A euphemism is a generally harmless word, name, or phrase that substitutes an offensive or suggestive one. Some euphemisms intend to amuse, while others intend to give positive appearances to negative events or even mislead entirely. Euphemisms also often take the place of profanity. The opposite of euphemism roughly equates to dysphemism.
Etymology & Usage
The word euphemism comes from the Greek word (euphemia), meaning "the use of words of good omen", which in turn is derived from the Greek root-words eu ( ), "good/well" + pheme ( ) "speech/speaking". The eupheme was originally a word or phrase used in place of a religious word or phrase that should not be spoken aloud; etymologically, the eupheme is the opposite of the blaspheme (evil-speaking). Primary examples of taboo words requiring the use of a euphemism are names for deities, such as Persephone, Hecate, or Nemesis. The term euphemism itself was used as a euphemism by the ancient Greeks, meaning "to keep a holy silence" (speaking well by not speaking at all).
Historical linguistics has revealed traces of taboo deformations in many languages. Several are known to have occurred in Indo-European languages, including the presumed original Proto-Indo-European words for bear (*rkso), wolf (*wlkwo), and deer (originally, hart although the word hart remained commonplace in parts of England until the 20th century as is witnessed by the widespread use of the pub sign The White Hart). In different Indo-European languages, each of these words has a difficult etymology because of taboo deformations a euphemism was substituted for the original, which no longer occurs in the language. An example is the Slavic root for bear *medu-ed-, which means "honey eater". Names in Germanic languages including English are derived from the color brown. Another example in English is donkey replacing the old Indo-European-derived word ass. The word dandelion (literally, tooth of lion, referring to the shape of the leaves) is another example, being a substitute for pissenlit, meaning "wet the bed", a possible reference to the fact that dandelion was used as a diuretic. The Talmud describes the blind as having "much light" (Aramaic ) and this phrase sagee nahor is the Modern Hebrew for euphemism.
In some languages of the Pacific, using the name of a deceased chief is taboo. Among indigenous Australians, it is forbidden to use the name, image, or audio-visual recording of the deceased; the Australian Broadcasting Corporation now publishes a warning to indigenous Australians when using names, images or audio-visual recordings of people who have died.
Since people are often named after everyday things, this leads to the swift development of euphemisms. New names are frequently required when an old one becomes taboo. These languages have a very high rate of vocabulary change.
In a similar manner, in imperial China, writers of classical Chinese texts were expected to avoid using characters contained within the name of the currently ruling emperor as a sign of respect. In these instances, the relevant characters were replaced by synonyms. (This practice may provide a fairly accurate means of dating a document.)
The common names of illicit drugs, and the plants used to obtain them, often undergo a process similar to taboo deformation, because new terms are devised in order to discuss them secretly in the presence of others. This process often occurs in English (e.g. speed or crank for meth) and is really slang formation, as it often is not intended to substitute a softer term. It occurs even more in Spanish, e.g., the deformation of names for cannabis: mota (literally, "something that moves" on the black market), grifa (literally, "something coarse to the touch"), marijuana (a female personal name, Mar a Juana), c amo (the original Spanish name for the plant, derived from the Latin genus name Cannabis). All four of these names are still used in various parts of the Hispanophone world, although c amo ironically has the least underworld connotation, and is often used to describe industrial hemp, or legitimate medically-prescribed cannabis.
Euphemisms can be created phonetically (also called a "Minced Oath"), semantically (using analogy to suggest the meanings), or through slang.
Phonetic euphemisms or minced oaths
- Shortening or "clipping" the term ("Jeez" for Jesus, "What the-" for "What the hell")
- Using the first letter ("SOB"). Sometimes, the word "word" is added after it ("F word", "S word", "B word"). Also, the letter can be phonetically respelled, for example, the word "piss" was shortened to "pee" in this way.
- Mispronunciations, such as "What the fudge", "Oh my gosh", "Frickin", "Darn" "Oh, shoot", "Be-yotch", etc.
- Rhymes, such as "What the duck", "Oh, snap!", "Cheese and Rice"
- Abstractions and ambiguities (it for excrement, the situation or "a girl in trouble" for pregnancy, going to the other side for death, do it or come together in reference to a sexual act, tired and emotional for drunkenness)
- Understatements (behind, unmentionables, privates, live together, go to the bathroom, sleep together)
- Metaphors, such as "beat the meat," "choke the chicken," "take a dump", "drain the main vein", etc.
