7 Types of Euphemism

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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.

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21 thoughts on “7 Types of Euphemism”

  1. Good article, except for the fact that “socialist” isn’t actually a “bluntly offensive noun.” In most of the civilized world it’s a quite positive term, in fact.

  2. I always understood frig to be the name of a Norse goddess, though I just looked it up in the OED and it says its an ‘Onomatopoeic alteration of frike v, ‘to dance or move briskly’. Frig also has a meaning to rub.

    Anyway I think it’s a separate word rather than a deliberate mispronunciation, thoigh I suppose the chance similarity has helped. It’s a bit like ‘frak’ in the new Battlestar Galactica.

  3. I think there is an important moral difference between euphemisms used to mislead (e.g. extraordinary rendition) and those that oil the social wheels by bowing to the sensitivities of others (e.g. pass water).

    I suspect you agree, but such is the force of the start of your final paragraph that one comes away with a very negative impression of using euphemisms (“deplorable” is very strong, even when preceded with “not all”).

  4. While I agree that euphemisms are sometimes (perhaps often) best-avoided, I also think “deplorable” is too strong.

    On another point, “socialist” is not “a bluntly offensive noun”, despite the GOP’s shrieking use of it in the healthcare debate.

  5. Well said, Keith.

    I am proud to be called a ‘socialist’ – I might even call myself a ‘communist’ and be proud!

  6. Well said, Keith.

    I am not at all ‘offended’ to be called a ‘socialist’ – indeed, I proudly refer to myself as a ‘communist.’

  7. Agreed with Sally and Keith on socialist not being offensive, but are you sure that frigging belongs in 4? Refer to the Sex Pistols’ ‘Frigging in the Rigging’ and you’ll find it’s not a substitution for another word beginning with f, but instead refers to the more usually solo version of the activity.

  8. Great post, food for thought. I haven’t had much time to think on it, but in my first analysis, I think that the degree of offensiveness of a euphemism probably has something to do with (1) how well-known the REAL term is, and (2) how large a stake a person has in knowing and disseminating the truth. Take the expression “collateral damage.” I was already probably in my 40s when I first heard that term, and had to have the concept explained to me. It was offensive to me, and I have never been in the military, nor have I had immediate family in the military. Imagine how much more offensive that term must be to someone who knows, from early on, exactly what that means, possibly had a sibling, parent, spouse killed in such a situation, or, to use another euphemism, by “friendly fire.” These euphemisms, which are intended to minimize, deceive, hide egregious deeds, are deplorable. OTOH, if someone wants to talk about talking to Ralph, who cares?
    I know I will be thinking about today’s topic for a while, to analyze a bit more why I am more annoyed/upset by certain euphemisms and not at all bothered by others.

  9. As a mediator, I think of many of these usages as “reframes”; sometimes it helps to use language which doesn’t inflame the parties to a conversation, to make them more willing to hear what the other person is really saying. I’ll grant, that is oral usage, but there is a degree to which the same principle applies in written communications. The point, to me, is to use language which conveys what you want your audience to hear, in the manner most likely to catch their ears and be accepted (regardless of whether they agree). Sometimes that will involve the use of euphemism–but, as you note, it should not be used to obscure or disguise the meaning from the audience.

    And, um, this is a pet peeve, but “frigging” and “shoot” are euphemisms for obscenities, not profanities. There is a difference. The use of “profanity” to refer to both has long struck me as a form of euphemism in and of itself.

  10. Actually, “frig” isn’t a mispronounciation. It’s an actual act; female masturbation. Old-fashioned term and a common misconception. Also rather annoying when people don’t know what they are actually saying.

  11. Well nice post. But I have question that euphemism and political correctness are the same thing or different????????
    Somehow political correctness serves the task. That those words should be used which donot harm anyone’s emotions be they related to race, color or ethnicity.

  12. 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.

    I didn’t know “socialist” was considered offensive. (But it ought to be!)

  13. Thank you for a useful and timely post – I’ve added a link to it to my post on Quora explaining the difference between euphemism and metaphor.

    Isn’t the point about modification (5) that the euphemism is “leanings” (as an alternative to “rabid tendencies”or something similar), rather than “socialist”?

  14. A common euphemism today is the use of the word “undocumented” for “illegal” immigrants Another one, if you are referring to the race and not the national is using “African American” for the perfectly correct word “Negro” … as in the Congress of Negro Women or United Negro College Fund.

  15. Wow, the things you learn on “Daily Writing Tips.” Never knew that about “frig” – or should we say, “f**g” now?

  16. What don’t you understand? If you are a socialist– or worse– it won’t offend you to be called one. Klansmen aren’t offended by the label, either. But, as MN said, MOST people would chafe at being so-called which is proven by the fact that in the US it is NEVER used to describe any politician who claims to be “maintstream” in any sense. And if it is used, it is Dems, not the GOP, who react like vampires sprayed with holy water.

    Given the term’s connotations in the US– where even “liberals” and “progressives” shun it– and the fact the the entire political right in Europe rejects it, not to mention how hard it is to find even a Communist Party that doesn’t self-euphemize, I’d say its being, “quite positive.. In most of the civilized world” is patently and demonstrably untrue. Unless your concept of the civilized world is the PRC, Libya, Syria, and the San Francisco Bay Area. To say it “should’t” be offensive in your opinion is one thing. To say it is NOT so is simply a lie. A socialist lie, in fact.

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