Euphemism (Words)

A pre-owned car: a euphemism for a used car (or, in this case, a clunker)
Barbara Gentile/Getty Images

Euphemism is the substitution of an inoffensive expression (such as "passed away") for one considered offensively explicit ("died" or "dropped dead"). Contrast with dysphemism. Adjective: euphemistic.

In his Oxford Dictionary of Euphemisms (2007), R.W. Holder notes that in speech or writing "we use euphemism for dealing with taboo or sensitive subjects. It is therefore the language of evasion, hypocrisy, prudery, and deceit."

According to Ruth Wajnryb, "Euphemisms have a short shelf life—once the stigma of the original catches up to them, the battery that runs the euphemistic device goes flat. The only way forward is to invent a new euphemism" (Expletive Deleted: A Good Look at Bad Language, 2005).

Etymology: From the Greek, "use of good words"


  • Examples: Pre-owned for used or second-hand; enhanced interrogation for torture; industrial action for strike; misspoke for lie; tactical withdrawal for retreat; revenue augmentation for raising taxes; wind for belch or fart; convenience fee for surcharge; courtesy reminder for bill; unlawful combatant for prisoner of war
  • "Unfortunately for the CIA, 'enhanced interrogation' turned out to be a translation of the same euphemism used by the Gestapo: verschärfte Vernehmung." (Scott Horton, "Company Men." Harper's, April 2015
  • Dan Foreman: Guys, I feel very terrible about what I'm about to say. But I'm afraid you're both being let go.
    Lou: Let go? What does that mean?
    Dan Foreman: It means you're being fired, Louie. (In Good Company, 2004
  • Mr. Prince: We'll see you when you get back from image enhancement camp.
    Martin Prince: Spare me your euphemisms! It's fat camp, for Daddy's chubby little secret. ("Kamp Krusty," The Simpsons, 1992)
  • Paul Kersey: You've got a prime figure. You really have, you know.
    Joanna Kersey: That's a euphemism for fat. (Death Wish, 1974)
  • "The 'reconstruction' of New Orleans has become a euphemism for the destruction of the city's cultural and historic heritage." (Ghali Hassan, 2006
  • "The more syllables a euphemism has, the further divorced from reality it is." (George Carlin
  • "Wardrobe malfunction." (Justin Timberlake's description of his tearing of Janet Jackson's costume during a half-time performance at Super Bowl XXXVIII)
  • "Americans continually euphemize; they can never call anything by its name. You never invade anybody, you commit an incursion." (Gore Vidal, quoted in the Transatlantic Review, Spring 1975)

Don't Panic

"The economic classification recession was actually invented in 1937 when the economy was back in the toilet but FDR didn't want to call it a depression. And the description depression first surfaced during the Hoover administration, a substitute for a more vivid but disconcerting term of art: panic."
(Anna Quindlen, "Summertime Blues." Newsweek, July 7/14, 2008)

Testing for Euphemisms

"In selecting euphemistic words and phrases I have accepted [Henry] Fowler's definition: 'Euphemism means the use of a mild or vague or periphrastic expression as a substitute for blunt precision or disagreeable use' (Modern English Usage, 1957). A second test is that the euphemistic word or phrase once meant, or prima facie still means, something else. If that were not so, it would be no more than a synonym." (R.W. Holder, Oxford Dictionary of Euphemisms. Oxford University Press, 2007)

Steven Pinker and Joseph Wood Krutch on the Euphemism Treadmill

- "Linguists are familiar with the phenomenon, which may be called the euphemism treadmill. People invent new words for emotionally charged referents, but soon the euphemism becomes tainted by association, and a new word must be found, which soon acquires its own connotations, and so on. Water closet becomes toilet (originally a term for any kind of body care, as in toilet kit and toilet water), which becomes bathroom, which becomes restroom, which becomes lavatory. Undertaker changes to mortician, which changes to funeral director...

