Media Studies

  • noun a word or phrase used in place of a term that might be considered too direct, harsh, unpleasant or offensive

Origin & History of “euphemism”

Etymologically, euphemism means ‘speaking with good words’. Greek euphēmismós, a compound formed ultimately from the prefix eu- ‘good, well’ and phḗmē ‘speech, saying’ (a relative of English fable, fame, and fate), originally denoted the avoidance of words of ill omen at religious ceremonies, but it was subsequently taken up by grammarians to signify the substitution of a less for a more offensive word. Its opposite, dysphemism ‘use of a more offensive word’, is a modern coinage, formed in the late 19th century using the Greek prefix dus- ‘bad, difficult’.

Idiom of “euphemism”

A euphemism is a circumlocution: a word or phrase which we sometimes use to refer to a topic which is surrounded by taboos, such as death, God, sex and madness, as well as things of which we are ashamed. In these contexts, some words are regarded as too explicit or offensive or unpleasant, and we feel the need to use something milder or vaguer. The substitute expressions tend to be highly idiomatic, but some are listed in the dictionary. Here is a smattering.

Jesus!: Gee whiz!, Jeez!, Jeepers Creepers!

By God!: By gosh!, By gum!, By golly!, By jove!, By George!

Lord!: Losh!

Prostitute: erring sister, fallen woman, scarlet woman, woman of easy virtue, nymph of darkness, masseuse, sing-song girl, lady of trade, lady of the night, street walker, demi-mondaine, fille de joie, sex care provider.

Lavatory: WC, toilet, washroom, rest room, powder room, personal hygiene station, comfort station, the facilities, the plumbing, the whatsit, men’s/ladies’ room, little boys’/girls’ room, the smallest room in the house, the thunderbox, loo, john, crapper.

Old: senior, elderly, mature, distinguished, seasoned, getting on, of a certain age, not as young as one was, not in the first flush, chronologically gifted, experientially enhanced, grey panther.

Dead/death: at rest, at peace, asleep (in Jesus/the Lord), in happy release, gone across, passed over, not lost but gone before, terminally inconvenienced, depart this life, push up the daisies, kick the bucket, bite the dust, settle one’s account, resign one’s spirit, with Jesus, in Abraham’s bosom, in a better place, go to one’s reward, summoned, sent for, gone to glory, no longer with us, deceased, written out of the script, fallen off one’s perch.

Some euphemisms have been created by politicians and others to deliberately confuse/disguise contentious issues:extraordinary rendition and collateral damage are two of the more recent and memorable (see entries).

A sub-category of euphemism is the minced oath, also sometimes called an expletive-deletive or a pseudo-profanity. A person who uses these is a bit like a horse refusing to jump a fence: they have arrived at the offending word but cannot bring themselves to utter it. There are many such terms dating back to Elizabethan and Jacobean English and beyond: Sblood (by God’s blood), Zounds (by God’s words), Gadzooks (by God’s hooks – the nails on the Cross), Egad (O God), Odds bodkins (by God’s little body) are old examples.