Are Euphemisms Useful?

Governments, businesses, and private people alike often look to soften an idea they think may hurt, offend, or dishearten another. For that reason, they develop and use alternate phrasing intended to sugarcoat certain connotations.

For example, a company reducing staff is not “firing people”; it is “downsizing.” People aren’t “poor”; they are “economically disadvantaged.” We are not “leaving” or “dumping” a significant other; we just “need space.”

euphemism is an unobjectionable word or expression that replaces another that can be received as harmful or unpleasant. Euphemism originates from the Greek word euphemia, a compound of eu (good) and pheme (speech). Eupheme refers to the female Greek spirit of positive words. To the ancient Greeks, euphemism indicated “keeping a holy silence” (speaking well by not speaking at all).

A writer’s central question with a euphemism is which will be of greater concern to readers: the diluted wording or the unpleasant thought. For example, it may be better to express that “Stan’s stomach problems are making him gassy” than to describe his condition with other available details. In this case, avoiding certain imagery contributes to more-tasteful writing.

Similarly, if someone is suffering through the recent loss of a loved one, we might invoke less negativity if we express condolences that the individual has “passed away” than if we say we’re sorry the person “has died.”

Conversely, when a euphemism aims to distort the truth or sidestep authentic emotion, it can result in dimmed or misleading communication. For example, a failing investment company might speak of “underperforming assets” instead of “losses.” We might also say that we “do not suffer fools” rather than that we “are impatient.”

In his famous book 1984, George Orwell speculated on the danger of letting too many euphemisms hijack our understanding of what is real and worthy of greater thought, particularly when dictated by bureaucrats, marketers, and state officials.

The story’s fictional government, Oceania, creates its own language, Newspeak, to spin the truth and limit people’s range of thought. By manipulating vocabulary, Newspeak oversimplifies concepts to establish more basic, childlike thoughts that can ultimately be controlled: e.g., crimethink (thought crime), doublethink (believing two contradictory terms to be correct), facecrime (a facial expression that suggests guilt of thought crime).

More Examples of Euphemism

A writer might use a euphemism for a number of reasons, particularly to avoid being direct, downplay something, or make a thought either less profane or more attractive than it is.

Euphemism Real Meaning Euphemism Real Meaning
expecting pregnant adult content pornography
senior citizen old person collateral damage accidental killing
sanitary engineer garbage collector saving on rent living with parents
between jobs laid off, fired economical cheap
of limited funds broke artificial stimulants drugs, narcotics
powdering my nose going to the bathroom relocation center prison camp
horticultural surgeon tree trimmer big boned fat
population relocation genocide partially proficient unqualified

We can see in this list where a euphemism might better serve communication than the stripped-down concept will. We can also identify where euphemisms look to mask or hide something to influence our response to it.

Changing social mores can result in the constant updating of euphemisms as well. In his book The Careful Writer, Theodore M. Bernstein identifies the evolution of the word for the room where people eliminate bodily waste as: toilet > W.C. > washroom > bathroom > lavatory > powder room > restroom. Is each iteration an improvement over the last?

Good writers will use euphemisms with proper thought, judgment, and sparseness. In always aiming to be honest and clear, if they must reconfigure a thought or an idea, they will do so to convey respect and empathy rather than to evade, obscure, or redirect what is genuine. Approached this way, euphemisms can indeed be useful.


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8 Comments on Are Euphemisms Useful?

8 responses to “Are Euphemisms Useful?”

  1. Ibrahim Ahmad Ibrahim says:

    Quite comprehensive. Glad to know of this site. Keep it up!

  2. Kermit P Christmann says:

    I can’t inundate you with a comprehensive list of euphemisms that irritate me, so I’ll just give the one that first popped into my head this morning: negative growth. Negative growth appears to be a favorite of economists, academics, and NPR reporters. What is the matter with saying contraction? Furthermore, is using the the word growth in a phrase to describe something that is shrinking an improper use of the word growth?

    • Although using the word negative as an adjective meaning “denoting the absence or the contradictory of something” (Merriam-Webster) to describe the noun growth would be grammatically correct, we agree that negative growth feels like a euphemism for a decline or contraction in wages, sales, GDP, etc.

  3. Mike Saia says:

    When using euphemisms, it is good to consider the culture(s) of the audience. Having lived in the Netherlands for 7 years, I know that one cannot use the euphemism “bathroom” for the “toilet.” In most Dutch houses, the bathroom is where one takes a bath or shower, and there is no toilet in that room. The “toilet” is a room with only a toilet in it, and no place to bathe or shower. Thus, the culture of the audience can become an issue when picking a euphemism.

  4. Steven Rosenberg says:

    A better euphemism for “genocide” is “ethnic cleansing.” “Ethnic cleansing” better implies the murderousness of genocide while relocation does not.
    “Saving on rent” as a euphemism for “living with parents” is a bit vague. We could be living with parents for a number of reasons other than saving money. Actually, “living with parents” doesn’t really need a euphemism.
    “Relocation center” isn’t a euphemism for “prison.” A relocation center can be like a prison as when Japanese Americans were relocated from their homes during WWII. But a prison is where people are put who commit crimes, the Japanese Americans did nothing to deserve being relocated.

    • As the article discusses, the intent behind a euphemism is often to diminish the idea or concept behind a word or phrase to make it less likely to prompt an undesired reaction. Your examples appear to steer the idea or concept closer to the truth than to mitigate it. However, in some cases, depending on the context, they might still be more palatable to the receiver than the core word or phrase.

  5. Brendan Roy says:

    Thanks for the weekly useful (and often humourous) language lessons and tips.

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