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Euphemism: Definition, How It Works & Examples In Writing

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Figurative language allows writers to express complicated ideas in powerful ways.

These literary devices lead the reader or listener to the writer’s desired conclusion.

Euphemisms are subtle manipulations that help creators control the tenor and impact of their work by replacing negative imagery with positive ideas.

What Is a Euphemism?

Euphemism takes its name from the Greek word euphemism.

Two syllables comprise euphemos: eu, meaning “good,” and phemons, meaning “speech.”

“Good speech” is a solid distillation of a complex construct.

Euphemisms are figures of speech where a softer or more polite term replaces a harsh or uncomfortable word.

Euphemisms replace vulgarity, religious terms, and biological functions.

People use euphemisms for anything they are uncomfortable saying directly.

Also Known As:

  • Polite Term
  • Mild Alternative
  • Understatement

Simple Definition: How to Explain Euphemism to a Child

A euphemism is a substitution.

Euphemisms replace a harsh or uncomfortable word with something more palatable.

Why Is a Euphemism Used?

Euphemisms are used to soften a blow or to make the speaker more comfortable.

Someone receiving difficult information is comforted by a gentle delivery via euphemism.

Some speakers feel discomfort using vulgar or biological terms.

Euphemisms allow these folks to express ideas about these subjects without using words that upset them.  

Types of Euphemisms

Euphemisms are powerful tools when used correctly.

The figurative language takes several forms for different purposes.

The most significant euphemisms are abstraction, conclusion, diplomacy, litotes, politeness, and spin.

Each fulfills a specific function through deliberate substitution.

  • Abstraction: Creating a new scenario to explain a situation. Often used to put a rosy spin on a dark case, ex: “going to a better place” unsteady fo “dying.”
  • Diplomacy: Diplomacy serves many masters, but no one needs the skill more than politicians. Users must be able to parlay often unpleasant information accurately. Diplomats need to anticipate minefields and deliver the information in a way that allows everyone to remain friends.
  • Litotes: Litotes rely on irony and understatement to express an idea. Litotes works by gently stating what the person or thing is not. If someone is incredibly wealthy, a writer using litotes would say, “he’s not hurting for money.”
  • Politeness: Politeness exists to ease potentially uncomfortable situations. Polite euphemisms often replace subjects that make people ill at ease; for example, people often run sexual words through a politeness filter.
  • Spin Euphemism: Spin often manipulates negative or neutral facts into something positive. For example, if a manufacturer made a ham that tasted like bubblegum, they could say it’s “unique” -a technically correct interpretation that makes the product sound better than it is.

How Do You Identify a Euphemism?

Listen carefully to the context of the sentence.

Does a word or phrase seem a little tonally off?

Does the language convey the severity of the situation?

The best way to identify the figure of speech is to assess its congruity with the rest of the statement and the impact of the sentence.

How Do You Use a Euphemism in a Sentence?

Euphemisms are easy to use once you know what you’re doing.

Begin by identifying the problematic word or subject.

For example, if you have to tell a child their puppy was hit by a car, you might want to steer clear from using that phrase.

Consider a statement the child would find more palatable. “Passed away” or “went to a better” place are far gentler, so you could substitute one of those euphemisms for “getting hit by a car.” (Source)

What Is the Most Popular Example of a Euphemism?

Writers most commonly use euphemisms to describe uncomfortable things to write about.

Topping that list are sex and death.

“Making love” instead of “having sex” is probably the most commonly used euphemism.

“Passing away” instead of dying is a close second.

Other Famous Examples of Euphemisms

Euphemisms are an omnipresent part of polite society.

The phrases can be colloquial or familial; people create their own substitutions.

However, some euphemisms transcend cultural barriers and are widely acknowledged and accepted. Some famous examples are:

1. In the Family Way

People use this phrase instead of saying “pregnant.”

People used the phrase literally, meaning simply “as a family would,” until the mid-17th century.

The phrase then became a demure way of referring to pregnancy.

2. Letting You Go

It’s unclear who this phrase is intended to comfort, the employee being fired or the boss doing the termination.

Either way, “letting go” is the gentler way of saying “you’re fired,” but the outcome is the same.

3. Visit the Ladies’ Room

The third spot for most uncomfortable subjects discussed in mixed company is bathroom stuff.

“Visit the ladies’ room” spares women from saying they must go to the bathroom.

Other Modern Examples of Euphemisms

Euphemisms serve purposes beyond making an individual speaker more comfortable.

The substitutions sell goods, prevent wars, and help tell stories.

Modern euphemisms appear in advertising, politics, and art.

Euphemisms in Advertising

Euphemisms help mask the less noble aspirations of advertising.

The language helps manipulate consumers without deception.

Euphemisms allow savvy marketers to cast products in a more favorable light than they warrant.

  • Pre-Owned: We all know “pre-owned” means “used,” but a pre-owned car sounds better and more legitimate than a used one.
  • Courtesy Call: Anyone who’s ever received a “courtesy call” would agree they seldom arrive at a courteous time. This is a blanket term applied to any unsolicited phone call you might receive, designed to make it sound like the caller is doing you a favor by interrupting your dinner.
  • Genuine Imitation Leather: Anything can be a genuine imitation, including very low-grade vinyl. Advertisers count on consumers to focus on “genuine” more than “imitation.”

Euphemisms in Movies

Movies replicate real-world speech to help viewers identify with the characters and plotlines.

Euphemisms help give a sense of nature as well as provide illustrative language.

