provider to the status of a professional, someone who’s chosen a career path and studied mightily for the qualifications to practice it. (Why practice, by the way? Haven’t they perfected their skills by now?)

I realize, of course, that value judgments are all over these words. Plenty of people who have spent years learning a craft or trade and decades pursuing it have customers. When I drop off clothes at the dry cleaners, for example, the hardworking people who run the place manage to remove all sorts of stains and spruce up my garments, all the while smiling at their customers and staying on the right side of the many laws that regulate their business.

Now “trending,” as they say on social media, is guest. Hotels used to have customers or clients, but now they have guests. Okay, you stay overnight somewhere, they take care of you and at least in theory try to make you comfortable. Those activities do fall into the category of hospitality, so I can live with guest when it comes to lodging. But employees at my favorite frozen yogurt place now bid the “following guest” to step up to the little scale to weigh each portion of empty but oh-so-tasty calories and compute the price. How am I a guest when I have to pay for this product? Should I extrapolate and charge for the asparagus at my next dinner party? I imagine the corporate expert who wrote the script for this frozen-yogurt franchise. “Let’s create a cozy atmosphere! Everyone will feel like a guest in our home and eat more yogurt,” they say in my fantasy, although how anyone could live with three flat-screen televisions displaying tween sit-coms and a color scheme that could most mercifully be called garish is beyond my comprehension.

My recommendation: Make everyone (patient, client, guest) a customer. Because, as we all know, the customer is always right.