From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Euphemisms)
Jump to: navigation, search
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 menstrual pads, respectively

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

There are three antonyms of euphemism: dysphemism, cacophemism, and loaded language. Dysphemism can be either offensive or merely ironic; cacophemism is deliberately offensive. Loaded language evokes a visceral response beyond the meaning of the words.


Euphemism comes from the Greek word εὐφημία (euphemia), meaning "the use of words of good omen", which in turn is derived from the Greek root-words (εὖ), "good, well" and phḗmē (φήμη) "prophetic speech; rumour, talk".[3] Etymologically, the eupheme is the opposite of the blaspheme "evil-speaking." The term euphemism itself was used as a euphemism by the ancient Greeks, meaning "to keep a holy silence" (speaking well by not speaking at all).[4]


Phonetic modification[edit]

Phonetic euphemism is used to replace profanities, giving them the intensity of a mere interjection.

  • Shortening or "clipping" the term ("Jeez" for Jesus, "What the—" for "What the hell")
  • Mispronunciations, such as "Frak", "Frig" "What the fudge", "What the truck", "Oh my gosh", "Frickin", "Darn", "Oh, shoot", "Be-yotch", etc.
  • Using the first letter ("SOB", "What the eff", "Suck my D", "BS"). Sometimes, the word "word" is added after it ("F word", "S word", "B word"). Also, the letter can be phonetically respelled, for example, the word "piss" was shortened to "pee" in this way.

Figures of speech[edit]

  • Ambiguous statements (it for excrement, the situation or "a girl in trouble" for pregnancy, going to the other side for death, do it or come together in reference to a sexual act, tired and emotional for drunkenness)
  • Understatements ("asleep" for "dead", "drinking" for "consuming alcohol", "hurt" for "injured", etc.)
  • Metaphors ("beat the meat", "choke the chicken", "take a dump", "drain the main vein").
  • Comparisons ("buns" for "buttocks", "weed" for "cannabis").
  • Metonymy ("lose a person" for "coping with a person's death", "pass away" for "die", "men's room" for "men's toilet").


Euphemism may be used as a rhetorical strategy, in which case its goal is to change the valence of a description from positive to negative.


Using a less harsh term with similar meaning. For instance, "screwed up" is a euphemism for "fucked up"; "hook-up", "we hooked up", or "laid" for sexual intercourse

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, a group that would be excluded by the word blind.


Euphemisms may be formed in a number of ways. 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.

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 "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.[5] Some examples of 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, which rhymes with cunt.[6]

Bureaucracies frequently spawn euphemisms of a more deliberate nature, doublespeak expressions. For example, in the past the US military called contamination by radioactive isotopes sunshine units.[7] A practical death sentence in the Soviet Union during the Great Purge often used the clause "imprisonment without right to correspondence:" the person sentenced never had a chance to correspond because soon after imprisonment he would be shot.[8] As early as 1939, Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich used the term Sonderbehandlung (translated into English as "special treatment") to mean summary execution, most likely by hanging, of persons who proved 'disciplinary problems' to the Nazis even before the Nazis began 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.[9] after having been "evacuated" to their doom. Such was part of the superficially-innocuous formulation Endlösung der Judenfrage which became infamous to the entire world during the Nuremberg Trials.[10]

A euphemism may often devolve into a taboo word itself, through the linguistic process known as pejoration or semantic change described by W.V.O. Quine,[11] and more recently dubbed the "euphemism treadmill" by Harvard professor Steven Pinker.[12] 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 or bog-house.[13] In the 20th century, where the words lavatory or toilet were deemed inappropriate (e.g. in the United States), they were sometimes replaced with bathroom or water closet, which in turn became restroom, W.C., or washroom. The word "shit" appears to have originally been a euphemism for defecation in Pre-Germanic, as the Proto-Indo-European root *skined-, from which it was derived, meant to cut off.[14]

Common examples[edit]

Euphemism Usage
adult entertainment, adult material pornography
affirmative action preference for women and/or minorities, usually in employment or academic admissions, also called reverse discrimination, or in the U.K. positive discrimination.[15]
custodian, caretaker janitor (also originally a euphemism: in Latin, janitor means doorman.)
enhanced interrogation torture[16]
expecting pregnant
making love, sleeping with, getting it on, having it off (U.K.), hooking up, doing it having sexual intercourse
sanitation worker, refuse worker (UK) bin man, garbage man, dustman (UK)
underprivileged poor[17]
visit from the stork give birth

In popular culture[edit]

Main article: Doublespeak

Doublespeak is a term sometimes used for deliberate euphemistic misuse of incorrect words to disguise unacceptable meaning, as in a "Ministry of Peace" which wages war, a "Ministry of Love" which imprisons and tortures. It is a portmanteau of the terms "newspeak" and "doublethink", which originate from George Orwell's novel 1984.

The "Dead Parrot sketch" from Monty Python's Flying Circus contains an extensive list of euphemisms for death, referring to the deceased parrot that the character played by John Cleese had purchased.

The word euphemism itself can be used as a euphemism. In the animated TV special Halloween Is Grinch Night (See Dr. Seuss), a child 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?"

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' web series Electric City, the use of profanity has been censored by the word "expletive".

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".

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. ^ "Obscene, Indecent and Profane Broadcasts". U.S. Federal Communications Commission. Archived from the original on 2013-12-09. Retrieved 2014-01-20. 
  6. ^ Collins Dictionary, definition of "berk"/"burk", retrieved 22 July 2014.
  7. ^ McCool, W.C. (1957-02-06). "Return of Rongelapese to their Home Island — Note by the Secretary" (PDF). United States Atomic Energy Commission. Retrieved 2007-11-07. 
  8. ^ Solzhenitsyn, Alexander (1974). The Gulag Archipelago I. New York, NY: Harper Perennial. p. 6. ISBN 0-06-092103-X
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ Quine, W.V. (1987). Quiddities. Belknap Press. pp. 53–54. 
  12. ^ "The game of the name". Baltimore Sun. 1994-04-03. Archived from the original (PDF) on 1994-04-06. Retrieved 2011-01-19. 
  13. ^ 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. 
  14. ^ Ringe, Don (2006). From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-955229-0. 
  15. ^ affirmative action as euphemism
  16. ^ enhanced interrogation as euphemism
  17. ^ "The Economist Style Guide". Retrieved 9 June 2015. 

Further reading[edit]