The Euphemism reference article from the English Wikipedia on 24-Jul-2004
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A euphemism is a word (or phrase) which people use in place of terms which are more disagreeable or offensive to themselves and/or to their audience. When a phrase becomes a euphemism, its literal meaning is often pushed aside. Euphemisms are used to hide unpleasant ideas, even when the term for them is not necessarily offensive. This latter kind of euphemism is used in the fields of public relations and politics; where it is known as doublespeak.

Table of contents
1 Euphemism and historical linguistics
2 The "euphemism treadmill"
3 Classification of euphemisms
4 The evolution of euphemisms
5 Euphemisms for the profane
6 Euphemisms for Death
7 Doublespeak
8 Other examples
9 References
10 External Links

Euphemism and historical linguistics

The methods of historical linguistics can reveal traces of taboo deformations. Several are known to have occurred in Indo-European. Examples include the original Indo-European words for bear (*rktos), wolf (*wlkwos), and deer (originally, hart). In different Indo-European languages, each of these words have difficult etymologies because of taboo deformations—a euphemism was substituted for the original, and the form of the original word no longer occurs in the language. An example is the Slavic root for "bear"—*medu-ed-—which means "honey eater".

The "euphemism treadmill"

Euphemisms can eventually become taboo words themselves through a process for which the linguist Steven Pinker has coined the term euphemism treadmill, which is comparable to Gresham's Law in economics. In this process, over the course of time, a word that was originally adopted as a euphemism acquires all the negative connotations of its referent, and has to be replaced by a substitute. In extreme cases, the process can happen many times, and indeed may still be happening. For example, "Toilet room", itself a euphemism, was replaced with "bathroom" and "water closet", which were replaced (respectively) with "rest room" and "W.C.". "Funeral director" replaced "mortician", which replaced "undertaker", which replaced "gravedigger". "Shell shock" was later replaced by "combat fatigue" and then "Post-traumatic stress disorder".

Connotations easily change over time. Idiot was once a neutral term, and moron a euphemism for it. Negative senses of a word tend to crowd out neutral ones, so the word retarded was pressed into service to replace moron. Now that too is considered rude, and a result, new terms like mentally challenged or special are starting to replace retarded. In a few decades, calling someone "special" may well be a grave insult. Similar progressions have occurred with lame → crippled → handicapped → disabled, caretaker → janitor → custodian, etc.

Classification of euphemisms

Many euphemisms fall into one or more of these categories:

There is some disagreement over whether certain terms are or are not euphemisms. For example, sometimes the phrase visually impaired is labelled 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 two rough opposites of euphemism, dysphemism and cacophemism. The latter is generally used more often in the sense of something deliberately offensive, while the former can be either offensive or merely humorously deprecating.

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 "Berkeley 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. 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. Likewise, industrial unpleasantness such as pollution may be toned down to "outgassing" or "runoff" -- descriptions of physical processes rather than their damaging consequences.

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 "shit" and "piss" is often acceptable in adult conversation, but retains its euphemistic use with children and in prime-time hours. Most sexual terms and expressions either remain unacceptable for general use or have undergone radical rehabilitation (penis and vagina, for instance).

Religious euphemisms

Excretory euphemisms

While urinate and defecate are not taboo words, they are used almost exclusively in a clinical sense. The basic Anglo-Saxon words for these functions, piss and shit, are considered obscenities, despite the use of piss in the King James Bible.

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". Slang expressions which are neither particularly euphemistic nor dysphemistic, such as "take a leak", form a separate category.

Sexual euphemisms

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.

Most commonly, one is not dying, rather, fading quickly because the end is near. Death is referred to as having passed away or departed. Sometimes the deceased (likewise a euphemism) is said to have gone to a better place.

There are many euphemisms for the dead body, some polite and some profane. 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 or the dearly departed. (They themselves have given up the euphemism funeral director for grief therapist, and hold arrangement conferences with relatives.)

Contemporary euphemisms for death tend to be quite colorful, and someone who has died is said to have bit the big one, bought the farm, croaked, given up the ghost, kicked the bucket, gone south or shuffled off this mortal coil, to provide but a few of the hundreds of expressions in use.


What distinguishes doublespeak from other euphemisms is its deliberate usage by governmental, military, or corporate institutions. Examples of doublespeak include:

Other examples

Other common euphemisms include:

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 series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the Banks family discusses 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 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".

See also: minced oaths, bypassing, politeness, doublespeak, Spin (politics).


External Links