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A yellow sign with a pointed bottom. At the top is the number 5 in an oval with a blue background. Below it are the words "family planning", "feminine hygiene", "feminine protection" and "sanitary protection"
Sign in a Rite Aid drugstore using common American euphemisms for (from top) contraceptives, douches, tampons, and adult diapers, respectively

A euphemism (/ˈjuːfəmɪzəm/) is an innocuous word or expression used in place of one that is deemed offensive or suggests something unpleasant.[1] Some euphemisms are intended to amuse, while others use bland, inoffensive terms for concepts that the user wishes to downplay. Euphemisms may be used to mask profanity or refer to taboo topics such as disability, sex, excretion, or death in a polite way.[2]


Euphemism comes from the Greek word euphemia (εὐφημία) which refers to the use of 'words of good omen'; it is a compound of (εὖ), meaning 'good, well', and phḗmē (φήμη), meaning 'prophetic speech; rumour, talk'.[3] Eupheme is a reference to the female Greek spirit of words of praise and positivity, etc. The term euphemism itself was used as a euphemism by the ancient Greeks; with the meaning "to keep a holy silence" (speaking well by not speaking at all).[4]



Reasons for using euphemisms vary by context and intent. Commonly, euphemisms are used to avoid directly addressing subjects that might be deemed negative or embarrassing, e.g. death, sex, excretory bodily functions. They may be created for innocent, well-intentioned purposes or nefariously and cynically, intentionally to deceive and confuse.


Euphemisms are also used to mitigate, soften or downplay the gravity of large-scale injustices, war crimes, or other events that warrant a pattern of avoidance in official statements or documents. For instance, one reason for the comparative scarcity of written evidence documenting the exterminations at Auschwitz, relative to their sheer number, is "directives for the extermination process obscured in bureaucratic euphemisms".[5]

Euphemisms are sometimes used to lessen the opposition to a political move. For example, according to linguist Ghil'ad Zuckermann, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the neutral Hebrew lexical item פעימות peimót ("beatings (of the heart)"), rather than נסיגה nesigá ("withdrawal"), to refer to the stages in the Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank (see Wye River Memorandum), in order to lessen the opposition of right-wing Israelis to such a move.[6]: 181  The lexical item פעימות peimót, which literally means "beatings (of the heart)" is thus a euphemism for "withdrawal".[6]: 181 


Euphemism may be used as a rhetorical strategy, in which case its goal is to change the valence of a description.[clarification needed]

Identification as Problematic[edit]

The act of labeling a term as a euphemism can in itself be controversial, as in the following two examples:

There is some disagreement over whether certain terms are or are not euphemisms. For example, sometimes the phrase visually impaired is labeled as a politically correct euphemism for blind. However, visual impairment can be a broader term, including, for example, people who have partial sight in one eye, those with uncorrectable mild to moderate poor vision, or even those who wear glasses, groups that would be excluded by the word blind or even partially blind.

The coining and usage of euphemisms reveals what the coiner or speaker/writer considers, perhaps only sub-consciously, to be shameful, and may thus be an indication of prejudices or opinions held.[citation needed]

Formation methods[edit]

Phonetic modification[edit]

Phonetic euphemism is used to replace profanities, diminishing their intensity. Modifications include:

  • Shortening or "clipping" the term, such as Jeez (Jesus) and what the— ("what the hell" or "what the fuck")
  • Mispronunciations, such as frak, frig (both the preceding for "fuck"), what the fudge, what the truck (both "what the fuck"), oh my gosh ("oh my God"), frickin ("fucking"), darn ("damn"), oh shoot ("oh shit"), be-yotch ("bitch"), etc. This is also referred to as a minced oath.
  • Using acronyms as replacements, such as SOB ("son of a bitch"), what the eff ("what the fuck"), S my D ("suck my dick"), POS ("piece of shit"), BS ("bullshit"). Sometimes, the word "word" or "bomb" is added after it, such as F-word ("fuck"), S-word ("shit"), B-word ("bitch"), N-word ("nigger"), etc. Also, the letter can be phonetically respelled.


To alter the pronunciation or spelling of a taboo word (such as a swear word) to form a euphemism is known as taboo deformation, or a minced oath. In American English, words that are unacceptable on television, such as fuck, may be represented by deformations such as freak, even in children's cartoons.[9][failed verification] Feck is a minced oath originating in Hiberno-English and popularised outside of Ireland by the British sitcom Father Ted. Some examples of Cockney rhyming slang may serve the same purpose: to call a person a berk sounds less offensive than to call a person a cunt, though berk is short for Berkeley Hunt,[10] which rhymes with cunt.[11]


Euphemisms formed from understatements include: asleep for dead and drinking for consuming alcohol. "Tired and emotional" is a notorious British euphemism for "drunk", one of many recurring jokes popularised by the satirical magazine Private Eye; it has been used by MPs to avoid unparliamentary language.


