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A euphemism (//) is an innocuous word or expression used in place of one that may be found offensive or suggest something unpleasant. Some euphemisms are intended to amuse, while others use bland, inoffensive terms for concepts that the user wishes to downplay. Euphemisms may be used to mask profanity or refer to taboo topics such as disability, sex, excretion, or death in a polite way.
Euphemism comes from the Greek word euphemia (εὐφημία) which refers to the use of 'words of good omen'; it is a compound of eû (εὖ), meaning 'good, well', and phḗmē (φήμη), meaning 'prophetic speech; rumour, talk'. Eupheme is a reference to the female Greek spirit of words of praise and positivity, etc. The term euphemism itself was used as a euphemism by the ancient Greeks; with the meaning "to keep a holy silence" (speaking well by not speaking at all).
Reasons for using euphemisms vary by context and intent. Commonly, euphemisms are used to avoid directly addressing subjects that might be deemed negative or embarrassing, e.g. death, sex, excretory bodily functions. They may be created for innocent, well-intentioned purposes or nefariously and cynically, intentionally to deceive and confuse.
Euphemisms are also used to mitigate, soften or downplay the gravity of large-scale injustices, war crimes, or other events that warrant a pattern of avoidance in official statements or documents. For instance, one reason for the comparative scarcity of written evidence documenting the exterminations at Auschwitz, relative to their sheer number, is "directives for the extermination process obscured in bureaucratic euphemisms".
Euphemisms are sometimes used to lessen the opposition to a political move. For example, according to linguist Ghil'ad Zuckermann, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the neutral Hebrew lexical item פעימות peimót ("beatings (of the heart)"), rather than נסיגה nesigá ("withdrawal"), to refer to the stages in the Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank (see Wye River Memorandum), in order to lessen the opposition of right-wing Israelis to such a move.: 181 The lexical item פעימות peimót, which literally means "beatings (of the heart)" is thus a euphemism for "withdrawal".: 181
Identification as Problematic
The act of labeling a term as a euphemism can in itself be controversial, as in the following two examples:
- Affirmative action, meaning a preference for minorities or the historically disadvantaged, usually in employment or academic admissions. This term is sometimes said to be a euphemism for reverse discrimination, or in the UK positive discrimination, which suggests an intentional bias that might be legally prohibited, or otherwise unpalatable.
- Enhanced interrogation is sometimes said to be a euphemism for torture. For example, columnist David Brooks called the use of this term for practices at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and elsewhere an effort to "dull the moral sensibility".
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, those with uncorrectable mild to moderate poor vision, or even those who wear glasses, groups that would be excluded by the word blind or even partially blind.
The coining and usage of euphemisms reveals what the coiner or speaker/writer considers, perhaps only sub-consciously, to be shameful, and may thus be an indication of prejudices or opinions held.
Phonetic euphemism is used to replace profanities, diminishing their intensity. Modifications include:
- Shortening or "clipping" the term, such as Jeez (Jesus) and what the— ("what the hell" or "what the fuck")
- Mispronunciations, such as frak, frig (both the preceding for "fuck"), what the fudge, what the truck (both "what the fuck"), oh my gosh ("oh my God"), frickin ("fucking"), darn ("damn"), oh shoot ("oh shit"), be-yotch ("bitch"), etc. This is also referred to as a minced oath.
- Using acronyms as replacements, such as SOB ("son of a bitch"), what the eff ("what the fuck"), S my D ("suck my dick"), POS ("piece of shit"), BS ("bullshit"). Sometimes, the word "word" or "bomb" is added after it, such as F-word ("fuck"), S-word ("shit"), B-word ("bitch"), N-word ("nigger"), etc. Also, the letter can be phonetically respelled.
To alter the pronunciation or spelling of a taboo word (such as a swear word) to form a euphemism is known as taboo deformation, or a minced oath. 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. Feck is a minced oath originating in Hiberno-English and popularised outside of Ireland by the British sitcom Father Ted. Some examples of Cockney 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.
Euphemisms formed from understatements include: asleep for dead and drinking for consuming alcohol. "Tired and emotional" is a notorious British euphemism for "drunk", one of many recurring jokes popularised by the satirical magazine Private Eye; it has been used by MPs to avoid unparliamentary language.
