Definition of Euphemism
The term euphemism refers to polite, indirect expressions which replace words and phrases considered harsh and impolite or which suggest something unpleasant.
Euphemism is an idiomatic expression which loses its literal meanings and refers to something else in order to hide its unpleasantness. For example, “kick the bucket” is a euphemism that describes the death of a person. In addition, many organizations use the term “downsizing” for the distressing act of “firing” its employees.
Euphemism depends largely on the social context of the speakers and writers where they feel the need to replace certain words which may prove embarrassing for particular listeners or readers in a particular situation.
Techniques for Creating Euphemism
Euphemism masks a rude or impolite expression but conveys the concept clearly and politely. Several techniques are employed to create euphemism. It may be in the form of abbreviations e.g. B.O. (body odor), W.C. (toilet) etc. Foreign words may be used to replace an impolite expression e.g. faux (fake), or faux pas (foolish error) etc. Sometimes, they are abstractions e.g. before I go (before I die). They may also be indirect expressions replacing direct ones which may sound offensive e.g. rear-end, unmentionables etc. Using longer words or phrases can also mask unpleasant words e.g. flatulence for farting, perspiration for sweat, mentally challenged for stupid etc. Using technical terms may reduce the rudeness exhibited by words e.g. gluteus maximus. Deliberately mispronouncing an offensive word may reduce its severity e.g. darn, shoot etc.
Examples of Euphemism in Everyday Life
Euphemism is frequently used in everyday life. Let us look at some common euphemism examples:
- You are becoming a little thin on top (bald).
- Our teacher is in the family way (pregnant).
- He is always tired and emotional (drunk).
- We do not hire mentally challenged (stupid) people.
- He is a special child (disabled or retarded).
Examples of Euphemism in Literature
Examples of euphemism referring to sex are found in William Shakespeare’s “Othello” and “Antony and Cleopatra”. In “Othello”, Act 1 Scene 1, Iago tells Brabantio:
“I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.”
Here, the expression “making the beast with two backs” refers to the act of having sex.
Similarly, we notice Shakespeare using euphemism for sexual intercourse in his play “Antony and Cleopatra”. In Act 2 Scene 2, Agrippa says about Cleopatra:
She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed.
He plowed her, and she cropped.”
The word “plowed” refers to the act of sexual intercourse and the word “cropped” is a euphemism for becoming pregnant.
John Donne in his poem “The Flea” employs euphemism. He says:
“Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou denies me is;
It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead;
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pamper’d swells with one blood made of two;
And this, alas! is more than we would do.”
In order to persuade his beloved to sleep with him, the speaker in the poem tells her how a flea bit both of them and their blood got mixed in it. This is a euphemism.
“The Squealer”, a character in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, uses euphemisms to help “the pigs” achieve their political ends. To announce the reduction of food to the animals of the farm, Orwell quotes him saying:
“For the time being,” he explains, “it had been found necessary to make a readjustment of rations.”
Substituting the word “reduction” with “readjustment” was an attempt to suppress the complaints of other animals about hunger. It works because reduction means “cutting” food supply while readjustment implies changing the current amount of food.
Function of Euphemism
Euphemism helps writers to convey those ideas which have become a social taboo and are too embarrassing to mention directly. Writers skillfully choose appropriate words to refer to and discuss a subject indirectly which otherwise are not published due to strict social censorship e.g. religious fanaticism, political theories, sexuality, death etc. Thus, euphemism is a useful tool that allows writers to write figuratively about the libelous issues.