AskDefine | Define euphemisms

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  1. Plural of euphemism

Extensive Definition

A euphemism is the substitution of an agreeable or less offensive expression in place of one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant to the listener; or in the case of doublespeak, to make it less troublesome for the speaker. It also may be a substitution of a description of something or someone rather than the name, to avoid revealing secret, holy, or sacred names to the uninitiated, or to obscure the identity of the subject of a conversation from potential eavesdroppers. Some euphemisms are intended to be funny.


When a phrase is used as a euphemism, it often becomes a metaphor whose literal meaning is dropped. Euphemisms may be used to hide unpleasant or disturbing ideas, even when the literal term for them is not necessarily offensive. This type of euphemism is used in public relations and politics, where it is sometimes called doublespeak. Sometimes, using euphemisms is equated to politeness. There are also superstitious euphemisms, based (consciously or subconsciously) on the idea that words have the power to bring bad fortune (for example, not speaking the word "cancer"; see Etymology and Common examples below) and religious euphemisms, based on the idea that some words are sacred, or that some words are spiritually imperiling (taboo; see Etymology and Religious euphemisms below).


The word euphemism comes from the Greek word euphemo, meaning "auspicious/good/fortunate speech/kind" which in turn is derived from the Greek root-words eu (ευ), "good/well" + pheme (φήμη) "speech/speaking". The eupheme was originally a word or phrase used in place of a religious word or phrase that should not be spoken aloud; etymologically, the eupheme is the opposite of the blaspheme (evil-speaking). The primary example of taboo words requiring the use of a euphemism are the unspeakable names for a deity, such as Persephone, Hecate, or Nemesis.
Historical linguistics has revealed traces of taboo deformations in many languages. Several are known to have occurred in Indo-European languages, including the original Proto-Indo-European words for bear (*rtkos), wolf (*wlkwos), and deer (originally, hart; the deformation likely occurred to avoid confusion with heart). In different Indo-European languages, each of these words has a difficult etymology because of taboo deformations—a euphemism was substituted for the original, which no longer occurs in the language. An example is the Slavic root for bear—*medu-ed-, which means "honey eater". One example in English is "donkey" replacing the old Indo-European-derived word "ass". The word "dandelion" (lit., tooth of lion, referring to the shape of the leaves) is another example, being a substitute for pissenlit, meaning "the color of urine".
In some languages of the Pacific, using the name of a deceased chief is taboo. Amongst indigenous Australians, it is forbidden to use the name, image, or audio-visual recording of the deceased, so that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation now publishes a warning to indigenous Australians when using names, images or audio-visual recordings of people who have died.
Since people are often named after everyday things, this leads to the swift development of euphemisms. These languages have a very high rate of vocabulary change. (Dyen, Isidore, A. T. James & J. W. L. Cole. 1967. Language divergence and estimated word retention rate. Language 43/1: 150-171.)
In a similar manner, classical Chinese texts were expected to avoid using characters contained within the name of the currently ruling emperor as a sign of respect. In these instances, the relevant ideographs were replaced by homophones. While this practice creates an additional wrinkle for anyone attempting to read or translate texts from the classical period, it does provide a fairly accurate means of dating the documents under consideration.
The common names of illicit drugs, and the plants used to obtain them, often undergo a process similar to taboo deformation, because new terms are devised in order to discuss them secretly in the presence of others. This process often occurs in English (e.g. speed or crank for meth). It occurs even more in Spanish, e.g. the deformation of names for cannabis: mota (lit., "something which moves" on the black market), replacing grifa (lit., "something coarse to the touch"), replacing marihuana (a female personal name, María Juana), replacing cañamo (the original Spanish name for the plant, derived from the Latin genus name Cannabis). All four of these names are still used in various parts of the Hispanophone world, although cañamo ironically has the least underworld connotation, and is often used to describe industrial hemp, or legitimate medically-prescribed cannabis.

