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A euphemism is an expression intended by the speaker to be less offensive, disturbing, or troubling to the listener than the word or phrase it replaces.
When a phrase is used as a euphemism, it often becomes a metaphor whose literal meaning is dropped. Euphemisms are often used to hide unpleasant or disturbing ideas, even when the literal term for them is not necessarily offensive. This type of euphemism is used in public relations and politics, where it is sometimes called doublespeak. There are also superstitious euphemisms, based (consciously or unconsciously) on the idea that words have the power to bring bad fortune (for example, not speaking the word "cancer"; see Etymology and Common examples below) and religious euphemisms, based on the idea that some words are sacred, or that some words are spiritually imperiling (taboo; see Etymology and Religious euphemisms below).
The word euphemism comes from the Greek word euphemos, meaning "auspicious/good/fortunate speech" which in turn is derived from the Greek root-words eu (ευ), "good/well" + pheme (φήμη) "speech/speaking". The eupheme was originally a word or phrase used in place of a religious word or phrase that should not be spoken aloud (see taboo). The primary example of taboo words requiring the use of a euphemism are the unspeakable names for a deity, such as Persephone, Hecate, Nemesis or Yahweh. By speaking only words favorable to the gods or spirits, the speaker attempted to procure good fortune by remaining in good favor with them.
Historical linguistics has revealed traces of taboo deformations in many languages. Several are known to have occurred in Indo-European, including the original Indo-European words for bear (*rtkos), wolf (*wlkwos), and deer (originally, hart). In different Indo-European languages, each of these words has a difficult etymology because of taboo deformations — a euphemism was substituted for the original, which no longer occurs in the language. An example is the Slavic root for bear—*medu-ed-, which means "honey eater".
In some languages of the Pacific, using the name of a deceased chief is taboo. Since people are often named after everyday things, this leads to the swift development of euphemisms. These languages have a very high rate of vocabulary change.
The "euphemism treadmill"
Words originally intended as euphemisms may lose their euphemistic value, acquiring the negative connotations of their referents. In some cases, they may be used mockingly and become dysphemistic.
For example, toilet room, itself a euphemism, was replaced with bathroom and water closet, which were replaced (respectively) with rest room and W.C.; similarly, funeral director replaced mortician, which replaced undertaker. In American English, the original sense of homely ("comfortable, cozy") has been superseded by the once-euphemistic sense "plain-looking," which is now simply insulting ("ugly").
Connotations easily change over time. Idiot was once a neutral term, and moron a similar one. Negative senses of a word tend to crowd out neutral ones, so the word retarded was pressed into service to replace them. Now that too is considered rude, and as a result, new terms like mentally challenged or special have replaced retarded. In a few decades, calling someone special may well be a grave insult. A similar progression occurred with
- crippled → handicapped → disabled → differently-abled
The euphemism treadmill also occurs with notions of profanity and obscenity, but in the reverse direction. Words once called "offensive" were later described as "objectionable," and later "questionable."
A complementary "dysphemism treadmill" exists, but is more rarely observed. One modern example is the word "sucks." "That sucks" began as American slang for "that is very unpleasant", and is shorthand for "that sucks dick." It developed over the late-20th century from being an extremely vulgar phrase to near-acceptability.
Classification of euphemisms
Many euphemisms fall into one or more of these categories:
- Terms of foreign origin (derriere, copulation, perspire, urinate)
- Abbreviations (SOB for "son of a bitch")
- Abstractions (it, the situation, go)
- Indirections (behind, unmentionables)
- Mispronunciation (goldarnit, freakin)
- Plays on abbreviations ("barbecue sauce" for "bull shit" or "sugar honey ice tea" for "shit")
There is some disagreement over whether certain terms are or are not euphemisms. For example, sometimes the phrase visually impaired is labeled as a politically correct euphemism for blind. However, visual impairment can be a broader term, including, for example, people who have partial sight in one eye, a group that would be excluded by the word blind.
There are three antonyms of euphemism, dysphemism, cacophemism, and power word. The first can be either offensive or merely humorously deprecating with the second one generally used more often in the sense of something deliberately offensive. The last is used mainly in arguments to make one's point seem more correct than opponent's.
The evolution of euphemisms
Euphemisms may be formed in a number of ways. Periphrasis or circumlocution is one of the most common -- to "speak around" a given word, implying it without saying it. Over time, circumlocutions become recognized as established euphemisms for particular words or ideas.
To alter the pronunciation or spelling of a taboo word (such as a swear word) to form a euphemism is known as taboo deformation. There are an astonishing number of taboo deformations in English, of which many refer to the infamous four-letter words. In American English, words which are unacceptable on television, such as fuck, may be represented by deformations such as freak — even in children's cartoons. Some examples of Cockney rhyming slang may serve the same purpose — to call a person a berk sounds less offensive than to call him a cunt, though berk is short for Berkshire Hunt which rhymes with cunt.