Pleasant, positive, worthy, neutral or non-descript terms are substituted for explicit or unpleasant ones, with many substituted terms deliberately coined by socio-political progressive movements, cynically by planned marketing, public relations or advertising initiatives, including:

  • "meat packing company" for "slaughter-house" (avoids entirely the subject of killing); "natural issue" or "love child" for "bastard"; "let go" for "fired" or "dismissed" (implies a generosity on the part of the employer in allowing employee to depart); "intimate" for "sexual," "adult material" for "pornography"; "exotic dancer" for "stripper"; "issue" for "problem"; "adult beverage" for "alcoholic beverage"; "expecting" for "pregnant"; "health problem" for "illness"; "special friend" for "romantic partner"; "high-net worth" for "rich"; "plus-sized" for "overweight", "memorial marker" for "gravestone"; "staff-member" for "servant"; "colleague" for "employee" (apparent promotion from servant to partner); "operative" for "worker" (elevates status); "turf-accountant" or "book-maker" for "betting shop" (professionalises an unworthy activity); "marital aid" for "sex toy" (converts to an object fulfilling a worthy objective); "special needs" for disability; or "final expenses" for "funeral costs". Basic ancient and (overly) direct Anglo-Saxon words such as deaf, dumb, blind, lame, all have modern euphemisms.

Over time it becomes socially unacceptable to use the former word, as one is effectively down-grading the matter concerned to its former lower status, and the euphemism becomes dominant, due to a wish not to offend.


  • Metaphors (beat the meat or choke the chicken or jerkin' the gherkin for masturbation, take a dump and take a leak for defecation and urination respectively)
  • Comparisons (buns for buttocks, weed for cannabis)
  • Metonymy (men's room for "men's toilet")


The use of a term with a softer connotation, though it shares the same meaning. For instance, screwed up is a euphemism for fucked up; hook-up and laid are euphemisms for sexual intercourse.

Foreign words[edit]

Expressions or words from a foreign language may be imported for use as euphemism. For example, the French word enceinte was sometimes used instead of the English word pregnant;[12] abattoir for "slaughter-house", although in French the word retains its explicit violent meaning "a place for beating down", conveniently lost on non-French speakers. "Entrepreneur" for "business-man", adds glamour; "douche" (French: shower) for vaginal irrigation device; "bidet" (French: little pony) for "vessel for intimate ablutions". Ironically, although in English physical "handicaps" are almost always described with euphemism, in French the English word "handicap" is used as a euphemism for their problematic words "infirmité" or "invalidité".[citation needed]


Periphrasis, or circumlocution, is one of the most common: to "speak around" a given word, implying it without saying it. Over time, circumlocutions become recognized as established euphemisms for particular words or ideas.


Bureaucracies frequently spawn euphemisms intentionally, as doublespeak expressions. For example, in the past, the US military used the term "sunshine units" for contamination by radioactive isotopes.[13] Even today, the United States Central Intelligence Agency refers to systematic torture as "enhanced interrogation techniques".[14] An effective death sentence in the Soviet Union during the Great Purge often used the clause "imprisonment without right to correspondence": the person sentenced would be shot soon after conviction.[15] As early as 1939, Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich used the term Sonderbehandlung ("special treatment") to mean summary execution of persons viewed as "disciplinary problems" by the Nazis even before commencing the systematic extermination of the Jews. Heinrich Himmler, aware that the word had come to be known to mean murder, replaced that euphemism with one in which Jews would be "guided" (to their deaths) through the slave-labor and extermination camps[16] after having been "evacuated" to their doom. Such was part of the formulation of Endlösung der Judenfrage (the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question"), which became known to the outside world during the Nuremberg Trials.[17]


Frequently, over time, euphemisms themselves become taboo words, through the linguistic process of semantic change known as pejoration, which University of Oregon linguist Sharon Henderson Taylor dubbed the "euphemism cycle" in 1974,[18] also frequently referred to as the "euphemism treadmill". For instance, toilet is an 18th-century euphemism, replacing the older euphemism house-of-office, which in turn replaced the even older euphemisms privy-house and bog-house.[19] The act of human defecation is possibly the most needy candidate for a euphemism in all eras. In the 20th century, where the old euphemisms lavatory (a place where one washes) or toilet (a place where one dresses[20]) had grown from widespread usage (e.g. in the United States) to being synonymous with the crude act they sought to deflect, they were sometimes replaced with bathroom (a place where one bathes), washroom (a place where one washes), or restroom (a place where one rests) or even by the extreme form powder room (a place where one applies facial cosmetics). The form water closet, which in turn became euphemised to W.C., is a less deflective form.[citation needed]

