Euphemism – Definition, Meaning & Examples

12.06.24 Academic writing Time to read: 9min

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Euphemism-01

Have you ever heard somebody say, “Let the cat out of the bag” and wondered what it meant? This expression is a euphemism meaning “revealing a secret,” softening the sharp edges of truth with a touch of whimsy. They guide us through delicate topics with grace and levity, making the tough talks just a bit easier to handle. In academic writing, employing such gentle linguistic tools is essential for navigating sensitive discussions with care and respect.

Euphemism in a nutshell

A Euphemism is a mild or indirect expression used in place of a more direct or harsh one to avoid offense, discomfort, or taboo. It serves to soften the impact of potentially sensitive or unpleasant topics, and is commonly used in language to communicate in a more polite or socially acceptable manner.

Definition: Euphemism

A euphemism, also called “minced oath,” is a stylistic device that replaces words or phrases considered harsh, impolite, or unpleasant with more gentle, indirect, or vague expressions. This stylistic device can take different forms and is used to discuss sensitive or taboo topics, e.g., disability or death, in a more socially acceptable way. It functions as a noun in the English language and is the counterpart to dysphemism, which intentionally uses derogatory or unpleasant terms to shock or offend.

Etymology

The term “euphemism” originates from the Greek root word “euphemismos,”(from euphemizein) meaning “auspicious words” or “sounding good.” The prefix “eu-” translates to “good” or “well” and “pheme” refers to “speaking” or “prophetic speech.” Thus, “euphemism” literally translates to “good speaking.” This etymology reflects the purpose of euphemisms: to replace words or phrases that might be considered harsh or unpleasant with more agreeable or inoffensive terms.

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Examples of euphemisms

This stylistic device comes in various forms and serves different purposes in language, such as mitigation or avoidance of unpleasant topics. A multitude of examples is provided below:

Health euphemisms

Neutral My neighbor has dementia.
Euphemistic My neighbor has memory lapses.

Both examples convey information about the neighbor’s condition, with the first directly naming the medical condition and the second using a softer, less specific term.

Social euphemisms

Neutral He's currently unemployed, exploring new opportunities.
Euphemistic He's currently between jobs, exploring new opportunities.

These sentences provide a clear illustration of how a euphemism and a direct statement can be used to describe the same employment situation.

Political euphemisms

Neutral The military operation resulted in civilian casualties.
Euphemistic The military operation resulted in collateral damage.

This example shows the use of political euphemisms and direct statements to describe the same situation, where innocent people have passed away.

Types of euphemism

There’s a euphemism for nearly every tricky situation; whether it’s softening a tough blow, making sure we’re being kind to everyone, or just trying to keep things light. They can be categorized as followed:

This type is used to cushion the blow of harsh truths, like saying “passed away” instead of “died.” It simultaneously creates a more pleasant image in mind when being used.

Examples

  • “Passed away” instead of died
  • “Big-boned” instead of overweight
  • “Economically disadvantaged” instead of poor

This type is used to downplay the seriousness or magnitude of a situation, often to inject humor, maintain modesty, or simply soften the delivery of information.

Examples

  • “A little bit off” instead of mentally unstable or seriously ill
  • “Had a few” instead of drunk
  • “Not exactly a genius” instead of unintelligent

As the name already implies, this type is used to replace an explicit description, like going to the bathroom, with a more indirect expression.

Examples

  • “Gone to a better place” instead of explicitly stating someone has died
  • “Seeing someone” to vaguely describe a (romantic) relationship
  • “Getting in years” instead of saying someone is old

Online communication, with its blend of informality, anonymity, and rapid evolution, has given rise to its set of euphemisms. These euphemisms often serve to soften, obscure, or humorously refer to behaviors, practices, and phenomena of the digital age. They are oftentimes referred to as “algospeak” and used to evade automated online moderation techniques used on Meta or TikTok. Generally, it refers to the creative use of alternative words or phrases on social media.

COVID-19

Examples

Neutral The COVID-19 pandemic is getting worse.
Algospeak Miss Rona is getting more serious.

“Miss Rona” is a euphemistic term for the coronavirus (COVID-19), used to lighten the conversation about the pandemic by personifying the virus. This term became popular on social media as a way to discuss COVID-19-related topics in a less direct manner, since many people suffered severely.

FYP

Examples

Neutral I want to get on everyone's main feed.
Algospeak Let's get this to FYP.

“FYP” stands for “For You Page” on TikTok, referring to the personalized feed of content recommended to users based on their interests and interactions. It is often used by users with the hope of reaching a wider audience through using the hashtag “#FYP.”

These terms are informal and used within a particular group or culture to address topics that might be considered too direct, sensitive, or taboo for straightforward discussion.

Examples

  • “Ghosted” for suddenly stopping all communication without explanation
  • “Buzzed” instead of saying slightly drunk or tipsy
  • “Snitched” for informing on someone

Doublespeak expressions (also known as bureaucratic euphemisms) involve the use of language that deliberately obscures, disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words. This is done to make an unpleasant, problematic, or inconvenient reality appear more acceptable or to avoid addressing the issue directly.

Examples

  • Collateral damage: Used to describe unintended civilian casualties or destruction in military operations, making it sound less direct and more palatable than admitting to the killing or harming of innocent people.
  • Enhanced interrogation techniques: A term that refers to methods of extracting information, often involving torture or treatment that could be considered abusive, is typically presented in a way that attempts to legalize or soften the harshness of the actual practices involved.
  • Ethnic cleansing: A phrase that refers to the forced displacement or killing of an ethnic or religious group in a certain area, making it sound more sterile or less brutal than it actually is, which involves acts of genocide or mass murder.