- Comparing objectionable parts of the body to similar objects, "wiener" for "penis", "buns" for "butt"
- Using a personal name, such as "Willy" or "Dick" for penis, "Fanny" for "buttocks" (in America) or "vulva" (in UK)
- Using a less harsh term with similar meaning. For instance, "messed up" is a euphemism for "screwed up", which in turn is a euphemism for "fucked up"
- Other slang, such as "pot" for marijuana, "laid" for sexual intercourse
- Using an adjective to refer to an element of a person, rather than using a noun to define them, for example, "...makes her look slutty" instead of "...is a slut"
- Reverse understatements or litotes, such as "not so big" for "short", or "not true" for "a lie"
- Using a positive context ("Inspired by" instead of "ripped off of" or "plagiarized")
There is some disagreement over whether certain terms are or are not euphemisms. For example, sometimes the phrase visually impaired is labeled as a politically correct euphemism for blind. However, visual impairment can be a broader term, including, for example, people who have partial sight in one eye, or even those with uncorrected mild to moderate poor vision, a group that would be excluded by the word blind.
There are three antonyms of euphemism: dysphemism, cacophemism, and power word. The first can be either offensive or merely humorously deprecating with the second one generally used more often in the sense of something deliberately offensive. The last is used mainly in arguments to make a point seem more correct.
Euphemisms may be formed in a number of ways. Periphrasis or circumlocution is one of the most common to "speak around" a given word, implying it without saying it. Over time, circumlocutions become recognized as established euphemisms for particular words or ideas.
To alter the pronunciation or spelling of a taboo word (such as a swear word) to form a euphemism is known as taboo deformation. There is an astonishing number of taboo deformations in English, of which many refer to the infamous four-letter words. In American English, words that are unacceptable on television, such as fuck, may be represented by deformations such as freak even in children's cartoons. Some examples of rhyming slang may serve the same purpose to call a person a berk sounds less offensive than to call a person a cunt, though berk is short for Berkeley Hunt, which rhymes with cunt.
Bureaucracies such as the military and large corporations frequently spawn euphemisms of a more deliberate nature. Organizations coin doublespeak expressions to describe objectionable actions in terms that seem neutral or inoffensive. For example, a term used in the past for contamination by radioactive isotopes was Sunshine units.
Military organizations kill people, sometimes deliberately and sometimes by mistake; in doublespeak, the first may be called neutralizing the target or Employing Kinetic Effects and the second collateral damage. Violent destruction of non-state enemies may be referred to as pacification. Two common terms when a soldier is accidentally killed (buys the farm) by their own side are friendly fire or blue on blue (BOBbing) bought the farm has its own interesting history. Its origins might come from the life insurance payout or a death benefit payment that would permit the soldier's family to pay off the mortgage on real property, such as a farm, or from "the farm" being a slang reference to a burial plot. In World War I the slang "become a landowner" meant to "inhabit a cemetery plot". The "farm" is a euphemism for property, and "buying" it is a euphemism for the Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance benefit payment that should be sufficient to outright pay for the soldier's "farm." In 2010, the United States administration of President Barack Obama approved a "targeted killing" of a man wanted by the Central Intelligence Agency, effectively launching this term as an official alternative to legal assassination.
Execution is an established euphemism referring to the act of putting a person to death, with or without judicial process. It originally referred to the execution, i.e., the carrying out, of a death warrant, which is an authorization to a sheriff, prison warden, or other official to put a named person to death. In legal usage, execution can still refer to the carrying out of other types of orders; for example, in U.S. legal usage, a writ of execution is a direction to enforce a civil money judgment by seizing property. Likewise, lethal injection itself may be considered a euphemism for putting the convict to death by poisoning.
Abortion originally meant premature birth, and came to mean birth before viability. The term "abort" was extended to mean any kind of premature ending, such as aborting the launch of a rocket. Euphemisms have developed around the original meaning. Abortion, by itself, came to mean "induced abortion" or "elective abortion" exclusively. Hence the parallel term spontaneous abortion, an "act of nature", was dropped in favor of the more neutral-sounding miscarriage.
Industrial unpleasantness such as pollution may be toned down to outgassing or runoff descriptions of physical processes rather than their damaging consequences. Some of this may simply be the application of precise technical terminology in the place of popular usage, but beyond precision, the advantage of technical terminology may be its lack of emotional undertones and the likelihood that the general public (at least initially) will not recognize it for what it really is; the disadvantage being the lack of real-life context. Terms like waste and wastewater are also avoided in favor of terms such as byproduct, recycling, reclaimed water and effluent. In the oil industry, oil-based drilling muds were simply renamed organic phase drilling muds, where organic phase is a euphemism for "oil." In medicine, magnetic resonance imaging has replaced nuclear magnetic resonance in order to avoid frightening patients with the word nuclear (even though MRI scanning does not involve the use of harmful ionizing radiation). However, this kind of "euphemism" is not necessarily malicious in the sense that labeling an individual byproduct stream "waste" can have severe legal consequencies, such as additional taxes or prohibition of transport or export.
Euphemisms often evolve over time into taboo words themselves, through a process described by W.V.O. Quine, and more recently dubbed the "euphemism treadmill" by Steven Pinker, discussed in his The Blank Slate (2003) and The Stuff of Thought (2007) This is the well-known linguistic process known as pejoration or semantic change.
