I'm sure this is a dumb question, but I am having a total mental block.

Is there a word for when you alter the verbal description of something in order to make it appear better? I'm thinking about something along the lines of "Despite the ____ changes to the law, nothing really changed".

I don't think cosmetic works, but that's all I can come up with.

  • 6
    cosmetic is perfectly ok with a tweak of the example sentence: the changes of the law were cosmetic. Jun 17, 2018 at 6:00
  • Consider ornamentation. Jun 17, 2018 at 19:18

10 Answers 10


"Despite the superficial changes," works well in this context. Two related definitions from Oxford: "Existing or occurring at or on the surface," and "Appearing to be true or real only until examined more closely."

To insinuate that the revision is a pretext, the ostensible or so-called changes. Also disparaging, but without the implication of dishonesty: trivial, unimportant or desultory¹. If you approve of them, stylistic changes make something sound better and clarifying revisions (or, more commonly, clarifications) make it clearer, without altering the meaning. Some more neutral options include minor, incidental, inconsequential and negligible.

¹ Which have different shades of meaning: trivial changes don't affect anything because they're so minor, unimportant ones changed something that doesn't matter, and desultory ones have no focus or purpose.

  • 'Desultory' is the adjectival form of a Latin word for a performer who jumps around horses. It's about conversation that skips around, not a superficial or trivial one.
    – lly
    Jun 18, 2018 at 5:43
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    @lly Desultory has several other meanings, including: lack of purpose, lack of connection to the main subject, and disappointing in quality. The second is more what I had in mind, with shades of the other two. merriam-webster.com/dictionary/desultory
    – Davislor
    Jun 18, 2018 at 5:48
  • @lly A couple of examples of similar real-world usage: "The House budget resolution recommends a number of desultory changes to the Pell Grant and student loan programs, most of which have been featured in recent years' budgets as well." "The Reds fell to the absolute bottom of the Western Division for the next few years, losing Seaver after the 1982 season. A series of desultory changes were made [....]" "That truth is apparent from the desultory changes made in an effort to make things more interesting [....]"
    – Davislor
    Jun 18, 2018 at 6:02
  • 1
    Those uses don't mean what you think they do. They state the changes were 'all over the place' and thus ineffective, not 'trivial' or 'unimportant'. Scroll down to the part where it says 'Did you know...'
    – lly
    Jun 18, 2018 at 6:23
  • @lly Please see my earlier comment. That's what I said desultory meant. It makes sense to say, "Despite the desultory changes to the law, nothing really changed," and this usage is disparaging. This is not synonymous with many other words I listed. For example, "stylistic changes" has a different meaning too.
    – Davislor
    Jun 18, 2018 at 6:33

Cosmetic is fine. It's often used in this way, cosmetic changes: changes that may appear interesting but lack substance. Another term is aesthetic changes: changes in appearance, perception. Another relevant expression is lipstick on a pig: when one tries to make something ugly appear nice by some superficial measure, but obviously without success.

P.S. I agree with Davislor that words like superficial and inconsequential are good words to describe changes that don't really change much; but those words don't capture the question's desire for a word to describe changes that make it "appear better". Even so, they may fit the desired context.

  • 2
    Do you really need prompting for substantiating references after all this time? Jun 17, 2018 at 12:30
  • 2
    @EdwinAshworth: Do you really need to prompt people after all this time? Jun 17, 2018 at 13:45
  • 1
    Apparently. Some people don't seem to care about the standards of quality I believe (and certainly hope) ELU still expects. Jun 17, 2018 at 14:59
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth: I don't believe it has ever been the way you might want it to be. It's not an academic publication (although even in academic pblications references aren't needed when something is common knowledge in the field; some academics over-reference). People use references where they feel they're necessary. Jun 17, 2018 at 15:20
  • 5
    Being a native speaker certainly isn't sufficient to justify a word choice, as most educated native speakers of any language are well aware. There's more than enough wrong common knowledge and falsehoods to trip up someone who's not careful to check their knowledge - in which case being native speaker is irrelevant because the check source can be provided anyway.
    – Nij
    Jun 18, 2018 at 5:42

"Despite the ____ changes of the law, nothing really changed"

The sense of the sentence with the term cosmetic diminishes the severity of the change, and when it is used with despite, it contradicts and renders somewhat meaningless. The same I doubt with the word nominal, if it is used with despite.


existing in name only.


Cosmetic fits the example sentence you give as a direct drop-in word, but it doesn't fit the description of your question or the second sentence in your question.

In other words, because of the way you've phrased your question, it's asking for something a bit different.

What is a word for using one word to replace another cosmetically?


to phrase or express (something) in a different way especially to make the meaning clearer · Let me rephrase the question.

Editors often use the word recasting for this purpose, one definition of which is simply "to present (something) in a different way."

Both of those words could actually suit your sentence if the sentence itself were changed slightly:

Despite the rephrasing of the law, nothing really changed.

