The English language is full of phrases that sound totally different from their literal meanings. This includes idiomatic expressions and other literary devices.
When talking about something offensive or unpleasant, we sometimes use indirect terms in order to gloss over the harshness of reality. These terms are known as euphemisms.
This figurative language can be more easily understood by native English speakers, but those who are learning English as a second language have to study their meanings.
What Is a Euphemism?
Euphemisms are idiomatic expressions used to hide the often negative aspect of a situation. For example, instead of saying directly that a company is firing many employees, they might say they are “downsizing.”
Euphemisms generally serve one of the following purposes:
- To soften the way we refer to a tragic event
- To mask the unpleasantness of a situation, such as before children or people who may be offended by the topic
- To refer to something embarrassing in a casual way
- To make something harsh appear less so
How to Form a Euphemism
Euphemisms are used to mask words that seem impolite or rude. You have several options for replacing words with euphemisms:
For example, you may use the abbreviation B.O. to refer to body odor, or W.C. for water closet or the toilet.
You might create a euphemism by using a foreign word for whatever you mean to say.
For example, instead of calling out someone’s foolishness with an English word, the French expression faux pas has the same meaning but delivers less of a blow.
Saying someone “passed away” or “kicked the bucket” is a euphemism for someone dying.
An indirect expression can also mask words that would otherwise be offensive, such as referring to someone’s buttocks by saying “rear-end,” or calling underwear “unmentionables.”
Choosing longer words can also help make unpleasant realities less harsh, such as saying “perspiration” instead of sweat, or describing someone as being “mentally challenged” instead of more offensive terms.
Technical terms may also be used to avoid referring directly to awkward objects, such as using “reproductive organs” instead of using the slang terms for them.
Some people mispronounce curse words to soften their impact. For example, “darn” instead of “damn,” or “sheesh” instead of “shit.”
Examples of Euphemism in Literature
The following examples are from different works of literature, with the euphemism underlined in bold:
Example #1. Animal Farm by George Orwell
Meanwhile life was hard. The winter was as cold as the last one had been, and food was even shorter. Once again all rations were reduced, except those of the pigs and dogs. A too rigid equality in rations, Squealer explained would have been contrary to the principles of Animalism. In any case he had no difficulty in proving to the other animals that they were not in reality short of food, whatever the appearances might be. For the time being, certainly, it had been found necessary to make a readjustment of rations (Squealer always spoke of it as a ‘readjustment,’ never as a reduction’), but in comparison with the days of Jones, the improvement was enormous. Reading out the figures in a shrill, rapid voice, he proved to them in detail that they had more oats, more hay, more turnips than they had had in JOnes’s day, that they worked shorter hours, that their drinking water was of better quality, that they lived longer, that a larger proportion of their young ones survived infancy, and that they had more straw in their stalls and suffered less from fleas. The animals believed every word of it.
In this passage, the new pig leader Squealer referred to the changes in their rations as “readjustments” to keep the animals from rebelling against the idea that their rations were being reduced.
Example #2. Watership Down by Richard Adams
Bigwig did not stir. Suddenly it came to Hazel that if Bigwig was dead—and what else could hold him silent in the mud?—then he himself must get the others away before the dreadful loss could drain their courage and break their spirit—as it would if they stayed by the body. Besides, the man would come soon. Perhaps he was already coming, with his gun, to take poor Bigwig away. They must go; and he must do his best to see that all of them—even he himself—put what had happened out of mind, forever.
“My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today,” he said to Blackberry, quoting a rabbit proverb.
In this excerpt, the rabbit proverb describes death as a rabbit that has “stopped running,” in order to make death feel less negative.
Example #3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
… According to Miss Stephanie, Boo was sitting in the livingroom cutting some items from The Maycomb Tribune to paste in his scrapbook. His father entered the room. As Mr. Radley passed by, Boo drove the scissors into his parent’s leg, pulled them out, wiped them on his pants, and resumed his activities.
Mrs. Radley ran screaming into the street that Arthur was killing them all, but when the sheriff arrived he found Boo still sitting in the livingroom, cutting up The Tribune. He was thirty-three years old then.
Miss Stephanie said old Mr. Radley said no Radley was going to any asylum, when it was suggested that a season in Tuscaloosa might be helpful to Boo. Boo wasn’t crazy, he was high-strung at times. It was all right to shut him up, Mr. Radley conceded, but insisted that Boo not be charged with anything: he was not a criminal.
The description of Boo as being “not crazy” but rather “high-strung” was a way of softening the idea that something was wrong with him.
Example #4. Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery
“I’m telling you this because I think it’s high time you was told,” she said. “I’ve been at your pa for months to tell you, but he’s kept putting it off and off. I says to him, says I, ‘You know how hard she takes things, and if you drop off suddent some day it’ll most kill her if she hasn’t been prepared. It’s your duty to prepare her,’ and he says, says he, ‘There’s time enough yet, Ellen.’ But he’s never said a word, and when the doctor told me last night that the end might come any time now, I just made up my mind that I’d do what was right and drop a hint to prepare you. Laws-a-massy, child, don’t look like that! You’ll be looked after. Your ma’s people will see to that—on account of the Murray pride, if for no other reason. They won’t let one of their own blood starve or go to strangers—even if they have always hated your pa like p’isen. You’ll have a good home—better’n you’ve ever had here. You needn’t worry a mite. As for your pa, you ought to be thankful to see him at rest. He’s been dying by inches for the last five years. He’s kept it from you, but he’s been a great sufferer. Folks say his heart broke when your ma died—it came on him so suddent-like—she was only sick three days. That’s why I want you to know what’s coming, so’s you won’t be all upset when it happens. For mercy’s sake, Emily Byrd Starr, don’t stand there staring like that! You give me the creeps! You ain’t the first child that’s been left an orphan and you won’t be the last. Try and be sensible. And don’t go pestering your pa about what I’ve told you, mind that. Come you in now, out of the damp, and I’ll give you a cooky ’fore you go to bed.”
In this example, Ellen is trying to tell the young Emily about her father’s dying, and her use of the term “drop off” instead of dying was intended to make dying sound more casual and less threatening.
Examples of Common Euphemisms and their Meanings
- Letting go of someone: to mean firing someone
- Big-boned: overweight
- Correctional facility: prison
- B.O.: body odor
- Between jobs: unemployed
- A little tipsy: drunk
- Put out to pasture: retired due to being too old to be of any more use.)
- Our dearly departed: the dead
- Ethnic cleansing: genocide
- Put to sleep: to kill by euthanasia
- Pregnancy termination: abortion
- Bite the dust: die
- Economical: cheap
- Powder one’s nose: going to the toilet
- Vertically-challenged: short
- The birds and the bees: discussion about sex
- Go all the way: have sex
Euphemisms let us speak of difficult things in a softer way. Learn the different idioms that you can use and practice using them in the correct context.
It will not only make you a more educated speaker and writer, but it also gives you the necessary tact in dealing with awkward situations.
Do you have a favorite euphemism? Share it in the comments below!