Words originally intended as euphemisms may lose their euphemistic value, acquiring the negative connotations of their referents. In some cases, they may be used mockingly and become dysphemisms. Euphemisms related to disabilities have been prone to this (see below).
- In his remarks on the ever-changing London slang, made in Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell mentioned both the euphemism treadmill and the dysphemism treadmill. He did not use these now-established terms, but observed and commented on the respective processes as early as in 1933.
- Where the words lavatory or toilet were deemed inappropriate, they were sometimes replaced with bathroom or water closet, which in turn became simply restroom or W.C. These are also examples of geographic concentration: the term restroom is an Americanism rarely used outside the United States, while washroom is a Canadian euphemism.
The term W.C. was previously quite popular in the United Kingdom, but is passing out of favor there, while becoming more popular in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Hungary as the polite term of choice. Ironically, Toilet is itself a euphemism.
Disability and handicap
Connotations easily change over time. Idiot, imbecile, and moron were once neutral terms for a developmentally delayed adult with the mental age comparable to a toddler, preschooler, and primary school child, respectively. In time negative connotations tend to crowd out neutral ones, so the phrase mentally retarded was pressed into service to replace them. Mentally retarded, too, has come to be considered inappropriate by some, because the word retarded came to be commonly used as an insult of a person, thing, or idea. As a result, new terms like mentally challenged, with an intellectual disability, learning difficulties and special needs have widely replaced retarded.
A similar progression occurred with the following terms for persons with physical handicaps being adopted by some people:
- lame crippled spastic handicapped disabled physically challenged differently abled People with Disabilities
Euphemisms can also serve to recirculate words that have passed out of use because of negative connotation. The word lame from above, having faded from the vernacular, was revitalized as a slang word generally meaning "not living up to expectations" or "boring." The connotation of a euphemism can also be subject-specific.
In the early 1960s, Major League Baseball franchise owner and promoter Bill Veeck, who was missing part of a leg, argued against the then-favored euphemism handicapped, saying he preferred crippled because it was merely descriptive and did not carry connotations of limiting one's capability the way handicapped (and all of its subsequent euphemisms) seemed to do (Veeck as in Wreck, chapter "I'm Not Handicapped, I'm Crippled"). Later, comedian George Carlin gave a famous monologue of how he thought euphemisms can undermine appropriate attitudes towards serious issues such as the evolving terms describing the medical problem of the cumulative mental trauma of soldiers in high-stress situations:
- shell shock (World War I) battle fatigue (World War II) operational exhaustion (Korean War) posttraumatic stress disorder (Vietnam War)
He contended that, as the name of the condition became more complicated and seemingly arcane, sufferers of this condition have been taken less seriously as people with a serious illness, and were given poorer treatment as a result. He also contended that Vietnam veterans would have received the proper care and attention they needed were the condition still called shell shock. In the same routine, he echoed Bill Veeck's opinion that crippled was a perfectly valid term (and noted that early English translations of the Bible seemed to have no qualms about saying that Jesus "healed the cripples").
Similarly, spastic was once a neutral descriptor of a sufferer of muscular hypertonicity in British English, but playground use of spastic (and variants such as spaz and spacker) as an insult led to the term being regarded by some as offensive. While the term was developing into an insult in British English, it was evolving in a radically different fashion in American English. In the U.S., spastic or spaz became a synonym for clumsiness, whether physical or mental, and nerdiness, and is very often used in a self-deprecating manner.
The difference between the British and American connotations of spastic was starkly shown in 2006 when golfer Tiger Woods used spaz to describe his putting in that year's Masters. The remark went completely unnoticed in America, but caused a major uproar in the UK.
Profane words and expressions in the English language are commonly taken from three areas: religion, excretion, and sex. Racism and sexism are a growing influence on profanities. While profanities themselves have been around for centuries, their limited use in public and by the media has only slowly become socially acceptable, and there are still many expressions that are out of place in polite conversation. One influence on the current tolerance of such language may be the frequency of its use on prime-time television. The word damn (and most other religious profanity in the English language) has long lost its shock value, and as a consequence, bowdlerizations of it (e.g., dang, darn-it) have taken on a very stodgy feeling. Euphemisms for male masturbation such as "spanking the monkey" or "choke the chicken" are used often among some people to avoid embarrassment in public. Excretory profanity such as piss and shit in some cases may be acceptable among informal friends (while they are almost never acceptable in formal relationships or public use); euphemisms such as Number One and Number Two may be preferred for use with children. Most sexual terms and expressions, even technical ones, either remain unacceptable for general use or have undergone radical rehabilitation.
Euphemisms for deities as well as for religious practices and artifacts have been recorded since the earliest writings. Protection of sacred names, rituals, and concepts from the uninitiated has always given rise to euphemisms, whether it be for exclusion of outsiders or the retention of power among the select. Examples from the Egyptians and every other Western religion abound.
