I. What is Euphemism?
Euphemisms are polite, mild phrases which substitute unpleasant ways of saying something sad or uncomfortable.
Euphemism (pronounced yoo-fuh-miz-uhm) is derived from the Greek phrase euphēmismos, meaning “to sound good.”
II. Examples of Euphemism
Euphemisms are often used in everyday speech to soften difficult situations. Here are a few examples of euphemism:
We have to let you go, Tyler.
To “let someone go” is to fire someone. This is a euphemism that sounds much nicer than the harsh truth of the situation.
She’s a curvy woman.
“Curvy” is often used as a euphemism for “overweight.”
Jimmy was sent to a correctional facility.
A “correctional facility” is a more professional and nicer-sounding phrase than “jail” or “prison.”
III. The Importance of Using Euphemisms
Euphemisms allow us to soften otherwise difficult or unpleasant things when we speak, especially to children, or people who might be offended or disturbed by the situation we are talking about. They can be used to shelter children from adult subjects, avoid awkward moments of truth with loved ones, and avoid politically incorrect phrasings in public. Political correctness and politeness are both filled with euphemistic phrases. The high usage of euphemisms by organizations and individuals in formal documents and everyday conversation alike shows how much we value politeness.
IV. Examples of Euphemism in Literature
Euphemisms are used in literature just as they are used in everyday speech: to soften otherwise difficult or harsh situations with nicer phrases. Here is an example of euphemism in poetry:
When I said
I have to lay you off
a parallel universe was born
in his face, one where flesh
is a loose shirt
taken to the river and beaten
against rocks. Just
by opening my mouth I destroyed
. . .
I stared at my hands, he stared
at the wall staring at my hands.
I said other things
about the excellent work he’d done
and the cycles of business
which are like
the roller-coaster thoughts
of an oscilloscope.
In Bob Hicok’s poem “Dropping the Euphemism” a boss uses the euphemism “I have to lay you off” for firing someone. He continues to discuss “the cycles of business,” meaning the need for firing and hiring certain people depending on the financial failure or success of the business. The fact that he “destroys the faith” of his employee, though, shows that the euphemism does not have the softening effect intended. As we’ll see in When to Use Euphemisms, people are often criticized for using euphemisms to avoid the plain truth, especially if they’re just doing it to make themselves sound better.
For another example of euphemism in literature, read this excerpt from George Orwell’s 1984:
No word in the B vocabulary was ideologically neutral. A great many were euphemisms. Such words, for instance, as joycamp (forced-labour camp) or Minipax Ministry of Peace, i. e. Ministry of War) meant almost the exact opposite of what they appeared to mean.
In 1984, the totalitarian government, also euphemistically called English Socialism, uses many euphemisms to soften the reality of its policies of eternal war and brainwashing its citizens.
V. Examples of Euphemism in Pop Culture
For an example of euphemisms, listen to “Shake Your Euphemism” by the Blue Man Group, a song which collects numerous euphemisms for a person’s rear end:
It is time now to create the ultimate dance party. You may already have a catchy melody, and a fierce groove, but that’s not enough. To take things over the top, you will need to employ the greatest weapon in the dance party arsenal: you will need to start shaking your rear end. Or as some people call it…
The song goes on to list an impressive total of sixty-eight euphemisms!
For a second example of euphemism, listen to Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass”:
Yeah it’s pretty clear, I ain’t no size two
But I can shake it, shake it like I’m supposed to do
‘Cause I got that boom boom that all the boys chase
All the right junk in all the right places
. . .
Because you know I’m all about that bass,
‘Bout that bass ’bout that bass, no treble
I’m all ’bout that bass, ’bout that bass, no treble
Meghan Trainor’s song uses numerous euphemistic phrases to describe a figure with curves in positive ways, encouraging women to embrace their figures no matter what their size.
VI. Related Terms
Understatements, like euphemisms, can be used to politely express impolite things. Unlike euphemisms, though, understatements do not exist solely for that purpose. Understatements express something in a less extreme way, or make it sound less important than it is in reality.
Here is an example of understatement versus euphemism in describing someone who has the stomach flu:
She’s just got a little cold.
Calling the stomach flu “just a little cold” is an example of understatement, understating just how serious the illness is.
She’s feeling under the weather today.
“Feeling under the weather” is a euphemistic way of expressing that someone has fallen ill, without directly saying so.
Like euphemisms, innuendos are used to discuss something unpleasant or inappropriate without directly stating the unpleasant or inappropriate subject. Whereas euphemisms soften the harsh reality, innuendos hint at the reality.
Here is an example of innuendo versus euphemism when discussing a woman with a provocative “hourglass” figure:
She’s got a healthy figure, if you know what I mean.
In this example, the speaker does not directly state that the woman has a sexy figure, but he implies it with the innuendo of a “healthy figure.” The innuendo does not mean what it says, but people should be able to guess what is being hinted at.
She has a womanly figure.
A “womanly figure” is a euphemism because it is more polite than a “sexy figure,” but it’s not innuendo because “having curves in all the right places” (a euphemism) is exactly what “womanly figure” means.
Although understatements and innuendos work similar to euphemisms, they are different due to the intention: whereas understatements and innuendos can have a variety of intentions, euphemisms always aim for politeness and avoidance of dirty or inappropriate talk.
VII. In Closing
Liars are “creative with the truth,” sick pets are “put to sleep,” and pregnant women have “buns in the oven.” Euphemisms are pervasive in everyday conversation, formal documents, political speeches, and pop songs alike. They soften difficult truths and allow for polite conversation.