Euphemisms (you-fuh-miz-em) are words used to soften the reality of what is communicated to a given listener or reader. They are a universal feature of language usage to express taboos and to talk about things that are best avoided like sickness, death, and war. When you begin to notice euphemisms in the English language, you are moving towards a deeper understanding of the language.
Another use of euphemism is to elevate the status of something (e.g., attorney for lawyer, educator for teacher, paraprofessional for aide). However, in general, we use euphemisms to express what is socially difficult in direct terms and to avoid what might be disturbing, offensive, or embarrassing.
In his Oxford Dictionary of Euphemisms (2007), Holder further acknowledges that euphemisms are “… the language of evasion, hypocrisy, prudery, and deceit used to deal with sensitive subjects.” So it makes sense that euphemisms are important for ESL students to study in their pursuit of mastering the English language and in reaching their goals.
History of Euphemisms
The word “euphemism” comes from the Greek word “euphemia” meaning “use of good words”, just as many other English words come from Greek words. And a great number of euphemisms used in the English language have come from words with Latinate rootsidioom. Additional euphemisms continue to be invented and used in casual and professional language. Sometimes the task of identifying euphemisms is easier if you look at the context in which they are used. Just as you would use context clues to help you understand vocabulary, a part of speech or an idiom, they also help you to figure out the meaning of euphemisms. And context clues will play a role in retention of just what these words mean.
Examples of Euphemisms
For example, let’s explore these sentences and the euphemisms (bolded). By using context clues, it is easier to understand the meaning of each euphemism. Can you guess what the word means before reading the meaning that is listed?
His grandmother passed away at the age of 100. Meaning: died
My father is between jobs but he is confident that he’ll find a new job soon. Meaning: Unemployed
The police officer arrested the sanitation man for speeding on his job. Meaning: garbage man
The teenager avoided answering the judge’s question about the length of time he was incarcerated for shoplifting. He apparently did not want anyone to know or he might have felt ashamed of his past. Meaning: jailed; imprisoned
Our son is cognitively impaired, but he is making great academic and social progress. Meaning: mentally handicapped; mentally retarded
John’s supervisor laid him off because he was always late for work. Maybe he will learn a lesson from all of this. Meaning: fired
The bookkeeper was accused of appropriating funds and she needed to pay back everything that was taken. Plus she needed to pay interest. It is certain that she will lose her job. Meaning: stealing
The correctional facility was expanded to house more prisoners. Meaning: jail; prison
When to Use Euphemisms
Do you see how these words would be classified as euphemisms? If you are unsure, please feel free to go back and reread the sentence(s). This is an important skill to acquire as an ESL student. Understanding what these words mean, in addition to when to use them, is extremely helpful.
For example, if you were interviewing for a job and the employer asks you about your gap in employment (i.e. not working for a certain time period), it would be a good suggestion to say the company “downsized” rather than to say you were “let go” or “fired”. And if you were asked why you switched majors in college or why you changed careers from a marketing job to a service job, it would be advisable to say that you “decided to pursue your true interest or talent” rather than to say that you “quit” or “lost interest in”, etc. By knowing what makes up a more acceptable response in areas like this will certainly help you in many ways.
Following is a list of additional euphemisms (bolded) that are commonly used in the English language. Reading through these might help you get a better picture of what euphemisms are. If you feel that you understand this concept, reading through the list will offer a review. As you read, ask yourself if you have ever heard these English expressions before. Have you come across any of them in your reading material? Have you used any of them in your speaking or writing? Do you see how these euphemisms should be used and why they are needed in the English language? Do you have additional ones to add in your native language?
Substance abuse – Addiction Sentence: My niece’s drug addiction forced her to drop out of college and to resign from her part-time job.
Arrest – Apprehend Sentence: The burglar was apprehended down the street from the bank that was robbed.
Cheap – Frugal; thrifty; economical Sentence: The new couple needed to be thrifty as they wanted to save for their first house and their new life together.
Criminal (adj) – Illegal Sentence: It was criminal for the maid to steal from the family she worked for. And when this was discovered, she was let go.
Crippled – Disabled Sentence: The older man was disabled from the war and he needed to use a wheelchair to move about his house.
Death Insurance – Life insurance Sentence: My new job came with life insurance benefits as well as medical and dental benefits.
Death Penalty – Capital punishment Sentence: There were many reasons why the jury thought the defendant should have capital punishment.
Deaths – Body count Sentence: There was no way that the body count could be accurate as the hurricane swept much of the city into the ocean. Perhaps there could be an accurate body count reported later this week.
Drunk – Intoxicated Sentence: It was time to celebrate the New Year and many people were intoxicated with excitement. It was a good thing. (Note the word does not have to be used strictly with alcoholic beverages.)
Exploit – Develop Sentence: England developed the land along the Atlantic Ocean, the area for the 13 original colonies and the settlements by the colonists and early explorers.
Fail – Fall short of; go out of business Sentence: The restaurant went out of business because there were too few sales over the holidays. Perhaps a new restaurant will open in the building.
Fat – Overweight Sentence: The elderly lady was overweight and she wanted desperately to lose weight. Hopefully the nutritionist will be the help she needs.