Euphemisms for God and Jesus, such as gosh and gee, are used by Christians to avoid taking the name of God in a vain oath, which would violate one of the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 20)
Jews consider the tetragrammaton YHWH, the four-letter name of God as written in the Torah to be of such great holiness that it was never to be pronounced as spelled, except in the Temple by the High Priest on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the year. [Aryeh Kaplan, Meditation and Kabballa p. 134] (The pronunciation used in the Temple has been forgotten.) At all other times, when praying or reading from scripture, Jews say the word Adonai ("my Lords") in place of the letters. However, outside of prayer and scriptural contexts, traditional Jews will not pronounce the name Adonai, but replace it, typically with the word HaShem, which literally means, "The Name". The other name of God frequently used in the bible, Elohim ( )—"Powers"—is also not pronounced as written except in formal, religious use; in other contexts, devout Jews typically change one of its letters to Elokim ( ). Other names of God used in Jewish speech and writing, such as HaMakom ( )—"The Place"—or 'HaKadosh Baruch Hu' ( ) "The Holy One, Blessed is he" can be pronounced in any context. Whether they originated as euphemisms is not clear, but they are used as such, although they are also used in formal prayer. The respect Jews show for the name of God has created, and continues to create, written euphemisms in English. That is, Orthodox Jews usually will not write out the word "God", but instead spell it "G-d." Recently, some have begun making a similar change to the spelling of the euphemism haShem (discussed above). It is written "haSh-m."
Euphemisms for hell, damnation, and the devil, on the other hand, are often used to avoid invoking the power or drawing the attention of the adversary. The most famous in the latter category is the expression what the dickens and its variants, which does not refer to the famed British writer but instead was a popular euphemism for Satan in its time. In questions, "what the hell" may be replaced by "what the heck", and in directive speech "get the hell out" is sometimes replaced by "get the heck out".
In times past, profanity relating to Jesus' body were sometimes used, such as "God's Wounds!" By the time of Chaucer, this was reduced to "'swounds" as spoken by characters such as the Miller and since then has worked its way into common language as "zounds," a term now considered too stodgy to be any kind of curse. Yet the same Medieval notions may continue intact in other languages, for example rany boskie (literally "God's wounds"), an extremely common mild curse in modern Polish.
The abbreviation BS, or the word bull, often replaces the word bullshit in polite society. (The term bullshit itself generally means lies or nonsense, and not the literal "shit of a bull", making it a dysphemism.)
What is currently known as a toilet, has been known by a number of previous euphemisms "..The Honest Jakes or Privy has graduated via Offices to the final horror of Toilet..." There are any number of lengthier periphrases for excretion used to excuse oneself from company, such as to powder one's nose, to see a man about a dog (or horse), etc. In the Bible, to cover one's feet referred to excretion.
The Latin term pudendum and the Greek term (aidoion) for the genitals literally mean "shameful thing". Groin, crotch, and loins refer to a larger region of the body, but are euphemistic when used to refer to the genitals. The word masturbate is derived from Latin, the word manus meaning hand and the word sturbare meaning to defile. In pornographic stories, the words rosebud and starfish are often used as euphemisms for anus, generally in the context of anal sex.
Sexual intercourse was once a euphemism derived from the more general term intercourse by itself, which simply meant "meeting" but now is normally used as a synonym for the longer phrase, thus making the town of Intercourse, Pennsylvania, a subject of jokes in modern usage.
The "baseball metaphors for sex" are perhaps the most famous and widely-used set of polite euphemisms for sex and relationship behavior in the U.S. The metaphors encompass terms like "hitting it off" for a good start to relationship, "Striking out" for being unlucky with a love interest, and "running the bases" for progressing sexually in a relationship. The "bases" themselves, from first to third, stand for various levels of sexual activity from French kissing to "petting", itself a euphemism for manual genital stimulation, all of which is short of "scoring" or "coming home", sexual intercourse. "Hitting a home run" describes sex during the first date, "batting both ways" (also "switch-hitting") or "batting for the other team" describes bisexuality or homosexuality respectively, and "stealing bases" refers to initiating new levels of sexual contact without invitation. Baseball-related euphemisms also abound for the "equipment"; "Bat and balls" are a common reference to the male genitalia, while "glove" or "mitt" can refer to the female anatomy. Among gay men, "pitcher" is sometimes used to mean a "top", while "catcher" means a "bottom".
There are many euphemisms for birth control devices, sometimes even propagated by the manufacturers: Condoms are known as "rubbers", "sheaths", "love gloves", "diving suits", "raincoats", "French letters", "Jimmy Caps", "Johnnies" (in Ireland and to a lesser degree Britain) etc.
Euphemisms are also common in reference to sexual orientations and lifestyles. For example in the movie Closer, the character played by Jude Law uses the euphemism "He valued his privacy" for being gay. Other examples are being a 'lover of musical theatre' or a 'confirmed bachelor'. The term 'confirmed bachelor' originally referred to a man who had "sworn off" traditional relationships for reasons unrelated to sexual orientation; such a person may today be known as a 'serial bachelor' if they remain sexually active, or a 'sexual hermit' if they abstain from romantic or sexual contact entirely.