Pleasant, positive, worthy, neutral or non-descript terms are substituted for explicit or unpleasant ones, with many substituted terms deliberately coined by socio-political progressive movements, cynically by planned marketing, public relations or advertising initiatives, including:
- "meat packing company" for "slaughter-house" (avoids entirely the subject of killing); "natural issue" or "love child" for "bastard"; "let go" for "fired" or "dismissed" (implies a generosity on the part of the employer in allowing employee to depart); "intimate" for "sexual," "adult material" for "pornography"; "issue" for "problem"; "high-net worth" for "rich"; "plus-sized" for "overweight", "memorial marker" for "gravestone"; "staff-member" for "servant"; "colleague" for "employee" (apparent promotion from servant to partner); "operative" for "worker" (elevates status); "turf-accountant" or "book-maker" for "betting shop" (professionalises an unworthy activity); "marital aid" for "sex toy" (converts to an object fulfilling a worthy objective); "special needs" for disability; or "final expenses" for "funeral costs". Basic ancient and (overly) direct Anglo-Saxon words such as deaf, dumb, blind, lame, all have modern euphemisms.
Over time it becomes socially unacceptable to use the former word, as one is effectively down-grading the matter concerned to its former lower status, and the euphemism becomes dominant, due to a wish not to offend.
- Metaphors (beat the meat or choke the chicken or jerkin' the gherkin for masturbation, take a dump and take a leak for defecation and urination respectively)
- Comparisons (buns for buttocks, weed for cannabis)
- Metonymy (men's room for "men's toilet")
The use of a term with a softer connotation, though it shares the same meaning. For instance, screwed up is a euphemism for fucked up; hook-up and laid are euphemisms for sexual intercourse.
Expressions or words from a foreign language may be imported for use as euphemism. For example, the French word enceinte was sometimes used instead of the English word pregnant; abattoir for "slaughter-house", although in French the word retains its explicit violent meaning "a place for beating down", conveniently lost on non-French speakers. "Entrepreneur" for "business-man", adds glamour; "douche" (French: shower) for vaginal irrigation device; "bidet" (French: little pony) for "vessel for intimate ablutions". Ironically, although in English physical "handicaps" are almost always described with euphemism, in French the English word "handicap" is used as a euphemism for their problematic words "infirmité" or "invalidité".
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.
Bureaucracies frequently spawn euphemisms intentionally, as doublespeak expressions. For example, in the past, the US military used the term "sunshine units" for contamination by radioactive isotopes. Even today, the United States Central Intelligence Agency refers to systematic torture as "enhanced interrogation techniques". An effective death sentence in the Soviet Union during the Great Purge often used the clause "imprisonment without right to correspondence": the person sentenced would be shot soon after conviction. As early as 1939, Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich used the term Sonderbehandlung ("special treatment") to mean summary execution of persons viewed as "disciplinary problems" by the Nazis even before commencing the systematic extermination of the Jews. Heinrich Himmler, aware that the word had come to be known to mean murder, replaced that euphemism with one in which Jews would be "guided" (to their deaths) through the slave-labor and extermination camps after having been "evacuated" to their doom. Such was part of the formulation of Endlösung der Judenfrage (the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question"), which became known to the outside world during the Nuremberg Trials.
Frequently, over time, euphemisms themselves become taboo words, through the linguistic process of semantic change known as pejoration, which University of Oregon linguist Sharon Henderson Taylor dubbed the "euphemism cycle" in 1974, also frequently referred to as the "euphemism treadmill". For instance, toilet is an 18th-century euphemism, replacing the older euphemism house-of-office, which in turn replaced the even older euphemisms privy-house and bog-house. The act of human defecation is possibly the most needy candidate for the euphemism in all eras. In the 20th century, where the old euphemisms lavatory (a place where one washes) or toilet (a place where one dresses) had grown from long usage (e.g. in the United States) to synonymous with the crude act they sought to deflect, they were sometimes replaced with bathroom (a place where one bathes), washroom (a place where one washes), or restroom (a place where one rests) or even by the extreme form powder room (a place where one applies facial cosmetics). The form water closet, which in turn became euphemised to W.C., is a less deflective form.
Another example in American English is the replacement of colored people with Negro (euphemism by foreign language), then the "honest" non-euphemistic form "Black" making a brief appearance (due to 1960s political forces attempting to normalise black skin) before being suppressed again by the euphemistic "African American".
Venereal disease, which associated shameful bacterial infection with a seemingly worthy ailment emanating from Venus the goddess of love, soon lost its deflective force in the post-classical education era, as "VD", which was replaced by the three-letter initialism "STD" (sexually transmitted disease); later, "STD" was replaced by "STI" (sexually transmitted infection).