  • “… he’d look fairer and feel fouler.”: Frodo describes Aragorn this way in Fellowship of the Ring. This is a very polite way of saying the Aragorn looks rough and tumble, like a shady character.
  • “It was my wife’s idea to have our guests come in funeral cars. Her sense of humor is, shall we say, original?”: Frederik Loren describes his wife as having an “original” sense of humor in The House on Haunted Hill. Context makes it clear that he is saying “original” when he means perverse or macabre.
  • “Well, Clarice, have the lambs stopped screaming?”: When Hannibal Lecter asks Clarice Starling if the lambs stopped screaming in Silence of the Lambs, he is not referencing literal, screaming sheep. The screaming lambs are Lecter’s euphemism for Clarice’s inner demons, and the question allows him to ask her if she’s feeling sounder without directly referencing her mental health.

Euphemisms in Politics

Euphemisms serve their most vital role in the political sphere. Diplomacy depends heavily on a politician’s ability to deploy euphemistic language.

The figure of speech allows governors to maintain a civil veneer or to de-escalate potentially inflammatory situations.

  • Terminological Inexactitude: Terminological inexactitude is an excellent example of Winston Churchill’s linguistic acrobatics. Churchill devised the phrase to call his opponent a liar without overtly insulting language.
  • Collateral Damage: Collateral damage is a euphemism governments use to soften the notion of civilian casualties. Collateral damage takes away the human element and suggests a certain inevitability.
  • Recession: Though we all know recessions aren’t good, the term is a gentler presentation of economic decline.

Notable Writers Who Used Euphemisms

Euphemisms are ubiquitous in language.

Any author who uses natural language inevitably indulges in euphemism usage.

Additionally, different types of writers seek unique deliveries of universal experiences; euphemisms help in this delivery.

Some authors who’ve perfected the use include:

1. William Shakespeare

Shakespeare coined too many phrases to count.

The Bard used every linguistic device in the English language, euphemisms included.

Notably, Shakespeare wrote the line “making the beast with two backs” to refer to sex in Othello.

2. George Orwell

Orwell mastered allegories in Animal Farm.

However, euphemisms are a major plot point in the author’s 1949 novel, 1984.

1984 examines how the government manipulates the public by using euphemisms for controlling and destructive departments.

3. Ernest Hemingway

In “Hills Like White Elephants,” one of Hemingway’s best short stories, a young woman discusses her pursuit of abortion with a man.

The story dates back to the 1920s when people didn’t discuss abortions.

The tale uses words like “operation” and “let the air in” to stand in for “abortion.”

What Is the Opposite of a Euphemism?

A dysphemism is the opposite of a euphemism.

Dysphemisms replace softer words with harsher or crasser terms.

While euphemisms make a situation appear better or less hurtful, dysphemisms present facts in the worst possible light.

“Went to a better place” is a euphemism for death.

“But the big one” is a dysphemism for the same.

Euphemism vs. Metaphor

A metaphor is a symbolic replacement for another word.

Metaphors are intended to clarify or elucidate, providing a different reference point for the reader or listener.

Euphemisms, however, replace a strong word with something gentler.

Metaphors aim to enlighten, while euphemisms try to soften and, to some degree, deceive.

Other Related Literary Devices To Know

Euphemisms are only one of many forms of figurative language and literary devices.

The tools below help you figure out how to write a blog post with impact:

  • Onomatopoeia: Onomatopeia is a word used to describe sounds that echo the noises they define. For example, “bam” or “sploot” describe those sounds by imitating their sonic impact.
  • Allegory: An allegory is a cover story. It’s a moral or message wearing a costume. Allegories are stories where symbols are used to express a message. For example, George Orwell’s Animal Farm uses a tale of barnyard animals to deliver his ideas on Bolshevik Russia. He never says Russia by name, but it is apparent it’s what he’s referring to.
  • Pathos: Pathos is a method of persuasion that relies on sympathy and emotional reactions to achieve the desired result. In literature or rhetoric, the desired result is for the audience to react sympathetically.
  • Prose: Prose is everyday speech. The word describes unmetered speech in rhetoric and writing.
  • Ad Hominem: Ad Hominem describes attacks aimed at individuals instead of their principles or positions. Politically, a candidate engaging in Ad Hominem attacks aims for something personal, like their opponent’s love life, instead of their stance on issues.

Writing Tools To Help You Out

Writing is a powerful weapon but a difficult one to master.

There’s no shame in accepting some tips to use while writing and help from writing tools in refining your prose.

The tools below help turn your raw material into powerful written pieces without sacrificing your vision.

  • Writing Helpers: Writing helpers catch what you might not. Sites like Grammarly check your grammar and spelling while scanning for overused words and suggesting alternatives. Your writing remains intact, just refined.  
  • AI Writing Software: Writing software that uses AI turns your raw material into written content. The tool takes the information you enter and creates blog posts, novels, articles, and different types of content. The technology is experiencing much growth, but the best current brand is Jasper.
  • Grammar Checkers: Grammar checkers are simple tools that help check proper grammar and spelling in a document. Many free websites are offering this service. You must copy and paste your work into the website, and the checker does the rest.
  • Content Creators: A content creator tool assists creators of content in every aspect of content creation. This software helps writers research, design, and compose their blog posts. These tools do everything from providing word counts to creating code and supplying white noise to work to.

Frequently Asked Questions

We’ve covered a lot in this article, but some questions about euphemisms remain.

Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions:

What is the euphemism of lazy?

Couch potato is the most common euphemism for lazy.

The phrase conjures images of an adorable spud sitting on the sofa instead of someone slothful.

What is the euphemism of bald?

Bald has quite a few euphemisms; however, two of the best are “Mr. Clean” and “a barber’s dream.”

Both phrases suggest baldness without mockery.

Wrapping Up

Euphemisms put a rosy spin on difficult subjects, for better and worse.

The substitution helps deliver hard news gently. It also allows manipulative people to lead crowds astray.

Writers who master the euphemism have a powerful tool in their kit.

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