As an aside, the use of euphemisms for sexual activity has grown under the pressure of recent rulings by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regarding what constitutes "decent" on-air broadcast speech. The FCC included many well known euphemisms in its lists of banned terms but indicated that even new and unknown coinages might be considered indecent once it became clear what they referenced. George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can't Say On TV" evolved into the "Incomplete List of Impolite Words", available in text and audio form, and contains hundreds of euphemisms and dysphemisms to genitalia, the act of having sex, various forms of sex, sexual orientations, etc. that have all become too pejorative for polite conversation, including such notables as "getting your pole varnished" and "eating the tuna taco".
Racism and sexism
Racism and sexism are also common sources of profanity, and one of the few categories producing new profanities. One example is bitch, a slur often used for women, while nigger, a slur for black people, was not considered a profanity at all as recently as the 1950s. Such profanities are often re-appropriated by the group targeted and marginalized, and used as a way of reversing the negative stigma associated with the word. For example, some African-Americans will often call each other nigga.
In the Spanish language, the word maldici n, literally meaning "a curse" or an evil spell, is occasionally used as an interjection of lament or anger, but not necessarily to replace any of several Spanish profanities that would otherwise be used in that same context. The same is true in Italian with the word maledizione and in Portuguese with the word maldi o.
In Greek, the word "curse" is found, although , from (hubris) is more commonly used, and in English, an exclamation that is used in a similar style is curses, although it is these days less common. The stereotyped "Perils of Pauline" silent film might have the villain tying his victim to a railroad track. When the hero rescues the heroine, the card might say, "Curses! Foiled again!" in place of whatever cursing the character presumably uttered.
The English language phrase "Pardon my French" is also sometimes used as a euphemism for profanity.
In Ernest Hemingway's novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, swear words are replaced by the words "unprintable" and "obscenity", even though the characters are actually speaking Spanish that has been translated into English for the reader (in Spanish, foul language is used freely even when its equivalent is censored in English). These replacements were not performed at the publisher's behest, but instead by Hemingway's choice.
In Wes Anderson's film Fantastic Mr. Fox, the replacement of swear words by the word "cuss" became a humorous motif throughout the film.
Death and murder
The English language contains numerous euphemisms related to dying, death, burial, and the people and places that deal with death. The practice of using euphemisms for death is likely to have originated with the magical belief that to speak the word "death" was to invite death; where to "draw Death's attention" is the ultimate bad fortune a common theory holds that death is a taboo subject in most English-speaking cultures for precisely this reason. It may be said that one is not dying, but fading quickly because the end is near. People who have died are referred to as having passed away or passed or departed. Kick the bucket seems innocuous until one considers an explanation that has been proposed for the idiom: that a suicidal hanging victim must kick the bucket out from under his own feet during his suicide. Deceased is a euphemism for "dead", and sometimes the deceased is said to have gone to a better place, but this is used primarily among the religious with a concept of Heaven. Was taken to Jesus implies salvation specifically for Christians, but met his Maker may imply some judgment, content implied or unknown, by God. In the Bible, especially in the books of Kings and Chronicles, a deceased king is said to have "slept [or rested] with his fathers" if he received a proper burial.
Some Christians often use phrases such as gone to be with the Lord or called to higher service (this latter expression being particularly prevalent in the Salvation Army along with "promoted to glory") or "graduated" to express their belief that physical death is not the end, but the beginning of the fuller realization of redemption.
Orthodox Christians often use the euphemism fallen asleep or fallen asleep in the Lord, which reflects Orthodox beliefs concerning death and resurrection. Greeks in particular are apt to refer to the deceased as "the blessed", "the forgiven", or "the absolved" ones, in the belief that the dead person will be counted among the faithful at the Last Judgement.
The dead body entices many euphemisms, some polite and some profane, as well as dysphemisms such as worm food, dead meat, or simply a stiff. Modern rhyming slang contains the expression brown bread. The corpse was once referred to as the shroud (or house or tenement) of clay, and modern funerary workers use terms such as the loved one (title of a novel about Hollywood undertakers by Evelyn Waugh) or the dear departed. (They themselves have given up the euphemism funeral director for grief therapist, and hold arrangement conferences with relatives.) Among themselves, mortuary technicians often refer to the corpse as the client. A recently dead person may be referred to as "the late John Doe". The term cemetery for "graveyard" is a borrowing from Greek, where it was a euphemism, literally meaning 'sleeping place'. The term undertaker (for the person responsible for the preparation of a body for burial) is so well-established that some people do not recognize it as a euphemism, since giving way to the more scientific-sounding euphemism mortician and yet further euphemisms.