The "Euphemism Treadmill"

Euphemisms often evolve over time into taboo words themselves, through a process described by W.V.O. Quine, and more recently dubbed the "euphemism treadmill" by Steven Pinker. (cf. Gresham's Law in economics). This is the well-known linguistic process known as pejoration.
Words originally intended as euphemisms may lose their euphemistic value, acquiring the negative connotations of their referents. In some cases, they may be used mockingly and become dysphemisms.
For example, the term "concentration camp," to describe camps used to house civilian prisoners in close (concentrated) quarters, was used by the British during the Second Boer War, primarily because it sounded bland and inoffensive. However, after the Third Reich used the expression to describe its death camps, the term gained enormous negative connotation.
Also, in some versions of English, "toilet room," itself a euphemism, was replaced with "bathroom" and "water closet", which were replaced with "restroom" and "W.C." These are also examples of euphemisms which are geographically concentrated: the term "restroom" is rarely used outside of the U.S.A. and "W.C.", where before it was quite popular in Britain, is passing out of favour and becoming more popular in France.
Connotations easily change over time. "Idiot," "imbecile," and "moron" were once neutral terms for an adult of toddler, preschool, and primary school mental ages. As with Gresham's law, negative connotations tend to crowd out neutral ones, so the phrase mentally retarded was pressed into service to replace them. Now that too is considered rude, used commonly as an insult of a person, thing, or idea. As a result, new terms like "developmentally disabled", "mentally challenged," "with an intellectual disability" and "special needs" have replaced "retarded." A similar progression occurred with
although in the case of "crippled" the meaning has also broadened (and hence has been narrowed with adjectives, which themselves have been euphemised); a dyslexic or colorblind person, for example, would not be termed "crippled". Even more recent is the use of person-centric phrases, such as "person(s) with disability, dyslexia, colorblindness, etc.", which ascribe a particular condition to those previously qualified with the aforementioned adjectives.
Euphemisms can also serve to recirculate words that have passed out of use because of negative connotation. The word "lame" from above, having faded from the vernacular, was revitalized as a slang word generally meaning "not living up to expectations". Connotation of a euphemism can also be subject-specific. The term "handicap" was in common use to describe a physical disability; it gained common use in sports and games to describe a scoring advantage given to a player who has a disadvantageous standing in ability, and this definition has remained common, even though the term as describing physical disability has mostly faded from common use. One exception to this is in the United States when designating "handicapped" parking spaces for such individuals.
In the early 1960s, Major League Baseball franchise owner and promoter Bill Veeck, who was missing part of a leg, argued against the then-favored euphemism "handicapped," saying he preferred "crippled" because it was merely descriptive and did not carry connotations of limiting one's capability the way "handicapped" (and all of its subsequent euphemisms) seemed to do (Veeck as in Wreck, chapter "I'm Not Handicapped, I'm Crippled"). Later, comedian George Carlin gave a famous monologue of how he thought euphemisms can undermine appropriate attitudes towards serious issues such as the evolving terms describing the medical problem of the cumulative mental trauma of soldiers in high stress situations:
He contended that, as the name of the condition became more complicated and seemingly arcane, sufferers of this condition have been taken less seriously as people with a serious illness, and were given poorer treatment as a result. He also contended that Vietnam veterans would have received the proper care and attention they needed were the condition still called "shell shock." In the same routine, he echoed Bill Veeck's opinion that "crippled" was a perfectly valid term (and noted that early English translations of the Bible seemed to have no qualms about saying that Jesus "healed the cripples").
A complementary "dysphemism treadmill" exists, but is more rarely observed. One modern example is the word "sucks". "That sucks" began as American shorthand for "that sucks cock," and quickly evolved into slang for "that is very unpleasant", and refers to fellatio; along with the exactly synonymous phrase "that blows", it developed over the late-20th century from being an extremely vulgar phrase to near-acceptability. Likewise, scumbag, which was originally a reference to a used condom, now is a fairly mild epithet. This is in stark contrast to the related term douchebag, which is still semi-common but has a much more negative connotation.
In his remarks on the ever-changing London slang, made in Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell mentioned both the "euphemism treadmill" and the "dysphemism treadmill." He did not use the now-established terms, but observed and commented on the respective processes as early as in 1933.