Bureaucracies such as the military and large corporations frequently spawn euphemisms of a more deliberate (and to some, more sinister) nature. Organizations coin doublespeak expressions to describe objectionable actions in terms that seem neutral or inoffensive. For example, a term used for radiation leaked from an improperly operated nuclear power plant (excuse me, a steam electric station) is sunshine units.
Militaries at war frequently do kill people, sometimes deliberately and sometimes by mistake; in doublespeak, the first may be called neutralizing the target and the second collateral damage. A common term when a soldier accidentally is killed (buy the farm) by the side they are fighting for is friendly fire.
Execution is an established euphemism referring to the act of putting a person to death, with or without judicial process. Likewise, industrial unpleasantness such as pollution may be toned down to outgassing or runoff — descriptions of physical processes rather than their damaging consequences. Some of this may simply be the application of precise technical terminology in the place of popular usage, but beyond precision, the advantage of technical terminology may be its lack of emotional undertones, the disadvantage being the lack of real-life context.
Euphemisms for the profane
Profane words and expressions are generally taken from three areas: religion, excretion, and sex. While profanities themselves have been around for some time, their limited use in public and by the media has only in the past decade become socially acceptable, and there are still many expressions which cannot be used in polite conversation. The common marker of acceptability would appear to be use on prime-time television or in the presence of children. Thus, damn (and most other religious profanity) is acceptable, and as a consequence, euphemisms for religious profanity have taken on a very stodgy feeling. Excretory profanity such as piss and shit may be acceptable in adult conversation, while euphemisms like Number One and Number Two are preferred for use with children. Most sexual terms and expressions either remain unacceptable for general use or have undergone radical rehabilitation (penis and vagina, for instance).
Euphemisms for God and Jesus are used by Christians to avoid taking the name of God in a vain oath, which would violate one of the Ten Commandments. Euphemisms for hell, damnation, and the devil, on the other hand, are often used to avoid invoking the power of the adversary.
While urinate and defecate are not euphemisms, they are used almost exclusively in a clinical sense. The basic Anglo-Saxon words for these functions, piss and shit, are considered vulgarities, despite the use of piss in the King James Bible (in Isaiah 36:12 and elsewhere).
The word manure, referring to animal feces used as fertilizer for plants, literally means "worked with the hands", alluding to the mixing of manure with earth. Several zoos market the byproduct of elephants and other large herbivores as Zoo Doo, and there is a brand of chicken manure available in garden stores under the name Cock-a-Doodle Doo.
There are any number of lengthier periphrases for excretion used to excuse oneself from company, such as to powder one's nose or to see a man about a horse (or dog). Slang expressions which are neither particularly euphemistic nor dysphemistic, such as take a leak, form a separate category.
The term pudendum for the genitals literally means "shameful thing". Groin and crotch refer to a larger region of the body, but are euphemistic when used to refer to the genitals.
Virtually all other sexual terms are still considered profane and unacceptable for use even in a euphemistic sense.
Euphemisms for death
The English language contains numerous euphemisms related to dying, death, burial, and the people and places which deal with death. The practice of using euphemisms for death is likely to have originated with the "magical" belief that to speak the word 'death' was to invite death (where to "draw Death's attention" is the ultimate bad-fortune -- a common theory holds that death is a taboo subject in most English-speaking cultures for precisely this reason).
Most commonly, one is not dying, rather, fading quickly because the end is near. Death is referred to as having passed away or departed. Deceased is a euphemism for 'dead', and sometimes a dead person may be referred to as "late"(i.e.: "The late (name)"). Sometimes the deceased is said to have gone to a better place, but this is used primarily among the religious with a concept of heaven.
There are many euphemisms for the dead body, some polite and some profane, as well as dysphemisms such as worm food, or dead meat. The corpse was once referred to as the shroud (or house or tenement) of clay, and modern funerary workers use terms such as the loved one (title of a novel about Hollywood undertakers by Evelyn Waugh) or the dearly departed. (They themselves have given up the euphemism funeral director for grief therapist, and hold arrangement conferences with relatives.) Among themselves, mortuary technicians often refer to the corpse as the client.
Contemporary euphemisms for death tend to be quite colorful, and someone who has died is said to have passed away, passed on, bit the big one, bought the farm, croaked, given up the ghost, kicked the bucket, gone south, tits up, shuffled off this mortal coil (from William Shakespeare's Hamlet), or assumed room temperature. When buried, they may be said to be pushing up daisies or taking a dirt nap. There are hundreds of such expressions in use.