Someone who has died is said to have passed on, checked out, cashed in their chips, bit the big one, kicked the bucket, keeled over, bit the dust, popped their clogs, pegged it, carked it, was snuffed out, turned their toes up, hopped the twig, bought the farm, got zapped, wrote their epitaph, fell off their perch, croaked, gave up the ghost (originally a more respectful term, cf. the death of Jesus as translated in the King James Version of the Bible Mark 15:37), gone south, gone west, gone to California, shuffled off this mortal coil (from William Shakespeare's Hamlet), run down the curtain and joined the Choir Invisible, or assumed room temperature (actually a dysphemism in use among mortuary technicians). When buried, they may be said to be pushing up daisies, sleeping the big sleep, taking a dirt nap, gone into the fertilizing business, checking out the grass from underneath or six feet under. There are hundreds of such expressions in use. (Old Burma-Shave jingle: "If daisies are your favorite flower, keep pushin up those miles per hour!") In Edwin Muir's 'The Horses' a euphemism is used to show the elimination of the human race 'The seven days war that put the world to sleep.'
The "Dead Parrot" sketch from Monty Python's Flying Circus contains an extensive list of euphemisms for death, including many cited above, referring to the deceased parrot that the character played by John Cleese had purchased. The popularity of the sketch has itself increased the popularity of some of these euphemisms indeed, it has introduced another euphemism for death, "pining for the fjords" (since it was a Norwegian parrot) although in the sketch that phrase was used by the shop owner to assert that the parrot was not dead, but was merely quiet and contemplative.
Euthanasia also attracts euphemisms. One may put one out of one's misery, put one to sleep, or have one put down, the latter two phrases being used primarily with dogs, cats, and horses who are being or have been euthanized by a veterinarian. (These terms are not usually applied to humans, because both medical ethics and law deprecate euthanasia.) In fact, Dr. Bernard Nathanson has pointed out that the word "euthanasia" itself is a euphemism, being Greek for "good death."
Some euphemisms for killing are neither respectful nor playful, but instead clinical and detached, including terminate, wet work, to take care of one, to do them in, to off, or to take them out. To cut loose or open up on someone or something means "to shoot at with every available weapon". Gangland euphemisms for murder include ventilate, whack, rub out, liquidate, cut down, hit, take him for a ride, string him up, cut down to size, or "put him in cement boots," "sleep with the fishes" or "put him in a concrete overcoat," the latter three implying disposal in deep water, if then alive by drowning; the arrangement for a killing may be a simple "contract" with the victim referred to as the "client," which suggests a normal transaction of business.
One of the most infamous euphemisms in history was the German term Endl sung, frequently translated in English as "the Final Solution", a systematic plan for genocide of the Jews. This was, in turn, an extension of the concept of eugenics, a euphemism for the neutering and killing various people who are deformed, social misfits, or members of racial groups deemed undesirable to the Nazi Party.
Some dysphemisms, especially for death are euphemisms or dysphemisms for other unpleasant events and thus are unpleasant in their literal meaning, used to generalize a bad event. "Having your ass handed to you," "left for the rats," "toasted," "roasted," "burned," "pounded", "bent over the barrel," "screwed over," or other terms commonly describe death or the state of imminent death, but also are common in describing defeat of any kind such as a humiliating loss in a sport or video game, being unfairly treated or cast aside in business affairs, being badly beaten in a fight, and similar.
Such an execution device as the electric chair has been known as "Old Sparky" or "Yellow Mama," and the device that delivers lethal chemicals to the condemned in a lethal injection is reduced to "the needle."
To terminate with prejudice generally means to end one's employment without possibility of rehire (as opposed to lay off, where the person can expect rehire if business picks up), but the related phrase "terminate with extreme prejudice" now usually means to kill. The adjective extreme may occasionally be omitted. In a famous line from the movie Apocalypse Now, Captain Willard is told to terminate Colonel Kurtz's commission "with extreme prejudice". An acronym, TWEP has been coined from this phrase, which can be used as a verb: "He was TWEPed/TWEPped."
In a passage near the beginning of The Twelve Chairs, Bezenchuk, an undertaker, astonishes Vorobyaninov with his classification of people by the euphemisms used to speak of their deaths.
The game Dungeon Siege contains many euphemisms for death. Likewise the video game Secret of Mana uses the phrase sees the reaper to mean death.
A scene in the film Patch Adams features Patch (Robin Williams) dressed in an angel costume, reading out various synonyms and euphemisms for the phrase "to die" to a man dying of cancer. This evolves into a contest between the two men to see who can come up with more, and better, euphemisms, ending when Patch comes up with "and if we bury you ass up, we'll have a place to park my bike."