Classification of euphemisms

Many euphemisms fall into one or more of these categories:
  • Terms of foreign and/or technical origin (derrière, copulation, perspire, urinate, security breach, mierda de toro, prophylactic, feces occur, sheist)
  • Abbreviations (SOB for son of a bitch, BS for bullshit, TS for tough shit, SOL for shit out of luck or PDQ for pretty damn(ed) quick, BFD for big fucking deal, STFU or STHU for shut the fuck/hell up)
    • Abbreviations using a spelling alphabet, especially in military contexts (Charlie Foxtrot for "Cluster fuck", Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Oscar for "What the fuck, over?", Bravo Sierra for "bullshit"—See Military slang)
    • Plays on abbreviations (H-e-double hockey sticks for "hell", "a-double snakes" for "ass", Sugar Honey Iced Tea for "shit", bee with an itch or witch with a capital B, catch (or see) you next Tuesday (or Thursday) for "cunt")
    • Use in mostly clinical settings (PITA for "pain in the ass" patient)
  • Abstractions and ambiguities (it for excrement, the situation for pregnancy, going to the other side for death, do it or come together in reference a sexual act)
  • Indirections (behind, unmentionables, privates, live together, go to the bathroom, sleep together)
  • Mispronunciation (goldarnit, dadgummit, freakin, shoot, shite—See minced oath)
  • Litotes or reserved understatement (not exactly thin for "fat", not completely truthful for "lied", not unlike cheating for "an instance of cheating")
  • Changing nouns to modifiers (makes her look slutty for "is a slut", right-wing element for "Right Wing")
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, or even those with uncorrected poor vision, a group that would be excluded by the word blind.
There are three antonyms of euphemism: dysphemism, cacophemism, and power word. The first can be either offensive or merely humorously deprecating with the second one generally used more often in the sense of something deliberately offensive. The last is used mainly in arguments to make a point seem more correct.

The evolution of euphemisms

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. There is an astonishing number of taboo deformations in English, of which many refer to the infamous four-letter words. In American English, words which are unacceptable on television, such as fuck, may be represented by deformations such as freak—even in children's cartoons. The word shit, meaning feces, can be mildly euphemized by deforming it into shite. Some examples of Cockney rhyming slang may serve the same purpose—to call a person a berk sounds less offensive than to call him a cunt, though berk is short for Berkeley Hunt which rhymes with cunt.
Bureaucracies such as the military and large corporations frequently spawn euphemisms of a more deliberate (and to some, more sinister) nature. Organizations coin doublespeak expressions to describe objectionable actions in terms that seem neutral or inoffensive. For example, a term used in the past for contamination by radioactive isotopes is Sunshine units.
Military organizations kill people, sometimes deliberately and sometimes by mistake; in doublespeak, the first may be called neutralizing the target and the second collateral damage. Violent destruction of non-state enemies may be referred to as pacification. Two common terms when a soldier is accidentally killed (buys the farm) by their own side are friendly fire or blue on blue (BOBbing)—"buy the farm" has its own interesting history.
Execution is an established euphemism referring to the act of putting a person to death, with or without judicial process. It originally referred to the execution, i.e., the carrying out, of a death warrant, which is an authorization to a sheriff, prison warden, or other official to put a named person to death. In legal usage, execution can still refer to the carrying out of other types of orders; for example, in U.S. legal usage, a writ of execution is a direction to enforce a civil money judgment by seizing property. Likewise, lethal injection itself may be considered a euphemism for putting the convict to death by poisoning.
Abortion originally meant premature birth, and came to mean birth before viability. The term "abort" was extended to mean any kind of premature ending, such as aborting the launch of a rocket. Euphemisms have developed around the original meaning. Abortion, by itself, came to mean induced abortion or elective abortion exclusively. Hence the parallel term spontaneous abortion, an "act of nature", was dropped in favor of the more neutral-sound miscarriage. The politically-charged subject of elective abortion also led to parallel euphemisms: "pro-life" being characterized as another way of saying "anti-abortion" or "anti-choice"; and "pro-choice" being characterized as another way of saying "pro-abortion" or "anti-life".
Industrial unpleasantness such as pollution may be toned down to outgassing or runoff—descriptions of physical processes rather than their damaging consequences. Some of this may simply be the application of precise technical terminology in the place of popular usage, but beyond precision, the advantage of technical terminology may be its lack of emotional undertones and the likelihood the general public (at least initially) will not recognize it for what it really is; the disadvantage being the lack of real-life context. Terms like "waste" and "wastewater" are also avoided in favor of terms such as byproduct, recycling, reclaimed water and effluent. In the oil industry, oil-based drilling muds were simply renamed organic phase drilling muds, where organic phase is a euphemism for "oil".

Euphemisms for the profane

Profane words and expressions in the English language are often taken from three areas: religion, excretion, and sex. While profanities themselves have been around for centuries, their limited use in public and by the media has only slowly become socially acceptable, and there are still many expressions which cannot be used in polite conversation. One vantage point into the current societal tolerance of profane language is found in the frequency of such language on prime-time television. The word damn (and most other religious profanity in the English language) has lost its shock value, and as a consequence, euphemisms for it (e.g., dang, darn-it) have taken on a very stodgy feeling. Excretory profanity such as piss and shit in some cases may be acceptable among informal (and usually younger) friends (while they almost are never acceptable in formal relationships or public use); euphemisms such as Number One and Number Two may be preferred for use with children. Most sexual terms and expressions, even technical ones, either remain unacceptable for general use or have undergone radical rehabilitation.