In fact, using rephrasing (or recasting) in this slightly changed sentence would help with the use of despite (as mentioned in another answer).

Of course, you can change the meaning of something by rephrasing it significantly enough, but cosmetic changes are certainly not excluded.

More informally, there is another word that can imply minor (cosmetic) rephrasing of writing.


a small change or adjustment · We made a few tweaks to the original recipe.


Despite the tweaks to the law, nothing really changed.


I find the question somewhat unclear.  Based on the title and the second sentence, it seems like you might be looking for euphemism (or euphemistic):

English Oxford (living) Dictionaries:

    A mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing.
    ‘“downsizing” as a euphemism for cuts’
American Heritage Dictionary:
    A mild, indirect, or vague term for one that is considered harsh, blunt, or offensive: “Euphemisms such as ‘slumber room’ ... abound in the funeral business”  (Jessica Mitford).
Collins English Dictionary:
    A euphemism is a polite word or expression that is used to refer to things which people may find upsetting or embarrassing to talk about, for example sex, the human body, or death.


If you are going to use the preposition despite, then I don't think it makes sense to use anything meaning cosmetic. This is because nothing really changed is exactly what one would expect as a consequence of cosmetic changes, not despite them.

It would make more sense to say "Despite the formal changes in the law, nothing really changed." This would imply that, whatever changes were made, they must have been cosmetic since they changed nothing.

Formal here entails any degree of change.

  • 2
    You make a good point that despite is a negative polarity term (the down-vote on your answer isn't mine). However, even cosmetic changes are changes, and despite can still be used in the usual sense. Compare with the positive polarity phrasing: "[ * ] Because of the cosmetic changes, nothing really changed." This is because the important bits are "Despite ... changes ... nothing changed". Changing the phrasing can admit neutral and positive forms: "The changes were cosmetic. Nothing really changed." or "Because the changes were cosmetic, nothing really changed.".
    – Lawrence
    Jun 17, 2018 at 7:39

Despite the apparent changes of the law, nothing really changed




2 Seeming real or true, but not necessarily so.

‘True, the apparent freedom and rationality of the human will may prove an illusion.’

‘We all end up paying more to avoid a problem which is normally more apparent than real.’


The noun answer to your headline question is euphemism.

The adjective you're looking for in your example sentence is anything meaning 'of minor importance' or 'in appearance, name, or thought [only]'.

There are dozens of those in English. Your original 'cosmetic' is the second one. Davislor mentions 'trivial', 'unimportant', 'minor', 'incidental', 'inconsequential', 'negligible' for the first and 'superficial' and 'ostensible' for the second. Mr Koya's 'nominal' is the second and can appear as 'in name only' as a prep. phrase. Alwayslearning's 'apparent' is the second, as is Hyperpallium's 'purported'.

Some that haven't been mentioned:

  • frivolous or silly changes don't take the issue seriously;
  • petty changes are the same with more condescension;
  • inconsiderable, minor, meager, paltry, piddly, pitiful, or trifling changes don't go remotely far enough;
  • insignificant, ignorable, minimal, or worthless changes do hardly anything at all;
  • notional or putative changes exist on paper and in argument but do sod-all in actuality;
  • so-called, supposed, alleged, assumed, or reputed changes are being proclaimed or imagined as 'change' by someone... but that someone is misinformed or being deceitful;
  • the words 'hypothetical' or 'theoretical' acknowledge that it all worked fine as a thought-experiment but imply that things didn't go as planned.

in order to make it appear better

I think something based on the verb embellish would address this part of your question. It means:

to make something more beautiful by adding something to it (cambridge dictionary)

So you can say:

Despite the embellishing modifications to the law, nothing really changed.


Depending on your exact needs, consider machinations. As in "Despite the machinations to the law, nothing really changed."

1 : an act of machinating
2 : a scheming or crafty action or artful design intended to accomplish some usually evil end backstage machinations … that have dominated the film industry —Peter Bogdanovich

"Machination." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 17 June 2018.

Another possibility is purported. "Despite the purported changes to the law, nothing (has) really changed". This is useful if you are wanting to push back against how the change was portrayed by those announcing it or reporting on it.

Both of these options serve to introduce an anonymous person or group that are responsible for the change, or for characterizing the change, but retain focus on the change itself. Indictments against the changes tend to filter back to the machinators or purporters by implication..

  • 1
    'Machinations to the law' wouldn't really work, let alone that nothing changed despite them. That said, there are rephrasings of the original that could be made to work with it, so long as one wished to imply that a sinister cabal was responsible for the failure of progress on the underlying issue.
    – lly
    Jun 18, 2018 at 5:52
  • Re. machinations, the evil cabal bit is possible, but entirely optional. It could also just refer to some apparachik trying to clear their in-basket.
    – Phil Sweet
    Jun 18, 2018 at 9:48

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