Why Do We Use Euphemisms?

Words of Comfort and Words of Deceit

Euphemism quote

Euphemisms are substitutes for crude, hurtful, or otherwise offensive expressions. They bear the same meaning as their more taboo equivalents without seeming indecent.

Euphemisms manipulate the meaning of a word or phrase to make them appear more pleasant. Because the purpose of euphemism is to disguise semantics and avoid saying what is meant, it has been called "the language of evasion, hypocrisy, prudery, and deceit," (Holder 2008).

Euphemism Examples

The following examples of euphemism illustrate a few of its different uses.

  • For nearly all actors it begins at the end of the audition with four words from the auditor, "Thanks for coming in." . . . "Thanks for coming in" is a polite entertainment euphemism for "You suck. Was that the best you could do?" (Russell 2008).
  • The term "revenue enhancement" can be used instead of "tax increase".
  • "Downsizing" is bureaucratese for "firing employees".

Exercise Caution When Using Euphemisms

Most style guides treat euphemisms as misleading, dishonest, and wordy and recommend against them. It is generally best to avoid the use of euphemism in all academic writing, reports, and expository writing in favor of directness and honesty. Euphemisms can suggest insincerity and evasiveness and should not be used to avoid speaking candidly.

Not all euphemisms are inherently dishonest as they can sometimes protect against valid harm, but it is often the case that they greatly alter the direction of a conversation and inhibit clear communication.

Euphemisms come in many shapes and sizes and should only be used thoughtfully. Be intentional with your use of euphemistic language to avoid confusion and negative consequences. The value of a euphemism resides in how, when, and why it's used.

Different Uses of Euphemistic Language

Euphemisms can soften uncomfortable topics or mislead listeners and readers. Their effect depends on the context of their use.

Euphemisms to Comfort

Euphemisms offer a way to reduce tension in conversation and make everyone involved feel more comfortable. Euphemisms can be used for the benefit of others without causing harm in many cases. For example, to be polite when speaking to a person grieving the recent loss of a loved one, the term "passed away" in place of "died" can ease some of the negative feelings the subject may cause.

Euphemisms can also make difficult conversations less awkward. Author Ralph Keyes touches on this: Civilized discourse would be impossible without recourse to indirection. Euphemisms give us tools to discuss touchy subjects without having to spell out what it is we're discussing (Keyes 2010).

Euphemisms to Disguise

Euphemistic language can be used to intentionally confuse and disorient others and the implications of this should not be taken lightly. They are used by some to package the truth into something more easily digestible and have been called "unpleasant truths wearing diplomatic cologne," (Crisp 1985).

"Poor" is not a bad word. Replacing it with euphemisms such as "underprivileged" and "under-served" (as I do elsewhere in this book) are well-intentioned and sometimes helpful, but euphemisms are also dangerous. They can assist us in not seeing. They can form a scrim through which ugly truth is dimmed to our eyes. There are a lot of poor people in America, and their voices are largely silenced
(Schneider 2003).

Euphemisms to Shield

To speak euphemistically is to use language as a shield against the feared, the disliked, or the unpleasant. At their best, euphemisms avoid being offensive and have polite connotations. At the least, euphemisms seek to avoid too many negative connotations.

They are used to upgrade the denotatum (as a shield against scorn), they are used deceptively to conceal the unpleasant aspects of the denotatum (as a shield against anger), and they are used to display in-group identity (as a shield against the intrusion of out-groupers) (Allen and Burridge 1991).

Euphemisms to Spin

Euphemism is often considered a form of spin, used most notably by politicians, bureaucrats, and advertisers to pass something—an idea, policy, or product—off as attractive through disingenuous means. Such linguistic trickery is, of course, nothing new; its systematic and highly politicized use is thought to have its origins in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), where "newspeak" was the new language imposed by the state to restrict the lexicon of posterity, eliminate gradations of meaning, and, ultimately, control thought (Rosewarne 2013).

The Moral Problem of Grotesque Euphemisms

Orwell rightly detested doublespeak or double-talk, cheap euphemism, and deliberate obscurity—the language of “strategic hamlets” and “enhanced interrogation." This is because euphemism can be morally problematic. When Dick Cheney calls torture “enhanced interrogation,” it doesn’t make us understand torture in a different way; it’s just a means for those who know they’re doing something wrong to find a phrase that doesn’t immediately acknowledge the wrongdoing. . .

Whatever name Cheney’s men gave torture, they knew what it was. A grotesque euphemism is offensive because we recognize perfectly well the mismatch between the word and its referent, not because of the topic itself. Euphemism is an instrument of evasion, like a speeding getaway car, not an instrument of unconsciousness, like a blackjack (Gopnik 2014).

Sources

  • Allen, Keith and Kate Burridge. Euphemism and Dysphemism: Language Used as a Shield and Weapon. Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Crisp, Quentin. Manners From Heaven. HarperCollins, 1985.
  • Gopnik, Adam. "Word Magic." The New Yorker, May 26, 2014.
  • Holder, R. W. How Not to Say What You Mean: a Dictionary of Euphemisms. Oxford University, 2008.
  • Keyes, Ralph. Euphemania: Our Love Affair With Euphemisms. Little, Brown and Company, 2010.
  • Rosewarne, Lauren. American Taboo: The Forbidden Words, Unspoken Rules, and Secret Morality of Popular Culture. ABC-CLIO, 2013.
  • Russell, Paul. Acting—Make It Your Business: How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor. Back Stage Books, 2008.
  • Schneider, Pat. Writing Alone and With Others. Oxford University Press, 2003.