Euphemism and Euphuism

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Political correctness is nothing new. People have desired to avoid calling a spade a spade since ancient times.

People don’t die, they “pass away.”
Politicians don’t commit crimes, they “make mistakes.”
Married men don’t commit adultery, they “cheat.”
People don’t fart, they “pass wind.”

The word for this substitution of a less offensive word or phrase for a more specific or unpleasant one is euphemism. The word is from Greek euphemizein “speak with fair words.”

The concept stemmed from the belief that the gods listened to human conversations and could be easily offended. People were careful not to boast of their wealth or accomplishments, so as not to prompt some god to reverse their fortunes as punishment.

The maiden Arachne, for example, learned to her cost what came of boasting. For claiming that she was a more skillful weaver than the goddess Athena, Arachne was transformed into a spider. (To this day spiders bear her name.)

The more horrific the deity, the more necessary it was for mortals to speak nicely about them.

The Erinyes, female personifications of vengeance, were really gruesome. Like the Gorgon, they had snakes on their heads. Drops of blood oozed from their eyes. They flew after oath-breakers on the wings of bats. Watch the film Jason and the Argonauts to see the Furies in action. In order to stroke their egos, ancient Greeks referred to them as the Eumenides, “the Kindly Ones.”

Modern mortals use euphemisms to avoid offending (or frightening, or informing) other people.

The opposite of euphemism is dysphemism, an intentionally harsh word intended to shock or offend. The Coen brothers go a little overboard with the F word in The Big Lebowski.

Euphuism is a term that describes a flowery, affected type of writing.

Euphues is Greek for “graceful, witty.” Sixteenth century English author John Lyly wrote a book called Euphues: The Anatomy of Wyt (1578). The main character is a fashionable young man named Euphues. The style in which the book is written is full of convoluted sentences, euphemisms, rhetorical questions, alliteration, and references to classical literature. (In the 16th century educated people were assumed to be familiar with Greek and Latin literature.)

Here’s an example of Lyly’s euphuistic style. For the fun of seeing how English has changed since the 16th century, I’ll give you both the original and a modernization.

It happened thys young Impe to ariue at Naples (a place of more pleasure then profite, and yet of more profite then pietie) the very walles and windowes whereof shewed it rather to bée the Tabernacle of Venus, then the Temple of Vesta.

There was all things necessary and in redinesse that myght eyther allure the minde to luste, or entice the hearte to follye, a courte more méete for an Atheyst, then for one of Athens, for Ouid than for Aristotle, for a gracelesse louer then for a godly lyuer: more fitter for Paris than Hector, and méeter for Flora then Diana.


It happened that this young playboy arrived at Naples (a place of more pleasure than educational value, and yet of more value than piety) the very walls and windows of the place showed it rather to be the place to occupy oneself in matters of sex than in those of chastity.

In this place were to be found all things necessary and in readiness that might either tempt the mind to lust, or entice the heart to folly, a court more suitable for an atheist, than for a pious person, for Ovid [who wrote about love] than for Aristotle [who wrote about intellectual matters], for a promiscuous person than for someone who lives a godly life: more appropriate for Paris (he stole another man’s wife] than Hector, [faithful husband of a faithful wife] and more suitable for Flora [goddess of the Spring and, presumably in Lyly’s mind, associated with mating] than Diana [virgin goddess].

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8 thoughts on “Euphemism and Euphuism”

  1. I just subscribed to your RSS feed this week, I’ve been looking forward to more of your interesting articles.

    I have to say, though, that I’m utterly disappointed with today’s entry. I cannot believe you wrote this in your “modernization” paragraph:
    “a place of more pleasure then educational value”

    Maybe you modernized it to the point of including common “modern” mistakes? “Then” for “than”? Too modern for me.

  2. Then versus Than?

    I would think
    “a place of more pleasure than educational value, and yet of more value than piety”
    rather than
    “a place of more pleasure then educational value, and yet of more value then piety”

  3. Good point Michel, this is a tricky one though cause one could stretch the use of “then” on that context.

  4. Daniel,

    You need additional commas to stretch the use of “then”:
    “a place of more pleasure, then educational value, and yet more value, then piety”

  5. I fixed them Maeve. Or at least I hope so, since I don’t have the passage you are quoting :).

  6. The words “a place of more pleasure than educational value” are good enough. The words “and yet more value than piety” are unintelligible.
    All in all, it is an excellent piece, pregnant with meaning and replete with information. God bless you. Vijay Kumar Agarwal, New Delhi, India

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