The last time the United States Congress passed a bill with the title "Declaration of War" was in 1942, when the U.S. declared war on Romania. Since then, various euphemisms have been employed:
||While sometimes used to refer to activities designed to make life more comfortable for civilians, the term can also be used to imply intervention by coercive force, including warfare. Examples: Pacification of Algeria, Pacification of the Araucan a, Pacification operations in German-occupied Poland, and the Pacification of Tonkin.
||"[T]he term 'presence' had been used as a euphemism for 'occupation' during the Cold War."
||In the early days of the Korean War, President Harry S. Truman referred to the United States response to the North Korean invasion as a police action. Similarly, the Vietnam War is also referred to as a "police action" or "security action".
||The Clinton Doctrine of military interventionism argues for involvement in warfare on humanitarian grounds. The Kosovo War is believed to be the first so-called humanitarian war.
|[armed] conflict; aggression; action; tension; unrest; crisis
||These generic words are used in many respects for battles, skirmishes, prolonged wars, and undeclared wars; they may also refer to quasi-wars between peoples and factions that do not amount to a sovereign state or nation. The Wikipedia uses this terminology, e.g. Israeli Palestinian conflict and Colombian armed conflict (1964 present). The Cold War has been described as a stand-off conflict that was the result of tension. What does and does not amount to war is often open to debate when civil unrest, guerrilla warfare, terrorism, and unconventional warfare is involved.
|limited kinetic action
||After the 60-day War Powers Act deadline for congressional authorization to remain involved in the 2011 military intervention in Libya passed, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates refused to call the operation a war; instead describing it as a limited kinetic action.
The renaming of war department as defence department in the post-World War II era in various countries is itself a euphemism, as pointed out by George Orwell (who portrays a Ministry of Peace or minipax in a state at perpetual war in 1984).
In job titles
Euphemisms are common in job titles; some jobs have complicated titles that make them sound more impressive than the common names would imply, such as CPA in place of car parking attendant. Many of these euphemisms may include words such as engineer, although in fact the people who do the job are not accredited in engineering, manager for an employee without subordinates, or even a combination thereof. Extreme cases, such as sanitation engineer for janitor, or 'transparent-wall maintenance officer' for window cleaner, are cited humorously more often than they are used seriously. Less extreme cases, such as custodian for janitor or administrative assistant for secretary, are considered more terms of respect than euphemisms. Where the work itself is seen as distasteful, a euphemism may be used, for example "rodent officer" for a rat-catcher, or "cemetery operative" for a gravedigger. From the inter-force rivalry of the US military comes "High-Velocity Projectile Interceptor" as a description of the mission of an infantry soldier, usually spoken by someone of a non-infantry branch like the Air Force.
Doublespeak, often incorrectly assumed to originate from George Orwell's novel 1984 (erroneously combining Orwell's "newspeak" and "doublethink"), is language deliberately constructed to disguise or distort its actual meaning, often resulting in a communication bypass. What distinguishes doublespeak from other euphemisms is its deliberate usage. Doublespeak may be in the form of bald euphemisms such as "downsizing" or "rightsizing" for "firing of many employees"; or deliberately ambiguous phrases such as "wet work" for "assassination" and "take out" for "destroy".
Other common euphemisms include:
|- ! Euphemisms ! Meaning |- | light in the loafers, confirmed bachelor, rides the bus | male homosexuality |- | abattoir | slaughterhouse |- | acting like rabbits, making love to, getting it on, screwing, doing it, making the beast with two backs, sleeping with | having sex with |- | adult entertainment, adult material, gentlemens's special interest literature | pornography |- | bathroom tissue, t.p., bath tissue | toilet paper (usually used by toilet paper manufacturers) |- | bias crime | hate crime (used by the New York Times to describe the Rutgers University/Tyler Clementi case.) |- | big, curvy, fluffy, zaftig, plus-sized, thick-boned, full-figured, heavy-set, Rubenesque | overweight, fat, obese |- | chemical dependency | drug addiction (though these technically describe distinct conditions) |- | co-morbidity | simultaneous existence of related mental and physical health issues (when morbidity is used as a medical term for illness), although in the regular medical use of this term it simply means the presence of one or more mental or physical diseases apart from the primary one and as such is not a euphemism. |- | correctional facility | prison |- | custodian, caretaker | janitor (Also originally a euphemism in Latin, it means doorman. In the British Secret Service, it may still carry the ancient meaning. It does in the novels of John le Carr .) |- | economically depressed neighborhood, culturally-deprived environment, inner city | ghetto, slum |- | enhanced interrogation | torture |- | escort, service provider | callgirl, sex worker - often used in a context where 'johns' become "clients" and 'tricks' become "sessions" or "appointments" like those conducted by professionals in various other fields. |- |euthanasia |killing of healthy animals in animal shelters for a variety of reasons ranging from temperament to shelter overcrowding |- |feminine protection |tampon |- | gaming | gambling |- | gender-based violence | rape or sexual assault |- | gentlemen's club | go-go bar, strip