Euphemisms, words or phrases that substitute for provocative or emotionally charged terms, are employed for various reasons:
1. Abstraction: Some euphemisms serve to distance people from unpleasant or embarrassing truths, as when we say that a dead person passed away or a celebrity who has canceled an appearance is suffering from exhaustion.
2. Indirection: A euphemism may replace an explicit description of an action, as when people speak of going to the bathroom or of others sleeping together.
3. Litotes: Sometimes, euphemism occurs in the form of this rhetorical device in which the gravity or force of an idea is softened or minimized by a double negative, as in the reference to someone as being not unattractive.
4. Mispronunciation: Alteration of pronunciation is a form of euphemism, as when we say frigging or shoot, or jeez or cripes, so as not to offend people by using profanity (figurative or literal). These types of euphemisms, involving rhyme, alliteration, or shortening, are also called minced oaths.
5. Modification: A bluntly offensive noun can be transformed into a euphemism by converting it to an adjective, as in saying someone has socialist leanings rather than labeling them a socialist outright.
6. Personification: One form of euphemism is when things that some people prefer not to mention candidly, such as genitals, are assigned personal names. (I will go beyond euphemism and let readers think of examples on their own.)
7. Slang: Much of slang, derived to produce a vocabulary exclusive to a social group, is euphemism, as in the use of joint for marijuana (itself a slang term, derived from the Spanish names Mary and Juana — closely related to “Mary Jane,” yet another euphemism).
Corporations and government bureaucracies, including military services, are masters are creating euphemisms of abstraction and indirection such as pre-owned for used, effluent for pollution, and “collateral damage” in place of “accidental killing.”
Euphemism is also often employed in an attempt to make polite reference to physical or psychological disability, though some people argue that while a trend toward ever more euphemistic language seems to accord people so labeled more respect, euphemism can also diminish the public perception of the seriousness of the condition.
Not all euphemism is deplorable, but much of it is, and writers and editors must search their consciences and uphold their principles in deciding whether to couch terms or whether to use straightforward language. Although an increased likelihood of euphemism seems to correlate with the extent of distribution of a publication, it is also often true that the more widespread the readership of a publication, the safer it is for those who produce its content to be blunt and honest.