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Euphemism

Have you ever seen an older film and heard one of the characters say, "I need to freshen up in the powder room?" Whether or not you have, we come in contact with euphemisms like "powder room" every day. A euphemism is a figure of speech that replaces a word, phrase, or idea that indirectly conveys a concept that might make others uncomfortable. While the terms bathroom and restroom might not make others uncomfortable, "powder room" is a phrase many believe places a more pleasant image in mind when used.

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Euphemism

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Have you ever seen an older film and heard one of the characters say, "I need to freshen up in the powder room?" Whether or not you have, we come in contact with euphemisms like "powder room" every day. A euphemism is a figure of speech that replaces a word, phrase, or idea that indirectly conveys a concept that might make others uncomfortable. While the terms bathroom and restroom might not make others uncomfortable, "powder room" is a phrase many believe places a more pleasant image in mind when used.

Euphemism Definition

A euphemism is a type of figurative language that lessens an uncomfortable topic's harshness, impoliteness, or unpleasantness. Euphemisms are often used when discussing topics such as death, uncomfortable workplace matters, sex, aging, or bodily functions. It allows the speaker to say what they mean indirectly, thus weakening the often severe nature of the matter, especially to others in the conversation.

In What Situations are Euphemisms Typically Used?

Euphemisms are typically used in three situations– in times of mitigation, avoidance, and occasionally for rhetorical purposes.

Mitigation

As previously mentioned, euphemisms can soften the blow of bad news or difficult conditions. For example, when the government explains US economic decline, words like “recession” or “disinflation” are used instead of speaking literally. Similarly, euphemisms can be easily cited in ads, like when cars are not listed as “used” but rather “certified pre-owned.”

Avoidance

Euphemisms are probably most commonly used to avoid the awkwardness of a certain topic or situation. For example, instead of saying that someone was fired, oftentimes, the phrase “let go” is used. Similarly, the term “passed away” is employed when discussing death.

Rhetoric

Euphemism can also be used as a rhetorical device, often for aesthetic gain, again, to avoid harsher or more blunt terminology. It allows authors to speak about possibly taboo or embarrassing subjects without addressing them directly. Additionally, many types of euphemisms fall under rhetorical literary devices, which will be explored in the next section of this article.

Types of Euphemisms

There are many types of euphemisms, all of which can be used in the mitigation, abstraction, and rhetorical situations discussed above. Let's examine each type in depth.

Abstraction

Abstraction euphemisms strive to distance the listener/reader from a truth that may be unpleasant or embarrassing.

I'm sorry to inform you, but your cat has passed away.

Passed away is a gentler way of saying something has died. This expression could be used in a mitigation or avoidance situation.

Indirection

Indirection euphemisms are used to replace an explicit description, like going to the bathroom.

Give me a moment, I just need to run to the powder room.

The powder room is an expression often used in place of "the bathroom," as it paints a more pleasant image. This phrase would most likely be used in an avoidance situation.

Euphemism, Toilet Sign, StudySmarterFig. 1 - In older times, some people would refer to the "powder room" to avoid saying "bathroom" or "toilet."

Litotes

Litotes is a rhetorical device in which a double negative or ironic understatement conveys the opposite of its meaning. As a euphemism, litotes can be used to soften or minimize the gravity of a situation.

Trust me, you won't be sorry!

"You won't be sorry" is a phrase often said to mean the opposite, meaning, "you won't be sorry, you'll be happy," though the "you'll be happy" part is implied. This could be used in a rhetorical situation, especially in everyday speech!

Mispronunciation

Mispronunciation is a form of euphemism characterized by altering inappropriate words so that they convey the same frustration or annoyance as an explicit word without actually saying the expletive.

Darn! I forgot my graphing calculator at home again!

"Darn!' is a replacement for "Damn!" in this situation, a choice that is mostly used in rhetoric situations to keep language appropriate.

Modification

Modification is when a possibly offensive noun is converted to an adjective to soften the impact of the word.

He's not an idiot, he just does some idiotic things sometimes.

Calling someone an idiot isn't very nice, but changing idiot to a describing adjective softens the blow of the offensive word. Modification is often used in rhetoric and mitigation situations.

Personification

Often used in association with bodily functions or parts, personification euphemisms are used to discuss things that need not be mentioned candidly by assigning them a personal name.

Women's menstruation is sometimes described as “a visit from Aunt Flo."

Personifying this topic that some may find uncomfortable makes it easier to discuss publicly. This tactic is often used in rhetorical or avoidance situations.

Slang

Slang, or shorthand language, is vocabulary typically derived from specific social groups but is also considered euphemism.