Religious euphemisms

Euphemisms for deities as well as for religious practices and artifacts date to the earliest of written records. Protection of sacred names, rituals, and concepts from the uninitiated has always given rise to euphemisms, whether it be for exclusion of outsiders or the retention of power among select practitioners. Examples from the Egyptians and every other western religion abound.
Euphemisms for God and Jesus, such as gosh and gee, are used by Christians to avoid taking the name of God in a vain oath, which would violate one of the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 20)
When praying, Jews will typically use the word "Adonai" ('the Lord'). However, when in a colloquial setting, this is deemed inappropriate, and so typically one replaces the word "Adonai" with the word "HaShem", which literally means, "The Name". It is notable that "Adonai" is itself a word that refers to the Jewish God's name, the pronunciation of which is unknown and often mistakenly thought to be Jehovah, but is not the name itself. Traditionally, Jews have seen the name of God as ineffable and thus one that must not be spoken. According to the Torah, when Moses saw the burning bush, he asked God, "who are you?" The answer he heard was, "I am that I am". Thus, the Jews have for centuries recognized the name of the Almighty as ineffable, because pronouncing it is equivalent to calling oneself God.
Euphemisms for hell, damnation, and the devil, on the other hand, are often used to avoid invoking the power of the adversary. The most famous in the latter category is the expression what the dickens and its variants, which does not refer to the famed British writer but instead was a popular euphemism for Satan in its time. In the Harry Potter books, the evil wizard Lord Voldemort is usually referred to as "He Who Must Not Be Named" or "You-Know-Who". However, the character Professor Dumbledore is quoted as saying in the first book of the series that "Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself".

Excretory euphemisms

While urinate and defecate are not euphemisms, they are used almost exclusively in a clinical sense. The basic Anglo-Saxon words for these functions, piss and shit, are considered vulgarities and unacceptable in general use, despite the use of piss in the King James Bible (in Isaiah 36:12 and elsewhere).


  • Benveniste, Émile, "Euphémismes anciens and modernes", in: Problèmes de linguistique générale, vol. 1, pp. 308-314. [originally published in: Die Sprache, I (1949), pp. 116-122].
  • Rawson, Hugh, A Dictionary of Euphemism & Other Doublespeak, second edition, 1995. ISBN
  • R.W.Holder: How Not to Say What You Mean: A Dictionary of Euphemisms, Oxford University Press, 501 pages, 2003. ISBN
  • Maledicta: The International Journal of Verbal Aggression (ISSN US)
  • McGlone, M.S., Beck, G., & Pfiester, R.A. (2006). Contamination and camouflage in euphemisms. Communication Monographs, 73, 261-282.
  • Greek Grammar
euphemisms in Asturian: Eufemismu
euphemisms in Bosnian: Eufemizam
euphemisms in Bulgarian: Евфемизъм
euphemisms in Catalan: Eufemisme
euphemisms in Czech: Eufemismus
euphemisms in Danish: Eufemisme
euphemisms in German: Euphemismus
euphemisms in Spanish: Eufemismo
euphemisms in Esperanto: Eŭfemismo
euphemisms in French: Euphémisme
euphemisms in Galician: Eufemismo
euphemisms in Croatian: Eufemizam
euphemisms in Ido: Eufemismo
euphemisms in Indonesian: Eufemisme
euphemisms in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Euphemismo
euphemisms in Icelandic: Veigrunarorð
euphemisms in Italian: Eufemismo
euphemisms in Hebrew: לשון נקייה
euphemisms in Georgian: ევფემიზმი
euphemisms in Luxembourgish: Euphemismus
euphemisms in Lithuanian: Eufemizmas
euphemisms in Hungarian: Eufemizmus
euphemisms in Dutch: Eufemisme
euphemisms in Norwegian: Eufemisme
euphemisms in Norwegian Nynorsk: Eufemisme
euphemisms in Polish: Eufemizm
euphemisms in Portuguese: Eufemismo
euphemisms in Romanian: Eufemism
euphemisms in Russian: Эвфемизм
euphemisms in Slovak: Eufemizmus
euphemisms in Serbian: Еуфемизам
euphemisms in Finnish: Kiertoilmaus
euphemisms in Swedish: Eufemism
euphemisms in Vietnamese: Khinh từ
euphemisms in Ukrainian: Евфемізм
euphemisms in Chinese: 委婉
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