John Leo
What is a "sentinel event"? Well, it's not a mistaken shooting by a soldier on guard duty. It's something awful that a hospital does to you. If a surgeon cuts off the wrong leg or sews you up with a couple of needles inside, the words "malpractice" and "gross negligence" may occur to you. But the medical world prefers "sentinel event." Since one euphemism often leads to another, reports of these events go to "risk management departments," where a good deal of frantic damage control occurs.

Reality is always in need of buffing, so the euphemism industry is booming. "Virtual orchestra" is the new term for "non-orchestra," when real-life musicians are replaced by electronic simulations or recordings. In our age of terrorism, many people are convinced that nearby nuclear power plants are especially vulnerable. Not to worry. The industry has begun to rename these plants as "energy centers."

Since SUVs are under attack, they are known in some political circles as "enhanced light trucks." Years ago, used cars became "previously owned" or "pre-owned." Now they are "previously enjoyed" cars. (And a former spouse would therefore be ... oh, never mind.)

Some upscale atheists have invented the word "brights" for folks who don't believe in God. "We brights don't believe in ghosts or elves or the Easter Bunny -- or God," says bright guy Daniel Dennett. By using the shiny new word, the people formerly known as atheists associate themselves with the Enlightenment, make a claim to high intelligence, and replace a negative word (non-theist or atheist) with a positive one. And if they are "brights," then religious people must all be "dulls."

Brit Hume of Fox News noticed that a New York Times story on the apparent use of other writers' material by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin never once used the word plagiarism. Instead it referred to "unacknowledged repetition," "derivative passages" and "inappropriate borrowing." A reader wrote in to suggest that rather than getting a speeding ticket, "a motorist could be cited for inappropriate acceleration."

Australians now talk a lot about "vertical villages," known to most of us as "apartment buildings." Several states have "furlough days," a cheerier term than "forced unpaid holidays for state workers."

One of the chores of euphemizing is to spot and refurbish any term the public doesn't like. Since "slot machines" have a faintly negative image, the video version of the machines is known as "video lottery." And "gambling" has given way to the elegant-sounding "gaming."

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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