Definition of Euphemism

A euphemism is a polite or mild word or expression used to refer to something embarrassing, taboo, or unpleasant. Euphemisms are especially common in reference to bodily functions and illegal behavior, and to substitute for curse words. For example, we use many words and phrases to refer to urination: “I have to use the little boys’ room,” “I have to go to the bathroom,” and “I have to see a man about a horse” are all evasive ways of referring to the same thing.

Euphemisms may be used to amuse, downplay the severity of a situation, or conceal the speaker’s embarrassment about something. Euphemisms can develop over time to avoid having to say a particular word, though sometimes euphemisms themselves become taboo once they are closely associated enough with the offensive concept. For example, “toilet” sounds a bit more crass in American English than our current “bathroom” or “restroom,” yet it replaced earlier words that had become offensive such as “house-of-office” and “privy-house.”

Types of Euphemisms

Within the definition of euphemism, there are many different sub-categories. Here are some of the different types of euphemisms:

  • Phonetic modification: We modify strong swear words or words that are not meant to be spoken lightly (i.e., God or Jesus) so that the new phonetic euphemism sounds very similar to the original, but just different enough so that it’s inoffensive. Modifications may take the case of shortening the word or expression (Jeez, What the); intentional mispronunciations (shoot, shut the front door, dang, fudge); or using an acronym or one letter to represent the curse word (WTF, B-word, A-hole).
  • Figures of speech: Many euphemisms come in the form of different figures of speech. These may be ambiguous statements (let’s do it, she’s a piece of work); metaphors (make the beast with two backs, a visit from the stork, kick the bucket); or other understatements or comparisons.
  • Slang: Plenty of slang terms come to stand for taboo words or expressions. Since slang can vary greatly from one region or country to the next, at times some expressions have very different euphemistic meanings. For example, in the USA, “pissed” means angry, whereas in the UK it means drunk.

Common Examples of Euphemism

There are many hundreds or even thousands of examples of euphemisms that we use in everyday speech. Here is a short list of euphemistic expressions and the thing they refer to:

  • In a better place; pass away; meet your maker—to die
  • In a family way; with child; bun in the oven—to be pregnant
  • Riding the crimson wave; visit from Aunt Flo; period—menstruation
  • Gosh darn it; what the F; holy shiiii; beyotch—curse word modifications
  • Three sheets to the wind; wasted; go on a bender—drunk

Note that after time some words cease to seem like euphemisms and instead seem like they refer directly to the thing itself (for example, period).

There are also many euphemism examples from popular TV shows:

TYRION LANNISTER: When I was twelve I milked my eel into a pot of turtle stew. I flogged the one-eyed snake, I skinned my sausage. I made the bald man cry into the turtle stew, which I do believe my sister ate.

(Game of Thrones)

CUSTOMER: He’s not pinin’! He’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! He’s expired and gone to meet his maker!

He’s a stiff! Bereft of life, he rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed him to the perch he’d be pushing up the daisies!
His metabolic processes are now history! He’s off the twig!
He’s kicked the bucket, he’s shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible!!

(“Dead Parrot Sketch” from Monty Python)

Significance of Euphemism in Literature

Authors generally use euphemisms to portray the natural way in which people speak. Writers do not usually feel the need to tiptoe around difficult, delicate, or embarrassing topics; indeed, part of the importance of poetry and prose is dealing with those issues head-on. However, euphemisms can be a good reflection of the setting, whether in time period, culture, or attitudes of the characters in the story. We will see this in different ways in the examples of euphemisms below.

Examples of Euphemism in Literature

Example #1

LADY MACBETH: 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.

(Macbeth by William Shakespeare)

Among all of the new words that William Shakespeare coined, he also used and created many euphemism examples. In this excerpt from his tragedy Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is counseling her husband, Macbeth, to kill Duncan that very evening. This is clearly a delicate subject, as they are conspiring to murder the king. Therefore, Lady Macbeth does not say outright that Macbeth must kill Duncan, but instead that Duncan “must be provided for.” Macbeth understands her euphemism, and knows that she wants Duncan dead by the morning.

Example #2

You know the truth, and the truth is this: some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral, some Negro men are not to be trusted around women—black or white. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men. There is not a person in this courtroom who has never told a lie, who has never done an immoral thing, and there is no man living who has never looked upon a woman without desire.

(To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is an interesting case study in how euphemisms change over time. When Lee wrote this book, the term “Negro” was an appropriate euphemism to refer to a race of people. In contemporary times, this word, while not completely derogatory, is not considered an inoffensive term with which to refer to a person or group of people. This quote is spoken by Atticus Finch, a man who is particularly ahead of his times in his belief in the equality of all people. Thus, it is historically accurate that he would use such a euphemism. However, a modern-day Atticus Finch would use the more currently accepted euphemism of “African-American.”

Example #3

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.

(1984 by George Orwell)

George Orwell made much use out of the significance of euphemisms, and their potential danger, in his masterpiece dystopian novel 1984. The “Party”—the ruling government organization to which it seems no individual really belongs—has created four main ministries, as described in the excerpt above. Each one has a name that is directly opposed to the true nature of the ministry. This is just one way in which the Party uses language to confuse and distort reality. In fact, Orwell’s creation of the term “doublethink” has become a well-known euphemism for the types of distortions that many politicians and media personalities use to explain their positions, which may be hypocritical.

Test Your Knowledge of Euphemism

1. Choose the correct euphemism definition from the following statements:
A. A vulgar term that is meant to offend the audience.
B. Using direct speech that describes something literally.
C. A bland or inoffensive way of talking about something taboo.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″] Answer: C is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Consider the following quote from Iago in William Shakespeare’s Othello:

I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.

What do you think “making the beast with two backs” is a euphemism for?
A. Cooking a pig roast
B. Having sexual intercourse
C. Walking their two dogs
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″] Answer: B is the correct answer. It came into popular usage as a euphemism after Shakespeare created it in this play.[/spoiler]

3. Why would a person use a euphemism?
A. To speak around an uncomfortable topic.
B. To exaggerate the importance of a touchy subject.
C. To offend the person he or she is speaking to.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″] Answer: A is the correct answer.[/spoiler]