What are euphemisms? Why do we use them? And are they words of kindness and comfort, or words of disguise and deceit?
Euphemisms are mild, indirect or evasive expressions that are used instead of those that are offensive, unpleasant or embarrassing.
They’re used in all areas of life, but tend to be most common around so-called taboo areas such as death, sex, bodily functions, and violence.
Why do we use euphemisms?
So, why do we choose to use less disagreeable, or vaguer, words or phrases than the ones we actually mean?
Many euphemisms about sexual activity or bodily functions came about when it was considered extremely impolite to talk about such things. We’re now much less squeamish or prudish, and we're fairly relaxed about talking about sex and going to the toilet, etc. In fact, some might say we’ve gone too far the other way. But there are still occasions where maybe it feels less embarrassing to say someone has ‘slept with’ another person, than to say they had sex with them. Or more polite to say “I’m going to the bathroom”, than to say “I’m going to urinate”.
When we know someone whose parent or husband or wife has died, it’s often kinder and gentler to say we’re sorry to hear that person has ‘passed away’. And the person whose loved one has died may find it easier to speak of it in vaguer terms such as “I lost my husband last year”. It’s simply a way of dealing with something that’s hard to face.
“As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate, action: you liberate a city by destroying it. Words are to confuse, so that at election time people will solemnly vote against their own interests.” Gore Vidal The Decline and Fall of the American Empire, 1992
The euphemisms of war are deliberately used to hide the horror and violence of war. They make that which is in reality horrific, so apparently commonplace that we're in danger of no longer considering the true implications of the words we hear, and of becoming immune or numb to the consequences. With the result that we're less likely to react, object, or question the morality and legality of actions supposedly carried out in our name. The real words conjure up graphic images of the results of war that people are less likely to support, and more likely to challenge.
Euphemisms from the workplace
Cleaners are now 'office cleaning operatives', and someone who stacks shelves in a supermarket is an 'ambient replenishment assistant'. Employees aren't fired from their job, they're 'let go'; and then they're not unemployed, but 'between jobs'. I'm not sure how euphemistic job titles really help anyone, but the intention of the vague language of dismissal is to soften the blow, both for employee and employer.
Here are some more examples of common euphemisms, with the euphemisms in bold...
Euphemisms related to war
terminate – kill
We must terminate him before he reaches the border.
friendly fire – an attack that comes from one's own side that accidentally kills or injures one's own soldiers
Ten soldiers were seriously injured in friendly fire.
- Enhanced interrogation techniques - torture
collateral damage – the killing of innocent civilians by mistake (especially by the military)
They say that some collateral damage is inevitable during military action.
Euphemisms related to death
lost their lives – were killed
Many people lost their lives in the accident.
put to sleep – (an animal) euthanized by a vet
We had to have our dog put to sleep yesterday.
pass away – die
Her grandmother passed away last night.
didn't make it - died
I'm sorry to say he didn't make it.
- lost – as in, I lost my husband. Meaning my husband died.
- go to the bathroom - go to the toilet
pass water – urinate
I don't know what's wrong with me. I'm passing water ten times a day!
spend a penny – urinate
Can we stop here? I need to spend a penny.
Sex, health and alcohol
sleep with – have sex with
Have you slept with him?
tired and emotional – drunk
You'd better take him home, he's a bit tired and emotional.
full-figured - overweight
Clothes for the full-figured man or woman.
over the hill - old
I'm not over the hill yet!
the big C – cancer
Did you hear that Mrs Jones has the big C?
Euphemisms allow us to talk about something like the death of someone dear in a kind, comforting and sensitive way. They're also a way to avoid embarrassment or offence when talking about anything related to biological functions. But they're also used to hide the truth or reality of situations and actions. They can soften the reality of painful experiences and emotions. But they can also be vague, and at times undeniably deceitful, and so we should be careful when using them in our writing as they can muddy our meaning and hamper effective communication.
In 2017, 'alternative facts' became a much-mocked euphemism for lies. I wonder what new euphemisms 2018 will bring.