"The euphemism treadmill shows that concepts, not words, are primary in people's minds. Give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name, at least not for long. Names for minorities will continue to change as long as people have negative attitudes toward them. We will know that we have achieved mutual respect when the names stay put." (Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Viking Penguin, 2002)

- "Any euphemism ceases to be euphemistic after a time and the true meaning begins to show through. It's a losing game, but we keep on trying." (Joseph Wood Krutch, If You Don't Mind My Saying So, 1964)

Euphemisms, Dysphemisms, and Orthophemisms

"During the Cold War of 1946-89, NATO had a deterrent (euphemism) against the Russian threat (dysphemism). In the mid 1980s the USSR claimed to have been invited (euphemism) into Afghanistan; the Americans claimed that the Russians were aggressors (dysphemism) there. We get invited in; they are aggressors; the orthophemism is take military action in a foreign land." (Keith Allen and Kate Burridge, Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006)

Euphemisms During the Victorian Era

"In the mid-19th century, the human form and its functions were so taboo that any words even hinting that people had bodies were banished from polite discourse. It became impossible to mention legs--you had to use limb, or even better, lower extremity. You couldn't ask for the breast of a chicken, but instead had to request the bosom, or make a choice between white and dark meat. Nor could you talk about trousers. There were numerous euphemisms instead, including inexpressibles, indescribables, unmentionables, inexplicables and continuations. Charles Dickens made fun of this extreme delicacy in Oliver Twist, when Giles the butler describes how he got out of bed and 'drew on a pair of . . ..' 'Ladies present, Mr. Giles,' warns another character." (Melissa Mohr, "By God's Nails: Careful How You Curse." The Wall Street Journal, April 20-21, 2013)

In Defense of Euphemisms

"Euphemisms are not, as many young people think, useless verbiage for that which can and should be said bluntly; they are like secret agents on a delicate mission, they must airily pass by a stinking mess with barely so much as a nod of the head, make their point of constructive criticism and continue on in calm forbearance. Euphemisms are unpleasant truths wearing diplomatic cologne." (Quentin Crisp, Manners from Heaven, 1984)

Transforming Schools

"During one of many anti-austerity protests last summer, more than 1,000 people rallied to oppose Philadelphia's plans to 'transform schools,' a pleasant euphemism generally meaning school closures and mass layoffs." (Allison Kilkenny, "The Fight for Philly's Schools." The Nation, February 18, 2013)


"Crazy (and hence crazed and cracked) originally meant 'cracked, flawed, damaged' (cp. crazy paving) and was applicable to all manner of illness; but it has now narrowed to 'mental illness.' It captures the stereotypical mental patient as someone 'flawed, deficient' (cf. mentally deficient), and is the basis for many euphemistic expressions for madness: crack-brained, scatter-brained, shatter-brained; head case, nutcase, bonkers, wacko, wacky; falling to pieces; have a (nervous) breakdown; unhinged; having a screw/tile/slate loose; one brick short of a load, not a full load; not playing with a full deck, three cards short of a full deck; one sandwich short of a picnic; two bob short of a quid, not the full quid; his elevator doesn't go to the top floor; a shingle short; and perhaps he's lost his marbles." (Keith Allen and Kate Burridge, Euphemism and Dysphemism: Language Used as a Shield and Weapon. Oxford University Press, 1991)

The Lighter Side of Euphemisms

Dr. House: I'm busy.
Thirteen: We need you to . . .
Dr. House: Actually, as you can see, I'm not busy. It's just a euphemism for "get the hell out of here."
("Dying Changes Everything," House, M.D.)

Dr. House: Who were you going to kill in Bolivia? My old housekeeper?
Dr. Terzi: We don't kill anyone.
Dr. House: I'm sorry--who were you going to marginalize?
("Whatever It Takes," House, M.D.)

Further Reading

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Euphemism (Words)." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, July 31). Euphemism (Words). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Euphemism (Words)." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).