Each year, linguists, lexicographers and other language nuts gather at an annual conference under the banner of the American Dialect Society. The highlight of the confab is a raucous vote for choosing the “word of the year,” a now widespread tradition that this organization started decades ago. But in some ways, this event never ends, because the attendees are on the lookout all year long not just for possible “WOTY” winners but nominees for several subcategories: Slang Word of the Year, Most Likely to Succeed, Most Creative.
And on Monday, the CEO of United Airlines likely locked up a position in a category that one generally does not want to be found inspiring: Euphemism of the Year. As a viral video spread across the Internet, showing a man dragged off a plane, bloodied and protesting, after paying for a ticket to be on that plane, CEO Oscar Munoz released a statement apologizing “for having to re-accommodate” customers like him who found themselves bumped from a flight.
“I thought that ‘alternative facts’ wrapped up Euphemism of the Year,” says Mark Peters, who follows the vote closely and writes a column on euphemisms called Evasive Maneuvers. “But this one may be even better, in a worse way.”
“Alternative facts” – the already immortal phrase that Trump aide Kellyanne Conway used to describe falsehoods perpetuated by Trump’s press secretary – was euphemistic to the point that it may offend some people to call it a euphemism at all. Other language used by press secretary Sean Spicer on Tuesday, when he apparently referred to Nazi concentration camps as “Holocaust centers,” falls onto the same end of the spectrum. (Linguist Ben Zimmer, who presides over the event, notes that such items might find themselves in the running for an even more dubious honor known as “WTF Word of the Year.”)
While the vote is by no means sewn up, reaccommodate found serious resonance online, as did a statement in which “reaccommodated” passengers like the man who was hauled out of his seat were described as “volunteers.” Merriam-Webster, which monitors spikes in the words people are looking up, noted that lookups for volunteer spiked about 1900% following the incident. But lookups for the more rarely encountered reaccommodate spiked by 80,000%.
On the dictionary’s site, the definition is simple: to accommodate again. But accommodate itself has been defined with what Merriam-Webster Editor-at-Large Peter Sokolowski calls some “particularly apposite meanings,” such as “to make room for” and “to hold without crowding or inconvenience.” The Oxford English Dictionary describes accommodation as an act that involves obliging, assisting, providing comfort or conferring favors.
“It’s all about context,” says Zimmer, a sociolinguist, of why this euphemism is so remarkable. “There’s this enormous disconnect between people’s eyewitness views of a man being pummeled, versus this antiseptic corporate speak that came out in the apology.”
In the days of social media, when there are helpful visual aides that can contrast with a politician’s or company’s account of a controversial event – and when armies of irascible tweeters are ready to pounce on a single misplaced descriptor – euphemisms aren’t great deflective shields. As hundreds of thousands of people watched the video and felt empathy for the man, Zimmer says, the notion that he was being accommodated not just once but twice conveyed a robotic lack of “human emotion.”
To some extent, people expect unhinged jargon from corporations, entities that describe widespread firings as “talent upgrades” and trump up shelf-stacking jobs as openings for “replenishment associates.” But reaccommodate stretched into the infuriation-prone realm of “denying reality” while being transparently, hopelessly “self-serving,” Peters says.
Euphemisms can certainly be used for good – to spare feelings, to search out neutral ground, to avoid taboos among older folk who may be prone to “cardiovascular events” – and they can be used for legalistic or procedural reasons that may seem as silly from the outside as they do practical from within, as when military officers swap nuanced officialese. But Peters says that the words in his euphemism collection are often cloaking shame. “If you don’t say it, or if you don’t call it what it is,” he says, “it didn’t happen.”
Last year’s winner in the American Dialect Society’s vote for Euphemism of the Year was “locker room banter,” the phrase then-candidate Donald Trump used to describe lewd bragging about how he could grab women “by the p—y,” caught on an Access Hollywood tape. In earlier years, the laurels went to “EIT,” an abbreviation used in a Senate torture report for “the already euphemistic enhanced interrogation techniques.” Gwenyth Paltrow got a nomination after referring to her separation from her husband as a “conscious uncoupling.” And former intelligence chief James Clapper uttered a winner when he characterized his denial that the NSA had collected data on millions of Americans as the “least untruthful” path.
There is something to be said for the fact that the context in which reaccommodate was used was air travel, a realm plagued by stilted euphemisms from the lavatory to the full, upright and locked middle seat. Passengers have bins of rage toward airlines just waiting to be deplaned, whether they’ve been trapped in an automated phone call for hours or experienced the turbulence of trying to keep a carry-on bag while in the subordinate social underclass known as “Group 5.” The United Airlines employees who bumped the man in the viral video from his seat were referred to as “must-ride passengers.”
The language used by airline representatives often seems to be “the corporate voice from nowhere, where there’s no discernible individual behind the language, addressing people who want to engage in an emotional way and who are often shut down,” Zimmer says. No doubt United has received some backlash about the statement out of frustration travelers have built up over years toward this type of doublespeak.
Euphemisms get a bad rap for lots of reasons: being vague, causing wearisome pussyfooting or perhaps because their users seem to be eschewing responsibility through reframing or willful obtuseness. United Airlines’ CEO seemed to realize that a frank acknowledgement was one thing the people wanted when Munoz released a revamped apology on Tuesday calling the reaccommodation incident a “truly horrific event” in which a customer was “forcibly removed.”
Euphemisms can be creative and funny and useful too, says Peters: “If we were just completely truthful in the most direct language about everything all the time, we might kill each other.” And the news is bound to be packed with many more examples, laughable and heart-breaking, before the next vote comes around. “There’s a lot of year left,” he says. “But this one is going to be a contender.”