Governments, businesses, and private people alike often look to soften an idea they think may hurt, offend, or dishearten another. For that reason, they develop and use alternate phrasing intended to sugarcoat certain connotations.
For example, a company reducing staff is not “firing people”; it is “downsizing.” People aren’t “poor”; they are “economically disadvantaged.” We are not “leaving” or “dumping” a significant other; we just “need space.”
A euphemism is an unobjectionable word or expression that replaces another that can be received as harmful or unpleasant. Euphemism originates from the Greek word euphemia, a compound of eu (good) and pheme (speech). Eupheme refers to the female Greek spirit of positive words. To the ancient Greeks, euphemism indicated “keeping a holy silence” (speaking well by not speaking at all).
A writer’s central question with a euphemism is which will be of greater concern to readers: the diluted wording or the unpleasant thought. For example, it may be better to express that “Stan’s stomach problems are making him gassy” than to describe his condition with other available details. In this case, avoiding certain imagery contributes to more-tasteful writing.
Similarly, if someone is suffering through the recent loss of a loved one, we might invoke less negativity if we express condolences that the individual has “passed away” than if we say we’re sorry the person “has died.”
Conversely, when a euphemism aims to distort the truth or sidestep authentic emotion, it can result in dimmed or misleading communication. For example, a failing investment company might speak of “underperforming assets” instead of “losses.” We might also say that we “do not suffer fools” rather than that we “are impatient.”
In his famous book 1984, George Orwell speculated on the danger of letting too many euphemisms hijack our understanding of what is real and worthy of greater thought, particularly when dictated by bureaucrats, marketers, and state officials.
The story’s fictional government, Oceania, creates its own language, Newspeak, to spin the truth and limit people’s range of thought. By manipulating vocabulary, Newspeak oversimplifies concepts to establish more basic, childlike thoughts that can ultimately be controlled: e.g., crimethink (thought crime), doublethink (believing two contradictory terms to be correct), facecrime (a facial expression that suggests guilt of thought crime).
More Examples of Euphemism
A writer might use a euphemism for a number of reasons, particularly to avoid being direct, downplay something, or make a thought either less profane or more attractive than it is.
|Euphemism||Real Meaning||Euphemism||Real Meaning|
|senior citizen||old person||collateral damage||accidental killing|
|sanitary engineer||garbage collector||saving on rent||living with parents|
|between jobs||laid off, fired||economical||cheap|
|of limited funds||broke||artificial stimulants||drugs, narcotics|
|powdering my nose||going to the bathroom||relocation center||prison camp|
|horticultural surgeon||tree trimmer||big boned||fat|
|population relocation||genocide||partially proficient||unqualified|
We can see in this list where a euphemism might better serve communication than the stripped-down concept will. We can also identify where euphemisms look to mask or hide something to influence our response to it.
Changing social mores can result in the constant updating of euphemisms as well. In his book The Careful Writer, Theodore M. Bernstein identifies the evolution of the word for the room where people eliminate bodily waste as: toilet > W.C. > washroom > bathroom > lavatory > powder room > restroom. Is each iteration an improvement over the last?
Good writers will use euphemisms with proper thought, judgment, and sparseness. In always aiming to be honest and clear, if they must reconfigure a thought or an idea, they will do so to convey respect and empathy rather than to evade, obscure, or redirect what is genuine. Approached this way, euphemisms can indeed be useful.
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