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What the (Heck) Are Euphemisms?

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Euphemisms are a very common figure of speech. They “neutralize” or “soften” topics that are often considered offensive, embarrassing, or taboo.

There are many different types of euphemisms.
Euphemisms are a type of figure of speech.
Correct Use

  • Euphemisms are a type of figurative language in which a certain topic, often one that is considered taboo, is reworded to be more palatable and “friendly.”
  • Euphemisms help neutralize words that can come off as harsh, insensitive, or “improper.”
  • Although including this type of rhetorical device in your writing can be advantageous for many reasons, some people consider the use of euphemisms to be misleading or deceitful.

Whether you notice it or not, euphemisms flood our everyday language. Like similes, they are a type of figure of speech. Euphemisms work by replacing topics that are considered offensive, embarrassing, or taboo with words that are more agreeable, pleasant, and acceptable. Euphemisms could be single words or entire phrases. For example, some people tend to replace God with gosh because the former is a word that can have different connotations depending on who you ask. Or, instead of explicitly calling someone a liar, some people prefer to say he bent the truth. In other words, euphemisms neutralize language and words that can make people feel uncomfortable.

A few euphemisms for firing someone are “letting you go,” “we’re downsizing,” and “we’re going in a different direction.”

What Is the Purpose of Euphemisms?

There are a few reasons why one might want to use a euphemism. One of them is that it can make what you’re writing (or speaking) about more palatable. Let’s take a subject that makes many people uneasy: death. There are many ways to express condolences to someone who is mourning the death of a loved one. Let’s compare two examples:

I’m sorry your grandmother died.
I’m sorry your grandmother passed away.

Although both examples express the same sentiment, the first sentence may come off as harsh, especially to the person mourning the death. The euphemism passed away is a more sensitive phrase. “Didn’t make it,” “kicked the bucket,” “gone to a better place,” are a few more examples of euphemisms for death. Keep in mind that euphemisms aren’t always more appropriate. For instance, a doctor wouldn’t use “kicked the bucket” to inform someone of their loved one’s passing.

Here are a few examples of euphemisms for other subjects:

Topic
Euphemism
Toilet
Porcelain throne
Feeling sick
Feeling under the weather
Pregnant
Bun in the oven
Sex
Make love
Unemployed
Between jobs
Used
Pre-owned
Euthanized
Put down
Drunk
Had one too many
Old
Senior
Menstruation
Time of the month

Keep in mind that there are many types of euphemisms, and some of them also fall under other figures of speech. For example, metaphors (“his lawyer is a snake”) and litotes (“that play was not the best”) are also considered euphemisms.

Another reason one might want to use a euphemism is that it helps you match your audience. For example, when speaking to students, teachers may prefer to use the euphemismsnumber one” and “number two” instead of “urinate” and “defecate.”  Another example would be the president of a company having an important meeting with the board members. Instead of saying:

20% of the staff was fired.

One might opt to say:

20% of the staff was let go.
Euphemisms vs. Political Correctness

Euphemisms and instances of political correctness are not the same. Euphemisms are words or phrases that make offensive, embarrassing, and taboo subjects easier to talk or write about. Political correctness, on the other hand, is meant to bring a more direct and respectable approach to certain topics. For example, it’s now more common (and politically correct) to say “developing (or emerging) nation,” rather than “third-world country.”

Another example is saying “person with disabilities,” instead of “disabled person.” Picky Mode on LanguageTool—an intelligent writing assistant—can make sure you didn’t accidentally include a term that can be considered profane. Additionally, this easy-to-use text editor also checks for spelling and grammar mistakes, while easily providing synonyms and offering stylistic improvements.


Euphemisms Are a Rhetorical Device (Figure of Speech)

Euphemisms are a very common figure of speech. They bring comfort to topics that tend to make people uneasy. However, using too many euphemisms can come off as if you’re being misleading or deceitful. That’s why you should always be mindful and tactful when employing a euphemism. Use them only when appropriate, if not your readers might say “Jeez! This writer bent the truth.


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