A euphemism (YOO-fuh-miz-uhm) is a form of figurative language. These idiomatic, indirect expressions replace harsh, impolite, taboo, or unpleasant terms with more delicate phrases. They can be used humorously or to downplay or mask a situation, causing some to find the device deceitful or counterproductive.
The term euphemism is derived from the Greek euphemismos or euphemia, meaning “to sound good” or “words of good omen.”
Examples of Euphemisms
Euphemisms are prevalent in everyday phrases, such as the following (bolded for emphasis):
- When firing someone, an employer might say, “We’re going to have to let you go.” That unemployed person might then say they are “between jobs” rather than admit they were fired.
- When sick or unwell, a person might tell their friend, “I’m feeling under the weather.”
- To share the news of a woman’s pregnancy, her mother could say, “She has a bun in the oven.” This is an instance of a humorous euphemism, rather than an attempt to replace an awkward or harsh phrase.
- To delicately broach the topic of someone’s death, it may be said that the deceased “passed away.”
Types of Euphemisms
There are several kinds of euphemisms that can be used in writing and spoken language.
- Abstraction: These are euphemisms that obscure unpleasant realities, such as “gone to a better place” to discuss death.
- Indirection: Adding distance from a particular action, such as “sleeping together” for having sex, is an indirection.
- Litotes: Softening or underplaying something with double negatives, such as “He’s not unattractive,” is an instance of litotes.
- Mispronunciation: To allude to profane words, people might utilize mispronunciation, such as “jeez” or “frigging.”
- Modification: These euphemisms change an offensive noun to an adjective to lessen the effect, such as “That decision makes him look stupid” instead of “He’s stupid.”
- Personification: This is when people give a personal name to something they would rather not discuss publicly, like referring to the onset of menstruation as “a visit from Aunt Flo.”
- Slang: This form of speech can include euphemisms, such as pissed as a replacement for angry.
Why Writers Use Euphemisms
This device can serve several different purposes in writing. They allow writers to avoid taboo, provide variety to a narrative, develop a character’s personality, or inject humor. However, the downside of the device is that it can come across as vague, dishonest, or prudish. As such, writers must use euphemisms mindfully, with intent and audience reception in mind.
Euphemisms vs. Other Figures of Speech
Slang is informal, evolving subcultural language; for example, busted can mean “broken,” “caught in the middle of wrongdoing,” or “ugly,” depending on who is using it. Colloquialisms are another form of informal cultural speech, often determined by region; for instance, Bostonians use wicked to describe something good or enjoyable. Vernacular is informal regional or generational language; Middle English, spoken in Great Britain between the 12th and 14th century, is an example of vernacular speech. Idioms are metaphorical or figurative phrases that don’t mean exactly what they say; a penny for your thoughts is an idiomatic way of asking what someone is thinking.
A euphemism can fall under these categories as writers often use any of them to soften unpleasant realities, but these figures of speech aren’t inherently connected to euphemisms.
Euphemisms in Other Contexts
Euphemisms in Society
In everyday life, euphemisms often fall victim to the same criticisms of vagueness and prudishness as they do in writing. Adding to these criticisms is how the meaning of words can quickly change, rendering euphemisms counterproductive and offensive. For example, welfare was originally used with a positive connotation, but decades of stereotyping and negative use have marred that connotation. As a result, programs began using words like assistance to express charitable services.
Euphemisms in TV and Film
In addition to literature and everyday speech, euphemisms are common in other media, mostly for comedic effect. This device appears in TV, such as The Good Place or Battlestar Galactica, which use of mispronunciation (e.g., fork and frak, respectively) to replace profanity. It’s also found in film, such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, wherein a gravely injured knight refers to his freshly amputated arm as a “flesh wound.”
Examples of Euphemisms in Literature
1. William Shakespeare
Elizabethan playwright Shakespeare famously used euphemisms throughout his works. The following are some of his most memorable examples.
To beguile the time,
Look like the time. Bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue. Look like th’ innocent flower,
But be the serpent under ‘t. He that’s coming
Must be provided for; and you shall put
This night’s great business into my dispatch,
Which shall to all our nights and days to come
Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom. [bold for emphasis]
In this excerpt, Lady Macbeth plots a power grab with her husband, using the euphemism “must be provided for” to clandestinely discuss murdering King Duncan.
I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs. [bold for emphasis]
Here, Iago uses the phrase “making the beast with two backs” while speaking to Desdemona’s father Brabantio to discuss her sexual relationship with Othello. Knowing her father would not approve, Iago softens the reality through euphemism. This is rendered slightly ironic, as Iago is trying to destroy Othello’s life; his use of euphemism implies a sincerity that doesn’t belie his actual motivations.
She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed.
He plowed her, and she cropped. [bold for emphasis]
Referring to Cleopatra, Agrippa uses “plowed” to say Caesar and Cleopatra had sex and “cropped” to indicate her subsequent pregnancy.
2. Tom Hardy, “Afterwards”
Hardy’s poem discusses death without ever mentioning the word.
If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at
Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,
Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
“He was one who had an eye for such mysteries”? [bolded for emphasis]
“Stilled at last,” which implies a body is at rest, is only one of many euphemisms Hardy uses in the poem.
3. George Orwell, 1984
Orwell’s novel uses euphemisms to show the danger of this figure of speech since it can be used to distort reality.
The Ministry of Truth, which concerned itself with news, entertainment, education, and the fine arts. The Ministry of Peace, which concerned itself with war. The Ministry of Love, which maintained law and order. And the Ministry of Plenty, which was responsible for economic affairs. Their names, in Newspeak: Minitrue, Minipax, Miniluv, and Miniplenty.
In this passage, the Party ascribes names to the ministries that are at odds with their actual purpose. This is an attempt to obscure and distort reality so people remain complacent.
4. Ernest Hemingway, “Hills Like White Elephants”
Hemingway’s short story centers on abortion, with the girl and the man arguing about what to do.
“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.” [bolded for emphasis]
When the story was published in the 1920s, it was a time during which abortion was either taboo or illegal. Thus, Hemingway uses euphemisms such as “operation” and “let the air in” to obscure the meaning and soften the impact of the characters are discussing.
Further Resources on Euphemism
Interactive English has a video on euphemisms featuring great examples from popular media.
Test your skills on the literary device by taking Fun Trivia’s Euphemism Quiz.
R.W. Holder provides an extensive list of euphemisms in the Dictionary of Euphemisms.