Euthanasia also attracts euphemisms. One may put him out of his misery, or put him to sleep, the latter phrase being used primarily with non-humans.
There are a few euphemisms for killing which are neither respectful nor playful, but rather clinical and detached. Some examples of this type are terminate, wet work, to take care of one or to take them for a ride, to do them in, to off, frag, smoke, or waste someone. To cut loose (from U.S. Sgt. Massey's account of activities during the American occupation of Iraq) or open up on someone, means 'to shoot at with every weapon available'.
The Dead Parrot Sketch from Monty Python's Flying Circus contains an extensive list of euphemisms for death, referring to the deceased parrot that the character played by John Cleese purchases. A similar passage occurs near the beginning of The Twelve Chairs, where Bezenchuk, the undertaker, astonishes Vorobyaninov with his classification of people by the euphemisms used to speak of their deaths.
What distinguishes doublespeak from other euphemisms is its deliberate usage by governmental, military, or corporate institutions. Doublespeak is in turn distinguished from jargon in that doublespeak attempts to confuse and conceal the truth, while jargon often provides greater precision to those that understand it (while inadvertently confusing those who don't). An example of the distinction is the use by the military of the word casualties instead of deaths — what may appear to be an attempt to hide the fact that people have been killed is actually a precise way of saying "personnel who have been rendered incapable of fighting, whether by being killed, being badly wounded, psychologically damaged, incapacitated by disease, rendered ineffective by having essential equipment destroyed, or disabled in any other way." "Casualties" is used instead of "deaths," not for propaganistic or squeamish reasons, but because most casualties are not dead.
Other common euphemisms include:
- restroom for toilet room (the word toilet was itself originally a euphemism). This is an Americanism.
- making love to, playing with or sleeping with for having sexual intercourse with
- motion discomfort bag and air-sickness bag for vomit bag
- sanitary landfill for garbage dump (and a temporary garbage dump is a transfer station)
- the big C for cancer (in addition, some people whisper the word when they say it in public, and doctors have euphemisms to use in front of patients)
- bathroom tissue, t.p., or bath tissue for toilet paper (Usually used by toilet paper manufacturers)
- custodian for janitor (also originally a euphemism—in Latin, it means doorman.)
- sanitation worker for "garbage man"
- mixologist for bartender
- Where can I wash my hands? or Where can I powder my nose? for Where can I find a toilet?. (This is also an Americanism. If this question is asked in Europe to someone not used to American habits the person who asks the question might actually end up at a place where there just only is a washbasin and not at a place equipped according to their needs. On the other hand, Americans might find the more direct question rude if asked by Europeans who don't know about this euphemism.)
These lists might suggest that most euphemisms are well-known expressions. Often euphemisms can be somewhat situational; what might be used as a euphemism in a conversation between two friends might make no sense to a third person. In this case, the euphemism is being used as a type of innuendo. As an example, in the television series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the Banks family (who are black) discuss Hilary's new boyfriend, who happens to be white, using tall as a euphemism for white. Will, who apparently doesn't catch on, remarks that he is the only one who seems to notice the new boyfriend is white.
The inflation of occupational titles is similar to the euphemism treadmill. For instance, the engineering professions have traditionally resisted the tendency by other technical trades to appropriate the prestige of the title engineer. Most people calling themselves software engineers or network engineers are not, in fact, accredited in engineering. Extreme cases, such as sanitation engineer for janitor are cited humorously more often than they are used seriously.
In the television cartoon series "The Flintstones", Fred takes a job as the live-in superintendent of a large apartment building and is given a title using the word engineer to make his job sound more important than it actually is. As he and his wife are moving in, a policeman is about to write him a parking ticket for being illegally parked in front of the building. He informs the officer that he is (as the building's owner referred to him) the "Resident Stationary Engineer" for the building. The cop turns to him and says, "I don't care if you are the janitor, move this car now!"
Less extreme cases, such as custodian for janitor, are considered more terms of respect than euphemisms.
The word euphemism itself can be used as a euphemism. In the animated short It's Grinch Night (See Dr. Seuss), a child asks to go to the euphemism, where euphemism is being used as a euphemism for outhouse.
- power word
- minced oaths
- spin (politics)
- toilet humour
- four-letter word a euphemism for fuck
- framing (communication theory)
- code word (figure of speech)
- Rawson, Hugh, A Dictionary of Euphemism & Other Doublespeak, second edition, 1995. ISBN 0517702010
- R.W.Holder: How Not to Say What You Mean: A Dictionary of Euphemisms, Oxford University Press, 501 pages, 2003. ISBN 0198607628
- Maledicta: The International Journal of Verbal Aggression (ISSN US 0363-3659)