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15 Ways to Avoid Saying 'Death'

People make up ridiculous, circuitous, preposterous terms when they’re afraid to discuss something—and death is near the top of anyone’s list of fears. Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf’s Spinglish: The Definitive Dictionary of Deliberately Deceitful Language is a terrific new dictionary of verbal evasions covering many subjects, including dozens of ways to avoid saying reaper-related words. As Beard and Cerf show, sometimes we’ll say anything to avoid the d-word.

1. arbitrary deprivation of life

This whopper comes from the State Department in 1984. It buries assassination—specifically assassination by so-called friendly governments—in jargon. The lifelessness of the phrasing is unintentionally appropriate.

2. terminal episode

This one is kinda sorta honest: the word terminal is at least in the ballpark of death. But there’s still something antiseptic about terminal episode, a term for death, especially one in a hospital. I’m reminded of another great death-related idiom that’s half-euphemistic: terminate with extreme prejudice. That’s a strongly worded assassination order that you might remember from Apocalypse Now.

3. attrit

To attrit is to kill. The Oxford English Dictionary traces this back to 1915 and a Daily Mail use: “Our Ministers talk of ending this war by ‘attrition.’ Who is being ‘attrited’ by these slovenly methods?” On the other hand, if you’ve been attritioned, you’re a bit better off: you’ve only been fired, a topic that is another lightning rod for euphemisms.

4. dynamically address

This term comes from the U.S. Army’s Task Force ODIN, who struggled with insurgents for control of Iraq’s roads. Needless to say, when ODIN dynamically addressed a situation, it resulted in casualties on the other side.

5. expectant

An earlier U.S. war gave us this term: in the Vietnam era, expectants were civilians expected to die.

6. sent on a trip to Belize

On a much lighter note, this term was used on Breaking Bad by the character Saul Goodman, who was trying to find a polite way to ask meth cooker Walter White if Walt’s brother-in-law Hank needed to be whacked. (Ah, whacked. Of course that’s also a euphemism for killing—one popularized by mob movies and The Sopranos.)

7. immediate permanent incapacitation

This term for death has a rather specific use: it appeared in a U.S. Army document about the impact and use of nuclear weapons. Whatever the cause, immediate permanent incapacitation is not recommended by doctors, with the exception of Dr. Doom.

8. game management

This sounds like the kind of careful supervision any game, contest, or sport requires. Nope. It’s a term for the mass killing of animals, either through hunting (itself a euphemism) or other slaughter.

9. go to Switzerland

There are plenty of reasons to literally go to Switzerland—but this sense is more metaphorical, as it involves seeking assisted suicide. The term is derived from the fact that it’s easier to get such end-of-life help in Switzerland.

10. self-injurious behavior incident

The Jargon Gods smiled and perhaps shuddered when the U.S Department of Defense came up with this term for suicide attempts at Guantanamo.

11. depopulation

When seven million chickens were euthanized in 1983 to prevent the spread of disease, the U.S. government needed a word to make this chicken-pocalypse sound less awful. So they settled on depopulation, a sterile term with a long history. Depopulation has referred to, as the OED puts it, “laying waste, devastation, ravaging, pillaging” since the 1400s.

12. diagnostic misadventure of high magnitude

Here’s another one from the medical world. While this sounds a little like hype for the latest summer movie—Diagnostic Misadventure of High Magnitude! Starring The Rock!—it actually applies to a specific sort of demise: when a patient dies during an exam due to malpractice. If the death occurred during treatment, it would be a therapeutic misadventure.

13. neutralize

This OED shows this term going back to at least 1937, in a (London) Times article: “A mechanized advance-guard battery was shown going into action in support of attacking infantry and attempting to neutralize an area.” If the meaning isn’t exactly clear, a 1970 report about Vietnam is more explicit: “The Phoenix program had resulted in some 15,000 VCI, meaning Vietcong infrastructure, or cadre, being ‘neutralized’ in 1968.” Neutralized = killed.

14. sacrificed

Lab rats—and lab monkeys, lab cats, and other lab critters—who die while being experimented on are said to be sacrificed. I guess this one isn’t totally deceitful. A scientist sacrificing a macaque for knowledge and a Satanist sacrificing a goat for the lord of the underworld are, in a way, doing the same thing.

15. health alteration

Here’s a euphemistic wonder. Technically, a health alternation could be almost anything, from catching a cold to dropping a few pounds. Alas, this is actually another term for assassination coined in the 1960s by the CIA. Let’s just say you wanted to stay off the radar of the health alteration committee.

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Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


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Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Here's the Right Way to Pronounce Kitchenware Brand Le Creuset

If you were never quite sure how to pronounce the name of beloved French kitchenware brand Le Creuset, don't fret: For the longest time, southern chef, author, and PBS personality Vivian Howard wasn't sure either.

In this video from Le Creuset, shared by Food & Wine, Howard prepares to sear some meat in her bright orange Le Creuset pot and explains, "For the longest time I had such a crush on them but I could never verbalize it because I didn’t know how to say it and I was so afraid of sounding like a big old redneck." Listen closely as she demonstrates the official, Le Creuset-endorsed pronunciation at 0:51.

Le Creuset is known for its colorful, cast-iron cookware, which is revered by pro chefs and home cooks everywhere. The company first introduced their durable pots to the world in 1925. Especially popular are their Dutch ovens, which are thick cast-iron pots that have been around since the 18th century and are used for slow-cooking dishes like roasts, stews, and casseroles.

[h/t Food & Wine]

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