Garbage dumb – Landfill Sentence: It was important to have the city encourage recycling so the landfills would not be overused.
Illegal worker – Undocumented worker Sentence: The undocumented workers sought jobs in the local factory and on the dairy farms.
Informer – Confidential source Sentence: The confidential source indicated that the President would be passing the new law late this week.
Jungle – Rainforest Sentence: The rainforest was inhabited by many tropical birds and several poisonous snakes.
Juvenile delinquents – At-risk children Sentence: The after school educational program was designed for the at-risk children to develop their study skills. There were nutritional snacks and also time for recreation.
Lazy – Unmotivated Sentence: Although Mari seemed to be unmotivated with school work, she loved to read and learn.
Lie (n) – Fabrication; fib; untruth; inaccuracy Sentence: The child told a fib and denied eating the cookies because he did not want to get in trouble.
Noisy – Boisterous Sentence: The children were very boisterous at the birthday party, but that was to be expected. It was a good thing to see such happy children.
Old – Mature; distinguished; senior; traditional; seasoned Sentence: The seasoned math teacher could explain the math concepts so any student could easily understand. He even made geometry and calculus sound easy.
Old age – Golden age; golden years Sentence: My parents are enjoying traveling in their golden years. I hope to join them on their next trip.
Old person – Senior citizen; pensioner Sentence: The restaurant offered a senior citizen special on Wednesdays. All food items were 50% off. That was a good deal!
One-room apartment – Studio apartment; efficiency Sentence: I decided to rent the studio apartment near downtown and the park. It would be convenient to where I worked and also close to public transit so I would not need to have a personal vehicle. I could take the subway or a taxi to work.
Pay – Salary; remuneration Sentence: The salary for the IT job was negotiable, but I needed to know what I should say when asked about an expected salary.
Poor nation – Emerging nation; developing nation Sentence: It was nice to see the emerging nations increase the number of their college graduates.
Poor – Low-income; modest; working class; underprivileged Sentence: The low-income housing in town helped several families to “get on their feet”. Soon they could afford their own small homes and move out of the apartments.
Power failure – Service interruption Sentence: The lightning storm caused a service interruption for over 4 hours. It was difficult to cook dinner and to get my homework done without electricity.
Problem – Issue; challenge; complication Sentence: It was time to handle the issue of employee morale so everyone felt that they were needed and part of the “team”.
Removed from duty – Put on administrative leave Sentence: The director was put on administrative leave when he was repeatedly was late with his monthly reports.
Selfish – Self-centered Sentence: The boss was very self-centered and he rarely asked about my family.
Sick – Indisposed; ill; under the weather Sentence: The neighboring family was ill and they needed to skip the holiday party.
Small – Quaint; cozy; petite Sentence: The quaint town in the mountains was a fun place to take a skiing vacation.
Stupid – Slow Sentence: The young man was a little slow to learn, but he tried hard.
Sweat (v) – Perspire Sentence: The aerobics instructor barely perspired during the exercise class.
Talk – Converse Sentence: It was important to give everyone an opportunity to converse about the topic before making a final decision.
Toilet – Restroom; bathroom; washroom; lavatory Sentence: The restroom was recently cleaned and redecorated.
Ugly – Unattractive; modest; plain Sentence: The room was decorated modestly, but it looked attractive.
Used – Previously owned; pre-owned; refurbished; second-hand Sentence: Unfortunately, my sister lost her cell phone and she needed to purchase a refurbished one. She could not afford the expense of a new one.
Wrong – Improper; questionable; impropriety (n) Sentence: It was improper for the personnel manager to ask those types of questions in the job interview.
The Importance of Euphemisms in the English Language
Euphemisms are important to detect so you can more accurately understand the message that is communicated and the true intent of the communication. For example, when newspaper reporters or politicians use euphemisms it is important to try to extract the truth behind the message. Are these individuals presenting the facts, or is the information provided to appeal to human interests and emotions, or for any number of other reasons?
You probably have heard the expression “politically correct”. Euphemisms are one way to ensure political correctness. Their use is one way to respect people and to respect differences among people and lifestyles, etc. By listening to English (casual conversation, radio, television, videos) and in reading English written materials (articles, books, blogs, research online), you will hopefully be more aware of euphemisms.
And you will begin to integrate them in your English speaking and written language. This will in turn help you develop your English fluency as well as help to enhance your cultural understanding. Perhaps you will also be more observant of euphemisms used in your native language to reflect your own culture.
Conclusion – Summary
Euphemisms are usually used to avoid saying anything controversial or indiscreet. From classic literature to movies and from boardrooms to drawing rooms, euphemisms are typically used everywhere when talking about topics that are deemed as taboo or inappropriate in that society. The use of euphemisms can make your language sound more appropriate. Furthermore, euphemisms are an easy way to express yourself in an effective way without hurting or offending anyone.
Hopefully, this article will help you master the skill of polite conversation better and make you appear more familiar with both the English spoken and written language, as well as the culture behind the language. And hopefully you can share a euphemism from your native country with me. It would be interesting to hear.