Definition of Euphemism
Euphemism is a figure of speech commonly used to replace a word or phrase that is related to a concept which might make others uncomfortable. Euphemism refers to figurative language designed to replace phrasing that would otherwise be considered harsh, impolite, or unpleasant. This literary device allows for someone to say what they mean indirectly, without using literal language, as a way of softening the impact of what is being said. The reason for this would be for the sake of politeness, discretion, and other means of mitigating communication. Euphemisms are used for certain abstractions such as death, sex, aging, getting fired, bodily functions, and others.
For example, in Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove, the character Kuzco has decided to fire his advisor Yzma. Kuzco begins by stating directly that she is fired, without using euphemism. However, when Yzma questions his statement, he replies with a string of euphemisms for someone losing their job:
Um, how else can I say it? You’re being let go. Your department’s being downsized. You’re part of an outplacement program. We’re going in a different direction. We’re not picking up your option. Take your pick. I got more.
This is a humorous and ironic twist on the use of euphemism in that the character uses so many to reinforce what he has already said directly.
Common Examples of Euphemism
There are many common examples of euphemism used in everyday conversation and writing. Here are some well-known uses of this figure of speech:
- porcelain throne (toilet)
- friends with benefits (friends having sex)
- pre-owned (something used)
- bun in the oven (pregnancy)
- number one (urination)
- number two (defecation)
- roll in the hay (have sex)
- see a man about a horse (go to the bathroom)
- senior (old)
- gentlemen’s club (strip club)
- economically challenged (poor)
- put to sleep (euthanize)
- between jobs (unemployed)
- upchuck (vomit)
- big-boned (overweight)
- blowing smoke (lying)
- split (divorce)
- enhanced interrogation (torture)
- well-off (rich)
- belch (burp)
- adult entertainment (pornography)
- correctional facility (prison)
- go around the bend (to go insane)
- thin on top (bald)
- had one too many (drunk)
Examples of Euphemism for Death
One of the most common abstractions to be replaced by euphemism is death. Using euphemism to express death and dying may be a way to avoid confronting mortality or to gain some emotional distance from a sad circumstance. Here are some examples of euphemism used to express death or dying:
- Passed away
- Bought The Farm
- Kicked the bucket
- Pushing up daisies
- Resting in peace
- Met untimely demise
- Meet the maker
- Going to a better place
- Six feet under
- Sleeping with the fishes
- Eternal slumber
- Over the rainbow bridge (for pets and animals)
Famous Examples of Euphemism
- “Perhaps we have been guilty of some terminological inexactitudes.” (Winston Churchill, not telling the exact truth)
- “The question is…are you still master of your domain?” (Seinfeld episode about masturbation)
- “I brought juice boxes!” (Will and Grace episode, boxes of wine)
- “Oh, fudge. Only I didn’t say fudge.” (A Christmas Story, profane word)
- “The love shack is a little old place where we can get together.” (Love Shack, B52s, rendezvous place)
- “Gimme some sugar.” (Evil Dead, kiss)
- “Oh no, she’s all there. Too much there is the problem.” (Driving Miss Daisy, an older woman’s mental fitness)
- “I slipped my moorings.” (David Petraeus, extramarital affair)
- “Another bride, another June / Another sunny honeymoon / Another season, another reason / For makin’ whoopee” (Makin’ Whoopee, Ella Fitzgerald, having sex)
- “At least I’m housebroken.” (The Big Lebowski, uses bathroom properly)
Difference Between Euphemism and Political Correctness
Some people may have trouble distinguishing euphemism from political correctness. However, there are distinct differences between the two. For example, whereas people used to use the phrase “disabled person,” it is now considered politically correct to say “person with disabilities.” This change in phrasing is not meant to be euphemistic or an indirect way of expressing something unpleasant or undesirable. Instead, politically correct phrasing is meant to express something in a more direct and respectful way.
Political correctness differs from euphemism in that it is not a figure of speech and does not utilize figurative language. In fact, political correctness is considered avoidance, almost to an extreme, of expressions or actions that people perceive as exclusive, marginal, or insulting to others who face discrimination or disadvantage of some kind. Therefore, the purpose of politically correct phrasing is not to replace words with others that are less offensive or inflammatory. Instead, the goal of political correctness is to avoid such indirect expression altogether.
