Article by Richard Nordquist /
October 4, 2019 /
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Euphemisms are substitutes for crude, hurtful, or otherwise offensive expressions. They bear the same meaning as their more taboo equivalents without seeming indecent.
- “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 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
Euphemisms to Shield
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
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. . .
- 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.