club |- | hardware key, hardware token, security device | dongle |- | holiday tree, winter tree, tree | Christmas tree |- | in the family way | pregnant |- | it's snowin' down south | your slip is showing |- | lost their lives | were killed |- | mature, senior citizen, golden ager, been around the block | old, elderly |- |been around the block | having had much sexual experience |- | "I misspoke," bend the truth, white lie, fudge, colour the truth, be economical with the truth, dissemble, political spin, unreliable | lied, lie |- | motivation | bribe or coercion |- | peer homework help, comparing answers, collaborating, harvesting answers | cheating |- | persuasion or interrogation | torture |- | a little persuasion | enormous physical force, as with a blow from a sledgehammer |- | pre-owned, pre-loved | used or second hand goods, such as automobiles |- | products of pregnancy | fetus (in the context of abortion) |- | mentally challenged, intellectually challenged, a few sandwiches short of a picnic | stupid, dim, dull, slow; of subnormal intelligence |- | reputational management | the use by lawyers of a strategic lawsuit against public participation or threats of vexatious litigation to silence public complaints or criticism |- | ride the short bus | learning disability requiring remedial or special education - see Short bus (disambiguation) |- | restroom, washroom, powder room (for women) | toilet room |- | replacement workers | scabs or strikebreakers brought into a labour dispute |- | sanitary landfill | garbage dump (and a temporary garbage dump is a transfer station), also often called a Civic Amenity in the UK |- | sanitary napkin | maxipad |- | sanatorium | lunatic asylum |- | sanitation worker (or, sarcastically, sanitation officer or sanitation engineer) | bin man, garbage man |- | "she's in the club" | she's pregnant, chiefly British |- | State Electrician | executioner in cases where an electric chair is used |- | take legal action | sue |- | the big C | cancer (in addition, some people whisper the word when they say it in public, and doctors euphemistically use technical terminology when discussing cancer in front of patients, e.g., "c.a." or "neoplasia"/"neoplastic process", "carcinoma" for "tumor"); euphemisms for cancer are used even more so in the Netherlands, because the Dutch word for cancer can be used as a curse word |- | the north of Ireland | Northern Ireland (seen by many Irish people as a term imposed by the British and therefore a profanity; however, saying the north of Ireland may be primarily a way of identifying oneself with the Irish Nationalist cause, rather than a euphemism) |- | the Scottish Play | Shakespeare's Macbeth |- | to cut excesses (in a budget), rightsize, downsize, let go | Lay off |- | being paid (off)', dismissal' | fired or sacked |- | water pollution control plant | sewage treatment facility |- | wellness | benefits and treatments that tend to only be used in times of sickness |- |women wearing comfortable shoes |female homosexuality (used on-air by Robin Williams as announcer in Good Morning Vietnam) |- | comfort station | Brothel, or alternatively, Toilet |- | a little thin on top | bald |- | we are looking forward to settlement of the account | you owe us money |- | exotic dancer | stripper |- | visit from the stork | give birth |- |} These lists might suggest that most euphemisms are well-known expressions. Often euphemisms can be somewhat situational; what might be used as a euphemism in a conversation between two friends might make no sense to a third person. In this case, the euphemism is being used as a type of innuendo. At other times, the euphemism is common in some circles (such as the medical field) but not others, becoming a type of jargon or, in underworld situations especially, argot. One such example is the line "put him in bed with the captain's daughter" from the popular sea shanty Drunken Sailor, which means to give a whipping with the cat o' nine tails euphemistically referred to by sailors as the "captain's daughter". Euphemisms can also be used by governments to rename statutes to use a less offensive expression. For example, in Ontario, Canada, the "Disabled Person Parking Permit" was renamed to the "Accessible Parking Permit" in 2007. The word euphemism itself can be used as a euphemism. In the animated short It's Grinch Night (See Dr. Seuss), a child asks to go to the euphemism, where euphemism is being used as a euphemism for outhouse. This euphemistic use of "euphemism" also occurred in the play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where a character requests, "Martha, will you show her where we keep the, uh, euphemism?" It is analogous to the 19th-century use of unmentionables for underpants. Also, lots of euphemisms are used in the improvised television show, Whose Line Is It Anyway?. They are used often in the game 'If You Know What I Mean', where players are given a scene and have to use as many obscure clich s and euphemisms as possible.
- Code word (figure of speech)
- Dead Parrot sketch
- Distancing language
- Double entendre
- Framing (social sciences)
- Polite fiction
- Political correctness
- Sexual slang
- Slander and libel
- Spin (public relations)
- Thomas Bowdler
- Word play
- Keith Allan., Burridge, Kate. Euphemism & Dysphemism: Language Used As Shield and Weapon, Oxford University Press, 1991. ISBN 0-7351-0288-0.
- Benveniste, mile, "Euph mismes anciens and modernes", in: Probl mes de linguistique g n rale, vol. 1, pp. 308 314. [originally published in: Die Sprache, I (1949), pp. 116 122].
- R.W.Holder: How Not to Say What You Mean: A Dictionary of Euphemisms, Oxford University Press, 501 pages, 2003. ISBN 0-19-860762-8.
Maledicta: The International Journal of Verbal Aggression (ISSN US).
- McGlone, M.S., Beck, G., & Pfiester, R.A. (2006). Contamination and camouflage in euphemisms. Communication Monographs, 73, 261-282.
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