Euphemism is an indirect expression used alternatively for some harsh words, realities, or facts, which if used directly, would cause a problem or controversy. Most people use euphemisms to avoid being rude. Euphemism is usually observed in literary works. Some of the best examples of euphemism from literature are as follows.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
At the end of the marching, the Hitler Youth divisions were allowed to disperse. It would have been near impossible to keep them all together as the bonfire burned in their eyes and excited them. Together, they cried one united “heil Hitler” and were free to wander.
Liesel looked for Rudy, but once the crowd of children scattered, she was caught inside a mess of uniforms and high-pitched words. Kids calling out to other kids.
This extract from The Book Thief, a novel by Markus Zusak, is the best example of a euphemism. The author has glossed over several facts with indirect expressions. The burning of bonfire and excitement of eyes in the Hitler Youth has glossed over their cruelty and bloodthirstiness. The author has tried to minimize the impact of the Holocaust through such euphemistic expressions.
From Tess of d’Urberville by Thomas Hardy
Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong women the man, many thousand years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order.
These lines are from the novel written by Thomas Hardy, Tess of d’Urberville. Alec rapes the girl when she is a little hazy in her mind and is almost going to sleep. This commentary by Hardy over this rape is a classic use of euphemism as the third-person narrator comments on philosophy and brings far-fetched philosophical ideas about good and bad things that happen to people. Gossamer, snow, coarse pattern, and a sense of order actually convey different meanings.
‘Laugh as much as you choose, but you will not laugh me out of my opinion. My dearest Lizzy, do but consider in what a disgraceful light it places Mr. Darcy, to be treating his father’s favourite in such a manner, one whom his father had promised to provide for. It is impossible. No man of common humanity, no man who had any value for his character, could be capable of it. Can his most intimate friends be so excessively deceived in him? Oh! no.
Jane Austen has used the word “laugh” alternatively for sneering and scoffing at Elizabeth. Darcy is becoming pliable for Elizabeth and is trying to clear misunderstanding. These are very good euphemisms that Jane Austen has used to make language a bit more comfortable for Elizabeth as she might have felt angry had Darcy been direct.
I got my legs loose finally and turned around and touched him. It was Passini and when I touched him he screamed. His legs were toward me and I saw in the dark and the light that they were both smashed above the knee. One leg was gone and the other was held by tendons and part of the trouser and the stump twitched and jerked as though it were not connected. He bit his arm and moaned, “Oh mama mia, mama Mia,” then, “Dio te salve, Maria. Dio te salve, Maria. Oh Jesus shoot me Christ shoot me mama mia mama Mia oh purest lovely Mary shoot me. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it.
Although Hemingway has used very little euphemism as he is more direct and blunt, some of the words given here about the bloody event show that he is a master of using euphemisms. For example, smashed, gone, twitched, and jerked have been used for the legs cut down and the other one hanging. Yet, he has used mild words to show this harsh reality of war.
At that moment, we were so anxious to hear something encouraging, a few words telling us that there was nothing to worry about, that the meeting had been routine, just a review of welfare and health problems … But one glance at my father’s face left no doubt. “The news is terrible,” he said at last. And then one word: “Transports.” The ghetto was to be liquidated entirely. Departures were to take place street by street, starting the next day.
In this example as well as in the novel, readers can see that Wiesel is quite blunt. Here he uses somewhat indirect words like “worry”, “welfare” and “health” as the usual trials. Though it shows that the Jews are being taken to the concentration camps they are still just worried about the usual life problem. Also, liquidated is still a mild word where exterminated should have been used. This is another best use of euphemism.
Oedipus The King by Sophocles
O ruler of my country, Oedipus,
you see our company around the altar;
you see our ages; some of us, like these,
who cannot yet fly far, and some of us
heavy with age; these children are the chosen
among the young, and I the priest of Zeus.
Within the market place sit others crowned
with suppliant garlands, at the double shrine
of Pallas and the temple where Ismenus
gives oracles by fire. King, you yourself
have seen our city reeling like a wreck
already; it can scarcely lift its prow
out of the depths, out of the bloody surf.
These words of Priest spoken to Oedipus shows the good use of euphemism. Instead of saying the elders, he says “our ages” and instead of saying the slow walk he says “cannot yet fly far.” Some others are “heavy with age” and “reeling.” They have lessened the gravity of the situation but conveyed the real meanings.
Despair thy charm,
And let the angel whom thou still hast served
Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother’s womb
Instead of using the word surgery or operation or Caesarian, Macduff states that he was not born from a mother’s womb as a regular delivery because his birth was premature. Also, the first part of the dialogue “despair your charm” has also decreased the intensity of the harshness that would have crept into the words had they been said directly.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
He thats coming
Must be provided for; and you shall put
This nights great business into my dispatch,
Which shall to all our nights and days to come
Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom.
These words spoken by Lady Macbeth at the arrival of King Duncan show her deftness in using euphemism. “Provided for” and “my dispatch” also demonstrate her ruthlessness lessened through indirect references using light words. These are great euphemisms Shakespeare has discovered for killing and assassination.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
From Fife, great king;
Where the Norweyan banners flout the sky
And fan our people cold. Norway himself,
With terrible numbers,
Assisted by that most disloyal traitor
The thane of Cawdor, began a dismal conflict.
Here’s a third example from Macbeth. Although the words of Ross such as “fan our people”, “terrible in numbers” and “dismal conflict” show the lessened harshness of the tone, they convey indirect meanings about the conflict. Shakespeare’s handling of such a tense situation in a lighter mood shows his dexterity in using words as euphemistic expressions.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
“Hold your tongue!” Poole said to her, with a ferocity of accent that testified to his own jangled nerves; and indeed, when the girl had so suddenly raised the note of her lamentation, they had all started and turned toward the inner door with faces of dreadful expectation. “And now,” continued the butler, addressing the knife-boy, “reach me a candle, and we’ll get this through hands at once.” And then he begged Mr. Utterson to follow him, and led the way to the back-garden.
The words such as “raised the note of her lamentation” and “faces of dreadful expectation” show that the situation is graver than depicted through these words readers can sense the danger. It also shows Stevenson using euphemistic expressions to demonstrate to the readers the actual condition of Mr. Hyde.