Another example in American English is the replacement of colored people with Negro (euphemism by foreign language),[21] then the "honest" non-euphemistic form "Black" making a brief appearance (due to 1960s political forces attempting to normalise black skin) before being suppressed again by the euphemistic "African American".[citation needed]

Venereal disease, which associated shameful bacterial infection with a seemingly worthy ailment emanating from Venus the goddess of love, soon lost its deflective force in the post-classical education era, as "VD", which was replaced by the three-letter initialism "STD" (sexually transmitted disease); later, "STD" was replaced by "STI" (sexually transmitted infection).[citation needed] (This disease/infection is not the only one that is transmissible through sexual contact, so the terms STD and STI are also more general.)

The word shit appears to have originally been a euphemism for defecation in Pre-Germanic, as the Proto-Indo-European root *sḱeyd-, from which it was derived, meant 'to cut off'.[22]

Mentally disabled people were originally defined with words such as "morons" or "imbeciles", which then became commonly used insults. The medical diagnosis was changed to "mentally retarded", which morphed into a pejorative against those with mental disabilities. To avoid the negative connotations of their diagnoses, students who need accommodations because of such conditions are often labeled as "special needs" instead, although the word "special?" has begun to crop up as a school-yard insult.[23] As of August 2013, the Social Security Administration replaced the term "mental retardation" with "intellectual disability".[24] Since 2012, that change in terminology has been adopted by the National Institutes of Health and the medical industry at large.[25]

In popular culture[edit]

Doublespeak is a term sometimes used for deliberate euphemistic misuse of words to distort or reverse their meaning. For example, in the book Nineteen Eighty-Four the "Ministry of Peace" is the war department, and the "Ministry of Love" is a torture and state loyalty department. Doublespeak is a portmanteau of the terms Newspeak and doublethink, which originate from Nineteen Eighty-Four.

As far back as Vaudeville, a villain would say something similar to "Curses, foiled again", where the word "curses" takes the place of actual invective.

The word euphemism itself can be used as a euphemism. In the animated TV special Halloween Is Grinch Night (see Dr. Seuss), Euchariah asks to go to the euphemism, where euphemism is being used as a euphemism for outhouse. This euphemistic use of euphemism also occurred in the play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where a character requests, "Martha, will you show her where we keep the, uh, euphemism?"

The song "Makin' Whoopee" from the 1928 musical Whoopee! introduced a new euphemism for sexual intercourse. The phrase "make whoopee" was often used on the popular game show The Newlywed Game starting in the late 1960s, whenever the host asked a question about sexual relations. This successfully avoided the network censors.

In Wes Anderson's film Fantastic Mr. Fox, the replacement of swear words by the word cuss became a humorous motif throughout the film.

In Tom Hanks's web series Electric City, the use of profanity has been censored by the word expletive. "[Expletive deleted]" entered public discourse after its notorious use in censoring transcripts of the Watergate tapes.

In Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, the curses of the scientist Ebling Mis have all been replaced with the word unprintable. In fact, there is only one case of his curses being referred to as such, leading some readers to mistakenly assume that the euphemism is Ebling's, rather than Asimov's. The same word has also been used in his short story "Flies".

George Carlin heavily criticized the use of euphemisms in his books and stand-up comedy shows, saying that they obscure meaning rather than enhance it, and that they hide the truth, making reality appear less vivid than it is. He particularly made fun of American English, saying Americans tend to invent "soft language" because they "have a lot of trouble dealing with reality [and] facing the truth."[26][27]

In Battlestar Galactica (1978), use of the words "frak" and "frakking" was directly substituted for the English slang words "fuck" and "fucking", confounding the censors. Other science fiction series have similarly used word substitution to avoid censorship, such as "frell" instead of "fuck" in Farscape, "gorram" and "rutting" instead of "goddamn" and "fucking" in Firefly, and "frag" instead of "fuck" in Babylon 5.[28] The Good Place takes this word substitution to its logical extreme, replacing all profanities with similar-sounding English words under the premise that such words may not be spoken in a perfect afterlife in order to avoid making anyone uncomfortable; "son of a bitch" becomes "son of a bench", "bullshit" becomes "bullshirt", and "fuck" becomes "fork".[29]

