A euphemism /ˈjuːfəˌmɪzəm/ is a generally innocuous word or expression used in place of one that may be found offensive or suggest something unpleasant.[1] Some euphemisms are intended to amuse, while others use bland, inoffensive terms for things the user wishes to downplay. Euphemisms are used to refer to taboo topics (such as disability, sex, excretion, or death) in a polite way, or to mask profanity.[2]


The word comes from Greek εὐφημία (euphemia) "the use of words of good omen", which is a compound of (εὖ) "good, well" and phḗmē (φήμη) "prophetic speech; rumour, talk".[3] The eupheme is the opposite of the blaspheme "evil-speaking". The term euphemism itself was used as a euphemism by the ancient Greeks, meaning "to keep a holy silence" (speaking well by not speaking at all).[4]


Reasons for using euphemisms vary by context and intent. Often, people use euphemisms in order to avoid discomfort in day-to-day social interactions. Some people, however, use euphemism in more extreme circumstances, such as in order to evade responsibility for war crimes. For instance, one reason for the comparative scarcity of written evidence documenting the exterminations at Auschwitz (at least given the scale) is "directives for the extermination process obscured in bureaucratic euphemisms".[5]

The euphemism affirmative action meaning a preference for minorities or the historically disadvantaged usually in employment or academic admissions (also called reverse discrimination, or in the UK positive discrimination) is an example of a well-intentioned circumlocution to disguise intentional bias that might be legally prohibited, or otherwise unpalatable. [6]

A euphemism such as “enhanced interrogation,” for torture, may be less benign: columnist David Brooks called the euphemisms for torture at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo and elsewhere an effort to "dull the moral sensibility".[7]


Phonetic modification

Phonetic euphemism is used to replace profanities, giving them the intensity of a mere interjection.

  • Shortening or "clipping" the term ("Jeez" for Jesus, "What the—" for "What the hell")
  • Mispronunciations, such as "Frak", "Frig" "What the fudge", "What the truck", "Oh my gosh", "Frickin", "Darn", "Oh, shoot", "Be-yotch", etc.
  • Using the first letter ("SOB", "What the eff", "S my D", "BS"). Sometimes, the word "word" is added after it ("F word", "S word", "B word", "N word"). Also, the letter can be phonetically respelled, for example, the word "piss" was shortened to "pee" (pronounced as the letter P) in this way.

Figures of speech

  • Ambiguous statements (it for excrement, the situation or "a girl in trouble" for pregnancy, going to the other side for death, do it or come together in reference to a sexual act, tired and emotional for drunkenness)
  • Understatements ("asleep" for "dead", "drinking" for "consuming alcohol", "hurt" for "injured", etc.)
  • Metaphors ("beat the meat" or "choke the chicken" or "jerking the gherkin" for masturbation, "take a dump" and "take a leak" for defecation and urination respectively)
  • Comparisons ("buns" for "buttocks", "weed" for "cannabis")
  • Metonymy ("lose a person" for "coping with a person's death", "pass away" for "die", "men's room" for "men's toilet")


Euphemism may be used as a rhetorical strategy, in which case its goal is to change the valence of a description from positive to negative.


The use of a term with a softer connotation, though it shares the same meaning. For instance, "screwed up" is a euphemism for "hook-up", "we hooked up", or "laid" for sexual intercourse.

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, those with uncorrectable mild to moderate poor vision, or even those who wear glasses, a group that would be excluded by the word blind.

Words from a foreign language

Expressions or words from a foreign language may be imported for use as a replacement for an offensive word. For example, the French word enceinte was sometimes used instead of the English word "pregnant".[8] This practice of word substitution became so frequent that the expression "Pardon my French" was adopted in attempts to excuse the use of profanity.


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, or "minced oath". In American English, words that are unacceptable on television such as "fuck", may be represented by deformations such as freak, even in children's cartoons.[9] Some examples of rhyming slang may serve the same purpose: to call a person a berk sounds less offensive than to call a person a "cunt", though berk is short for Berkeley Hunt, which rhymes with cunt.[10]

Bureaucracies frequently spawn euphemisms of a more deliberate nature, doublespeak expressions. For example, in the past the US military used the term "sunshine units" for contamination by radioactive isotopes.[11] An effective death sentence in the Soviet Union during the Great Purge often used the clause "imprisonment without right to correspondence": the person sentenced never had a chance to correspond with anyone, because soon after imprisonment he would be shot.[12] As early as 1939, Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich used the term Sonderbehandlung ("special treatment") to mean summary execution (most likely by hanging) of persons viewed as "disciplinary problems" by the Nazis even before commencing the systematic extermination of the Jews. Heinrich Himmler, aware that the word had come to be known to mean murder, replaced that euphemism with one in which Jews would be "guided" (to their deaths) through the slave-labor and extermination camps[13] after having been "evacuated" to their doom. Such was part of the superficially innocuous formulation Endlösung der Judenfrage (the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question"), which became infamous to the entire world during the Nuremberg Trials.[14]

