The Cambridge Dictionary defines euphemism as:
- "The use of a word or phrase to avoid saying another word or phrase that may be unpleasant or offensive."
Writers use euphemisms to soften harsher thoughts or wording, especially when dealing with death, violence, crimes, sexual intercourse, and "embarrassing" things. So instead of using a harsh word like "dead," they may write "passed on" or "at peace."
Many people consider the use of euphemisms as the polite way to express the unpleasant realities of life. How many euphemisms have people constructed to describe common bodily functions that polite people don’t like to discuss? We could spend all day on potty euphemisms!
How to create a euphemism
For centuries, polite society has chosen euphemism to mask rude thoughts or language in a clear, more acceptable way. A few ways to create them include:
- Forming a new word from abbreviations, such as BO for body odor or WC for water closet, which is itself a euphemism for toilet.
- Foreign words that sound better, like faux pas instead of a stupid mistake.
- Abstractions, like before I go instead of before I die.
- Indirect phrasing that’s less offensive, like calling your buttocks a rear end or your underwear unmentionables.
- Using longer words or technical ones, like flatulence instead of farting, perspiration instead of sweat, or gluteus maximus instead of butt.
- Intentionally mispronouncing an offensive word, like shoot instead of shit or darn instead of damn.
Everyday euphemisms you’ve likely heard often
Some euphemisms are so common, you might not consider their true underlying meaning.
- a little thin on top = balding
- a little tipsy = drunk
- powder your nose = go to the toilet
- downsizing = firing
- in the family way = pregnant
- golden years = old age
- put out to pasture = retiring
- put to sleep = euthanize
- friendly fire = soldiers accidentally killed by their own side
- collateral damage = citizens killed in a military attack
- detainees = prisoners
- enhanced interrogation = torture
- ethnic cleansing = genocide
- post-truth politics = assertions not based on fact
- terminological inexactitudes = lies
- substandard housing = slums
Examples of euphemism in literature
One of the best euphemisms for sex comes from Shakespeare’s Othello.
- "I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs."
Another Shakespeare euphemism for sex and its obvious result comes from Antony and Cleopatra:
- "She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed. He plowed her, and she cropped."
Perhaps politicians learned the value of euphemism from George Orwell in Animal Farm when the ruling pigs decide to cut the animals’ food supply:
- "For the time beings," he explains, "it has been found necessary to make a readjustment of rations."
A more modern reference is from Love Eternal, a fantasy novel by J.R. Ward:
- "You are a manipulator."
- "I like to think of myself more as an outcome engineer."
And a great example in film is from A Christmas Story. Who doesn’t remember the scene when Ralph says, "Oh fudge," while the narrator explains that’s not the actual word he used? And the eventual aftermath and fallout from that one word.
In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when King Arthur chops off the Black Knight’s arms, he responds, "Tis but a flesh wound." Quite the euphemism for amputation.
Writers sometimes use euphemism to exaggerate and add irony to a situation, especially when writing satire. And women have been using it for centuries to refer to their period. In fact, there are 5,000 different ways to say you’re on your period. My favorite is Danish slang that means, "There’s a communist in the funhouse."