In The Sims series, the word WooHoo is used as a euphemistic slang for various activities of sexual intercourse in the series.[30][31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Euphemism". Webster's Online Dictionary.
  2. ^ "euphemism (n.)". Retrieved 7 January 2014.
  3. ^ φήμη, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  4. ^ "Euphemism" Etymology". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 10 June 2015.
  5. ^ Timothy Ryback (November 15, 1993). "Evidence of Evil". – The New Yorker. Retrieved December 1, 2015.
  6. ^ a b Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2003), Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-1403917232, 978-1403938695 [1]
  7. ^ affirmative action as euphemism
  8. ^ Enhanced interrogation as euphemism
  9. ^ "Obscene, Indecent and Profane Broadcasts". U.S. Federal Communications Commission. Archived from the original on 2013-12-09. Retrieved 2014-01-20.
  10. ^ although properly pronounced in upper-class British-English "barkley"
  11. ^ Collins Dictionary, definition of "berk"/"burk", retrieved 22 July 2014.
  12. ^ "Definition of ENCEINTE". Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. Retrieved 2017-05-20.
  13. ^ McCool, W.C. (1957-02-06). "Return of Rongelapese to their Home Island – Note by the Secretary" (PDF). United States Atomic Energy Commission. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-09-25. Retrieved 2007-11-07. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  14. ^ McCoy, Alfred W. (2006). A question of torture : CIA interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Internet Archive. New York : Metropolitan/Owl Book/Henry Holt and Co. ISBN 978-0-8050-8248-7.
  15. ^ Solzhenitsyn, Alexander (1974). The Gulag Archipelago I. New York: Harper Perennial. p. 6. ISBN 0-06-092103-X
  16. ^ "". Archived from the original on 28 May 2013. Retrieved 20 May 2017.
  17. ^ "Wannsee Conference and the "Final Solution"".
  18. ^ Henderson Taylor, Sharon (1974). "Terms for Low Intelligence". American Speech. 49 (3/4): 197–207. doi:10.2307/3087798. JSTOR 3087798.
  19. ^ Bell, Vicars Walker (1953). On Learning the English Tongue. Faber & Faber. p. 19. The Honest Jakes or Privy has graduated via Offices to the final horror of Toilet.
  20. ^ Frence toile, fabric, a form of curtain behind which washing, dressing and hair-dressing were performed (Larousse, Dictionnaire de la langue française, "Lexis", Paris, 1979, p. 1891)
  21. ^ ""Why We Have So Many Terms for 'People of Color'"".
  22. ^ Ringe, Don (2006). From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-955229-0.
  23. ^ Hodges, Rick (2020-07-01). "The Rise and Fall of 'Mentally Retarded'". Medium. Retrieved 2021-02-13.
  24. ^ "Change in Terminology: "Mental Retardation" to "Intellectual Disability"". Federal Register. 2013-08-01. Retrieved 2021-03-10.
  25. ^ Nash, Chris; Hawkins, Ann; Kawchuk, Janet; Shea, Sarah E (2012-02-17). "What's in a name? Attitudes surrounding the use of the term 'mental retardation'". Paediatrics & Child Health. 17 (2): 71–74. doi:10.1093/pch/17.2.71. ISSN 1205-7088. PMC 3299349. PMID 23372396.
  26. ^ "George Carlin's stand up act: Euphemism". YouTube. Archived from the original on 2021-12-11.
  27. ^ George Carlin (2006). Three Times Carlin. Hyperion (published October 31, 2006). ISBN 9781401302436. OCLC 74710379. OL 8367955M.
  28. ^ Moore, Trent (December 16, 2012). "Shazbot! Check out 14 frakkin' awesome sci-fi curse words". SYFY WIRE. Retrieved October 9, 2019.Moore, Trent (December 16, 2012). "Shazbot! Check out 14 frakkin' awesome sci-fi curse words". SYFY WIRE. Retrieved October 9, 2019.
  29. ^ Bricker, Tierney (September 19, 2016). "The Good Place's Kristen Bell and Ted Danson Reveal Their Forkin' Favorite Alternative Curse Words". E! Online. Retrieved October 9, 2019.
  30. ^ Gates, Meggie (January 18, 2021). "Sims, sexuality, and the promiscuity of female 'woohoo'". TechRadar. Future plc. Archived from the original on January 18, 2021.
  31. ^ Radulovic, Petrana (June 25, 2018). "You can seduce Santa Claus in The Sims 4's new expansion". Polygon. Vox Media. Archived from the original on June 25, 2018.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  • The dictionary definition of euphemism at Wiktionary