A euphemism may itself devolve into a taboo word, through the linguistic process known as semantic change (or pejoration) described by W.V.O. Quine,[15] and more recently dubbed the "euphemism treadmill" by Harvard professor Steven Pinker.[16] For instance, Toilet is an 18th-century euphemism, replacing the older euphemism House-of-Office, which in turn replaced the even older euphemisms privy-house and bog-house.[17] In the 20th century, where the words "lavatory" or "toilet" were deemed inappropriate (e.g. in the United States), they were sometimes replaced with bathroom or water closet, which in turn became "restroom", "W.C.", or "washroom".

The word "shit" appears to have originally been a euphemism for defecation in Pre-Germanic, as the Proto-Indo-European root *skined-, from which it was derived, meant to cut off.[18]

In popular culture

Doublespeak is a term sometimes used for deliberate euphemistic misuse of incorrect words to disguise unacceptable meaning, as in a "Ministry of Peace" which wages war, and a "Ministry of Love" which imprisons and tortures. It is a portmanteau of the terms "newspeak" and "doublethink", which originate from George Orwell's novel 1984.

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 had purchased.

The word euphemism itself can be used as a euphemism. In the animated TV special Halloween Is Grinch Night (see Dr. Seuss), a child asks to go to the euphemism, where euphemism is being used as a euphemism for outhouse. This euphemistic use of "euphemism" also occurred in the play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where a character requests, "Martha, will you show her where we keep the, uh, euphemism?"

In Wes Anderson's film Fantastic Mr. Fox, the replacement of swear words by the word "cuss" became a humorous motif throughout the film.

In Tom Hanks's web series Electric City, the use of profanity has been censored by the word "expletive". "[Expletive deleted]" entered public discourse after its notorious use in censoring transcripts of the Watergate tapes.

In Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, the curses of the scientist Ebling Mis have all been replaced with the word "unprintable". In fact, there is only one case of his curses being referred to as such, leading some readers to mistakenly assume that the euphemism is Ebling's, rather than Asimov's. The same word has also been used in his short story "Flies".

George Carlin has stated in audio books and his stand up shows that euphemisms soften everyday language and take the life out of it. The use of euphemisms, as he has stated, is so that white Americans, especially those he calls whiny, narcissistic baby boomers, will not have to face the toughness of life.

See also



  1. ^ "Euphemism". Webster's Online Dictionary. 
  2. ^ "euphemism (n.)". Etymonline.com. Retrieved 7 January 2014. 
  3. ^ φήμη, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  4. ^ "Euphemism" Etymology". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 10 June 2015. 
  5. ^ Timothy Ryback (November 15, 1993). "Evidence of Evil - The New Yorker". Newyorker.com. Retrieved December 1, 2015. 
  6. ^ affirmative action as euphemism
    • "Style Guide". The Economist. March 10, 2013. Retrieved 2013-03-10. Uglier even than human-rights abuses and more obscure even than comfort station, affirmative action is a euphemism with little to be said for it. 
  7. ^ Enhanced interrogation as euphemism
  8. ^ "Definition of ENCEINTE". www.merriam-webster.com. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. Retrieved 2017-05-20. 
  9. ^ "Obscene, Indecent and Profane Broadcasts". FCC.gov. U.S. Federal Communications Commission. Archived from the original on 2013-12-09. Retrieved 2014-01-20. 
  10. ^ http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/berk Collins Dictionary, definition of "berk"/"burk", retrieved 22 July 2014.
  11. ^ McCool, W.C. (1957-02-06). "Return of Rongelapese to their Home Island — Note by the Secretary" (PDF). United States Atomic Energy Commission. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-09-25. Retrieved 2007-11-07. 
  12. ^ Solzhenitsyn, Alexander (1974). The Gulag Archipelago I. New York, NY: Harper Perennial. p. 6. ISBN 0-06-092103-X
  13. ^ "Holocaust-history.org". www.holocaust-history.org. Archived from the original on 28 May 2013. Retrieved 20 May 2017. 
  14. ^ "Wannsee Conference and the "Final Solution"". 
  15. ^ Quine, W.V. (1987). Quiddities. Belknap Press. pp. 53–54. 
  16. ^ "The game of the name" (PDF). Baltimore Sun. 1994-04-03. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-05-15. Retrieved 2011-01-19. 
  17. ^ Bell, Vicars Walker (1953). On Learning the English Tongue. Faber & Faber. p. 19. The Honest Jakes or Privy has graduated via Offices to the final horror of Toilet. 
  18. ^ Ringe, Don (2006). From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-955229-0. 

Further reading

External links

  • The dictionary definition of euphemism at Wiktionary