Religious discussions about death, the divine, or moral and ethical judgments need to be addressed with reflecting respect for all religious beliefs and practices.

Examples

  • “Blessed event” for childbirth, emphasizing the religious or spiritual significance
  • “Walking a different path” for saying someone has left the faith
  • “Moral weakness” to sinful behavior

Purpose

Euphemisms serve many purposes in language and communication, reflecting the nuanced ways humans interact and navigate social, cultural, and personal sensitivities. Their use can vary widely depending on context, audience, and intent.

Mitigation

This stylistic device is oftentimes used to downplay the severity or seriousness of actions or situations. This can be particularly evident in political or corporate language, where actions might be described to minimize perceived negativity or responsibility.

Avoidance

Sensitive topics, such as bodily functions or personal matters, might be uncomfortable or deemed inappropriate for direct discussion in certain contexts.

Comfort

In personal or emotional contexts, euphemisms can offer comfort by framing a situation in less offensive, and more gentle words. This might be needed in sensitive conversations about illness, loss, or personal changes.

Rhetoric

In academic writing, euphemism rhetoric refers to the deliberate use of mild or indirect language to convey sensitive or unpleasant information. They are often employed to soften the impact of potentially offensive or harsh statements, making them more palatable to the reader while maintaining professionalism.

Controversial use

Controversial use of euphemisms typically occurs when they’re used to hiding or minimize the seriousness of certain actions or events.

Example

  • Enhanced interrogation techniques

A term used as a handy euphemism by some to describe methods of torture or coercive interrogation tactics, such as waterboarding.

Example

  • Alternative medicine

This word is used to describe medical treatments and therapies that are not supported by scientific evidence.

Formation methods

The formation of euphemisms involves various linguistic processes and methods. The most common ways to form them are illustrated below:

Substitution

This method exemplifies the most straightforward method involving substituting a less offensive word or phrase for a more direct or potentially offensive one.

Example

  • “Correctional facility” instead of “prison”

Metaphor

Euphemisms typically employ metaphorical language to convey sensitive or unpleasant topics indirectly. This method leans on metaphors, where you use a word or phrase for something it doesn’t literally mean, to make tough topics easier to talk about.

Example

  • “Kicked the bucket” instead of “died”

Rephrasing/circumlocution

Instead of using direct terms, speakers may opt for rephrasing or circumlocution to convey the same meaning in a less confrontational manner. This method involves using longer or more complex phrases to soften the impact of the underlying concept.

Example

  • “Not telling the whole truth” instead of “lying”

Abbreviations and acronyms

Euphemisms can be formed by using abbreviations and acronyms to create a more neutral term. This is because abbreviations do not carry the same weight or stigma as the full term, making it a softer way to refer to conditions. An example is illustrated below:

Example

  • “CEO” for “chief executive officer”

Foreign languages

These words might also be borrowed from other languages or cultures to introduce novel or less confrontational terms for sensitive topics. These borrowed terms may retain their original meanings and undergo semantic adaption to suit the context.

Example

“Schadenfreude” is a German word which translates to “harm-joy” and refers to the pleasure derived from the misfortune or suffering of others. In English, it is often used as a euphemism to describe the feeling of satisfaction or amusement at someone else’s misfortune without directly letting them know.

Metonymy

Metonymy is a figure of speech where one term is substituted with another that is closely associated with it. In the context of euphemism, metonymy can be used to replace a harsh or taboo term with a milder one.

Example 

“The White House announced…”

In this case, “the White House” is used metonymically to refer to the President of the United States. Instead of directly stating “the president announced,” the term “the White House” is used, which is less direct and may soften the impact of the announcement.

Litotes

Similar to metonymy, litotes is also a stylistic device that serves to emphasize a statement through understatement by negating its opposite.

Examples

  • “Not bad” for something that is actually quite good
  • “Not the brightest” for someone who is not very intelligent
  • “He’s not without talent” to imply that someone is talented

Phonetic modification

Phonetic modification euphemisms involve altering the pronunciation of words to make them sound less harsh or explicit.

Examples

  • “Dang” for damn
  • “Heck” for hell
  • “Gosh” for god

British euphemisms

British English is rich in euphemisms, often used to soften the impact of potentially sensitive or uncomfortable topics. Below, you’ll find a table with a multitude of British euphemisms.

British Meaning
Like a fart in a colander Describing something or someone that is chaotic, or falling apart
As much use as a chocolate teapot Used to describe something or someone utterly useless or ineffective
Not the sharpest tool in the shed A humorous way of saying someone is not very intelligent
As happy as a pig in shit Describing someone who is thrilled or content in their situation
Tired and emotional Notorious British euphemism for “drunk”
To be between jobs To be unemployed
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FAQs

Examples

  • “Passed away” instead of “died”
  • “Vertically challenged” instead of “short”
  • “Senior citizen” instead of “old person”

The word “euphemism” refers to a mild or indirect word or expression for one that is considered to be too harsh or blunt. The term itself comes from the Greek roots “eu,” meaning “good,” and “pheme” meaning “speech” or “expression.” Literally translated, “euphemism” means “good speech” or “speaking well.”

Euphemisms soften harsh or taboo language, aiming for social tact. Metaphors, however, compare unrelated things and add depth and creativity to language.

In academic writing, it’s generally best to avoid this stylistic device, as it requires clear and precise language to communicate ideas effectively. Its use may obscure meaning and introduce ambiguity, which can undermine the clarity and credibility of your writing. Instead, you should always opt for direct and specific language that accurately conveys your arguments.

Euphemisms can impact communication by softening harsh language, maintaining social harmony, and avoiding offense. However, they can change the meaning of words if overused or misapplied.

A commonly-used euphemism is “passed away” to refer to someone who has died.