Text speech such as SMH (meaning shaking my head) could be considered a euphemism.

Slang is used to save time, especially in rhetorical situations.

Importance of Euphemism

Euphemisms can be a very useful literary device. Euphemisms can be manipulated in many ways, from lessening the gravity of a situation to saving a conversation from embarrassment. Perhaps to demonstrate how significant euphemisms are, consider if euphemisms were not used in literature. Look at the commonly used euphemisms listed below and think about what is actually being said. Then consider how appropriate it would–or wouldn't–be if the euphemism's literal meaning was used in a literary context, with children, or in a public arena.

Euphemism crumple paper and pencil StudySmarterFig. 2 - Authors like Shakespeare and George Orwell have used euphemisms for an extremely long time, both of whom will be discussed below.

10 Common Euphemisms

"golden years"

My grandmother is in her golden years of age. vs. My grandmother is old.

"secondhand"

I bought a couch secondhand. vs. I bought a used couch.

"under the weather"

I'm feeling really under the weather. vs. I'm feeling really sick.

"sleeping with"

Did you hear they're sleeping together? vs. Did you hear they're having sexual intercourse?

"break wind"

Oh no, someone broke wind. vs. Oh no, someone farted.

"passed away"

My aunt recently passed away. vs. My aunt recently died.

"put down"

The vet had to put down my rabbit. vs. The vet had to euthanize my rabbit.

"going to 'powder your nose'"

I'm going to powder my nose. vs. I'm going to the toilet.

"between jobs"I'm between jobs at the moment. vs. I'm out of work right now.

"economical"

He's very economical. vs. He's very cheap.

"well-off"

She's quite well-off, right? vs. She's quite rich, right?

As a society, we consider politeness to be a very important value. Euphemisms allow uncomfortable conversations to occur without compromising the subject matter.

Are there Disadvantages to Euphemisms?

At their core, euphemisms are evasive and can sometimes appear insincere. Though not all euphemisms are necessarily dishonest, they can inhibit clear communication. Not everyone may know what a euphemism means, and, like idioms, it can be challenging to learn if English is not one's first language. Though comforting, it is always good to remember that euphemisms work to evade the uncomfortable truth of the matter at hand.

Euphemism Examples in Literature

Below you will find some examples of euphemisms within literature.

George Orwell's 1984 (1949)

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.

This quote from George Orwell's novel 1984 is a form of litotes. To placate the people, the names of each of the mentioned ministries portray a sense of goodness, though the purpose of each ministry does not truly align with their assumed purpose.

Shakespeare's Macbeth (1623)

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."

In this short excerpt, Lady Macbeth explains that King Duncan must be murdered. However, she says this using the words "must be provided for" in Line 5. In this context, Lady Macbeth's euphemism both lessens the severity of murder and cleverly conceals the true meaning of her plans.

Euphemism an oil painting of Shakespeare StudySmarterShakespeare uses many euphemisms in his work, like the example below.

Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra (1607)

He ploughed her and then she cropped."

Here, Shakespeare is referring to Queen Cleopatra having sexual intercourse and then shortly after becoming pregnant. Again, the language used by Shakespeare is less direct and, in some aspects, more polite for that time.

Euphemism - Key Takeaways

  • Euphemism is a type of figurative language that lessens the harshness, impoliteness, or unpleasantness of an uncomfortable topic.
  • Euphemisms are often used when discussing topics such as death, uncomfortable workplace matters, sex, aging, or bodily functions.
  • Euphemisms are typically used in three situations— in times of mitigation, avoidance, and occasionally for rhetorical purposes.
  • There are seven main types of euphemisms: abstraction, indirection, litotes, mispronunciation, modification, personification, and slang.
  • Euphemisms are important because they allow individuals to discuss challenging topics while still being polite.

Frequently Asked Questions about Euphemism

An example of a euphemism would be saying the phrase “passed away” instead of stating that someone as died. 

A euphemism is a figure of speech that is used to replace a word, phrase, or idea that indirectly conveys a concept that might make others uncomfortable. 

Euphemisms lessen the harshness, impoliteness, or unpleasantness of an uncomfortable topic, allowing the speaker to say what they mean indirectly, but politely.

There are many common euphemisms, though "passed away" instead of "died" is probably one of the most commonly used euphemisms. 

There are seven main types of euphemism: abstraction, indirection, litotes, mispronunciation, modification, personification, and slang. 

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

What the fudge!What type of euphemism is this?

Andy is no longer with us.What type of euphemism is this?

Jerry is causing too much trouble. He needs to be taken care of.What type of euphemism is this?

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