Euphemism is a useful literary device for writers. This figure of speech allows a writer to address potentially sensitive, offensive, or unpleasant subjects in a more delicate or less damaging manner than literal words or phrasings would be. In addition, euphemisms can add to the poetic nature of writing as a means of describing something in a more figurative manner. They can also elevate a writer’s prose.
It’s important for writers to understand that overuse of euphemism can be confusing and lose their meanings for readers. In addition, depending on the tone of a written work, euphemisms can actually be more crass, unpleasant, or offensive than direct and literal wording. Therefore, euphemism should be carefully and appropriately selected by writers in order to be effective.
Here are some benefits for incorporating euphemism into writing:
Communicate Meaning for Painful Subjects
Writers often tackle subjects that can be painful, such as death or heartbreak. Euphemism is an excellent literary device for writers, and poets in particular, to communicate meaning when it comes to these painful subjects. Figurative language through euphemism can allow readers to feel less confronted as they might by harsh, literal wording. As a result, meaning is enhanced through figure of speech.
Incorporate Humor for Reader
Euphemism is often inherently humorous. In attempting to replace wording or phrasing that is impolite or offensive, euphemisms can range from being unclear to nonsensical. They have no meaning as stand alone phrases without the context of the literal abstraction. However, euphemisms can be a way for writers to incorporate the ridiculous in their writing as humor for the reader.
Examples of Euphemism in Literature
Euphemism is an effective literary device. Here are some examples of euphemism and how it adds to the significance of well-known literary works:
Example 1: The Wife of Bath’s Prologue from The Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer)
In wyfhod I wol use myn instrument (In wifehood I will use my instrument)
As frely as my Makere hath it sent. (As freely as my Maker has it sent.)
In this section of The Canterbury Tales, the Wife of Bath uses a euphemism to refer to her sexuality as a woman. The Wife says she will use her “instrument” in wifehood, which is figurative language for her lust, physical attributes and nature, and sexual power. Chaucer’s utilization of this euphemism makes the situation less shocking due to the fact that women were meant to be pure and chaste–especially in wifehood.
Ironically, even though Chaucer uses euphemism as a literary device to avoid the Wife directly describing her “instrument” of sexual power, he invokes a sense of the divine associated with this socially impolite and scandalous assertion of female sexuality. In the second line, the Wife indicates that her “Maker,” meaning Creator, has sent this “instrument” freely. This line underscores the seemingly useless purpose of euphemism in describing something natural. In addition, it underscores the idea that a creator would not freely give someone, including a woman, an attribute that isn’t intended for use.
Example 2: The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)
‘What’d you do?’ I said. ‘Give her the time in Ed Banky’s goddam car?’
In this quote from Salinger’s novel, the main character Holden Caulfield is questioning one of his fellow students, Stradlater, about his date with a girl named Jane. Holden essentially grew up with Jane, and he knows that Stradlater is something of a sexual predator when it comes to girls. However, Holden can’t bring himself to directly ask Stradlater what happened on their date, and especially whether Stradlater and Jane had sex.
Therefore, Holden uses the euphemism “give her the time” to indirectly indicate what he wants to know. In addition, this euphemism is helpful as a literary device for the reader who wants to know the same information as Holden. By utilizing a euphemism rather than asking outright about the sexual encounter, both Holden and the reader can hope that Stradlater will provide an answer.
Example 3: Afterwards (Thomas Hardy)
If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, “He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.”
In his poem, Hardy uses two euphemisms to reference death. The poet refers to his own death by stating “If I pass” and then refers to how others might reference his death with the phrase “‘now he is gone.'” These euphemisms add to the poetic value of this stanza. For example, utilizing the word “pass” as a figure of speech rather than the literal term “die,” underscores the feeling in the poem of the passage of time in addition to the passage of poet.
The use of “gone” as a euphemistic figure of speech reinforces the permanence of death as lack of physical presence. However, this figurative language also suggests that though the poet is physically “gone,” he is still remembered by others. As a result, the poet lives on in the memory of others in the poem and is immortalized by the poem itself.