Mentally disabled people were originally defined with words such as "morons" or "imbeciles", which then became commonly-used insults. The medical diagnosis was changed to "mentally retarded", which morphed into a pejorative against those with mental disabilities. More specific diagnoses were created, like "autism", but—while less common--"autistic" is still sometimes used as an insult. To avoid the negative connotations of their diagnoses, students who need accommodations because of such conditions are often labeled as "special needs" instead, although "What are you, special?" has begun to crop up as a school-yard insult. As of August 2013, the Social Security Administration replaced the term "mental retardation" with "intellectual disability". Since 2012, that change in terminology has been adopted by the National Institutes of Health and the medical industry at large.
In popular culture
Doublespeak is a term sometimes used for deliberate euphemistic misuse of words to distort or reverse their meaning. For example, in the book Nineteen Eighty-Four the "Ministry of Peace" is the war department, and the "Ministry of Love" is a torture and state loyalty department. It is a portmanteau of the terms Newspeak and doublethink, which originate from George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
As far back as Vaudeville, a villain would say something similar to "Curses, foiled again", where the word "curses" takes the place of actual invective.
The word euphemism itself can be used as a euphemism. In the animated TV special Halloween Is 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?"
The song "Makin' Whoopee" from the 1928 musical Whoopee! introduced a new euphemism for sexual intercourse. The phrase "make whoopee" was often used on the popular game show The Newlywed Game starting in the late 1960s, whenever the host asked a question about sexual relations. This successfully avoided the network censors.
In Wes Anderson's film Fantastic Mr. Fox, the replacement of swear words by the word cuss became a humorous motif throughout the film.
In Tom Hanks's web series Electric City, the use of profanity has been censored by the word expletive. "[Expletive deleted]" entered public discourse after its notorious use in censoring transcripts of the Watergate tapes.
In Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, the curses of the scientist Ebling Mis have all been replaced with the word unprintable. In fact, there is only one case of his curses being referred to as such, leading some readers to mistakenly assume that the euphemism is Ebling's, rather than Asimov's. The same word has also been used in his short story "Flies".
In Battlestar Galactica (1978), use of the words "frak" and "frakking" was directly substituted for the English slang words "fuck" and "fucking", confounding the censors. Other science fiction series have similarly used word substitution to avoid censorship, such as "frell" instead of "fuck" in Farscape, "gorram" and "rutting" instead of "goddamn" and "fucking" in Firefly, and "frag" instead of "fuck" in Babylon 5. The Good Place takes this word substitution to its logical extreme, replacing all profanities with similar-sounding English words under the premise that such words may not be spoken in a perfect afterlife in order to avoid making anyone uncomfortable; "son of a bitch" becomes "son of a bench", "bullshit" becomes "bullshirt", and "fuck" becomes "fork".
- Call a spade a spade
- Code word (figure of speech)
- Dead Parrot sketch
- Distinction without a difference
- Dog-whistle politics
- Double entendre
- Expurgation (often called bowdlerization, after Thomas Bowdler)
- Emotive conjugation
- Framing (social sciences)
- Minced oath
- Persuasive definition
- Polite fiction
- Political correctness
- Political euphemism
- Sexual slang
- Spin (propaganda)
- Word play
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Uglier even than human-rights abuses and more obscure even than comfort station, affirmative action is a euphemism with little to be said for it.
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Chapter 4: Affirmative Action Diversity: A Euphemism for Preferences, Quotas, and Set-asides
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In modern times, various social and political movements have introduced euphemisms, from affirmative action to political correctness to international conflicts, which are linguistically and culturally driven.
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- Enhanced interrogation as euphemism
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[T]he report ... cuts through the ocean of euphemism, the EITs, enhanced interrogation techniques, and all that. It gets to straight language. Torture – it's obviously torture. ... the metaphor and the euphemism is designed to dull the moral sensibility.
"Transcript of interview with CIA director Panetta". NBC News. 2011-05-03. Retrieved 2011-08-21.
Enhanced interrogation has always been a kind of handy euphemism (for torture)
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The Honest Jakes or Privy has graduated via Offices to the final horror of Toilet.
- Frence toile, fabric, a form of curtain behind which washing, dressing and hair-dressing were performed (Larousse, Dictionnaire de la langue française, "Lexis", Paris, 1979, p. 1891)
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- The dictionary definition of euphemism at Wiktionary
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