Friday 23 June 2017

Euphemisms - friends or foes?

I shared a similar post on my own blog a long time ago, and thought I'd share it here too. Euphemisms are such a common feature of speech or writing that we often no longer even recognise them as such. Are they handy tools to use in our writing, or should they be as mercilessly weeded out as their cousins, the cliches? Do they enhance our passages or obscure them? Do they soften the bluntness of what we intend to say, or simply create confusion and unnecessary nonsense? These are some of the questions we must ask ourselves.

A euphemism is a roundabout way of expressing something to soften the impact, because the most direct way may be considered too blunt or offensive. At first I assumed many euphemisms might have disappeared with the Victorian era. Those were the days when ladies' sensibilities were fashionably delicate, and even table and piano legs were covered for modesty. However, euphemisms are still flourishing, even in the twenty-first century. So much so that we might not even realise when we are using them. Here are some examples.

Euphemisms that are intended to soften the blow.
a) John is a bit long in the tooth to play football with the boys. (He's old.)
b) Peter is a bit light on top for that sort of hairdo. (He's bald.)
c) The soldiers were killed by friendly fire. (One of the most ironic and sad euphemisms of all, for bureaucratic botch-ups.)

Euphemisms that give rise to others
Bob is visually challenged. (In other words, he's blind, but short people may take it on board and jokingly refer to themselves as 'vertically challenged'.)

Euphemisms that are no longer recognised as such.
Eddie slept with Sue. (Okay, we all know what this really means.)
Mary is carrying a few extra kilos. (You mean she's overweight.)
I'm afraid I had to let David go. (He was fired. The connotation of this euphemism makes it sound as if the employer is doing David a favour.) 

Euphemisms that may be as hurtful or worse than the most direct expression.
Roger is just a couch potato. (The imagery is so ruthless, the word 'lazy' may be less insulting.)
The twins' grandma has lost her marbles. (Would the word 'dementia' be any unkinder?)

Those euphemisms are closely connected to my favourite.

Euphemisms that have become so over-used, they now have euphemisms of their own.

The word 'toilet' is a prime example. In the olden days, polite people didn't want to say where they were headed, so they resorted to this euphemism. A 'toile' was an old-fashioned French word for a piece of cloth which ladies placed around their necks while they were getting ready for social eventsAs a kid, I didn't know this. Whenever I came across a sentence, such as, 'Josephine set off to do her toilet,' I'd think, 'Too much information. Why do we need to know that?' Then one day, it dawned on me that she was actually sitting at her dressing table with her wash cloth and make-up.

So it became a euphemism for the you-know-where (another euphemism), all tied in with cleanliness and grooming. But now what's happened? After decades of being over-used, the word has lost its edge. It's come to stand for what it really is. People now think of several different ways of saying it.

'Can you point me to the bathroom?' (Being an Aussie kid, I used to think, 'Yuck, who'd want to wash themselves in there?)  We hear it called the rest room, the John, the lavatory/lavvy, the loo, the dungeon, the dunny and the little boys'/girls' room.

The future of euphemisms 

I can't help thinking that if cliches are menaces, euphemisms may be more so because they are more sneaky. They masquerade as something sensitive and good, yet carry the same tired old baggage as cliches. I can't help wondering whether people from foreign cultures who are trying to learn English get crazily mixed-up, trying to figure out whether or not our expressions are literal. (Is now the time to complain about his cold feet? He only needs to wear warm socks beneath his shoes when he walks up the aisle to marry her.)

However, euphemisms have ancient origins, and having been around for so long, are no doubt here to stay. Even Jesus used euphemisms. He told his disciples, 'Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go to wake him up.' Being a bit obtuse when it came to picking up on subtleties, they said, 'Lord, if he sleeps, he will get well.' Just to make it crystal clear, in case we're slow like the disciples, the Bible tells us, 'Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought He was speaking about taking rest in sleep.' Next, Jesus told them plainly, 'Lazarus is dead.' It's not difficult to imagine Him rolling His eyes. (This incident takes place in John 11: 11-15.) 

It all begs the question, if many euphemisms tend to be silly and pointless, is saying the real thing preferable? What do you think? Are euphemisms our friends or our foes?

Paula Vince is a South Australian author of contemporary, inspirational fiction. She lives in the beautiful Adelaide Hills, with its four distinct seasons, and loves to use her environment as settings for her stories. Her novel, 'Picking up the Pieces' won the religious fiction section of the International Book Awards in 2011, and 'Best Forgotten' was winner of the CALEB prize the same year. She is also one of the four authors of 'The Greenfield Legacy', Australia's first and only collaborated Christian novel. Her most recent novel, 'Imogen's Chance' was published April 2014. For more of Paula's reflections, you may like to visit her book review blog, The Vince Review.


  1. Great question, Paula �� One KJV euphemism is 'relieved himself'. As a child, it was only when I read in the Living Bible that Saul went to the back of the cave to go to the bathroom (another euphemism) that I realised what it meant. I guess another Biblical one is 'He knew his wife' though in this case I can't helipad thinking that so much more happens in 'making love' that a bald statement of the physical act misses so much of what it was meant to be.

    Some euphemisms could classify as cliches (a bit long in the tooth), some seem harmless or, perhaps polite, while others are surely toxic - ethnic cleansing or racial hygiene - though for these reasons I think they are useful for a writer in showing character and subtext

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    1. Hi Jenny, yes, there are definitely some hybrid types, which could be classified as both euphemisms and cliches :) Isn't it a funny thing that their initial intention may be to come across more polite, yet a great many euphemisms succeed in doing just the opposite. Your example reminds me of a story in which a young man reflects that he knows a young lady he admires 'in the Biblical sense'.

  2. Interesting post Paula. There's probably also some overlap with euphemisms and political correctness. I'm all in favour of not offending anyone, so if a certain group wants to be known by a certain name, I'm happy to use that. The problem is often that members can't agree because one term will offend Person A, but a different term will offend Person B.

    It can also lead to unintentional laughs. My hubby burst out laughing at the breakfast table once while reading a novel. The passage that caused the guffaws was something like this: 'Bob was feeling good that morning, and not just because he'd experienced God's magnificent gift of marital love the night before'. Does anyone really talk like that? LOL

    1. Hi Nola, if we can always keep on top of the acceptable euphemisms and the less acceptable ones, we'll be doing well :) As you say, the fact that people themselves have different opinions on which ones are acceptable makes it a very challenging job, if not impossible. That sounds like an interesting novel :)

  3. Interesting concept!

    I take your point about euphemisms being misunderstood. As a toddler, my son had obviously heard his father say he'd lost his marbles. One day, in a toyshop, he handed me some marbles and asked me if we should buy them for Daddy, to replace the ones he'd lost.

    As for Nola's example of Bob ... too much information, thank you.

    The point of writing is to be understood. If we're writing such vague euphemisms that we're not being understood, then we've kind of missed the point. But euphemisms can also show character and subtext, so I guess it's getting the balance right - as it is with so many things!

    1. Hi Iola, I love the thought of your generous son wanting to replace his father's lost marbles :) I agree that I'd hate to see them weeded out of literature completely. The English language owes some of its colour and character to things such as euphemisms. As you say, it's a matter of balance.

    2. LOL Iola - You won't be surprised to learn that the euphemistic book was not a winner.

  4. Thanks for the thought provoking post, Paula. It made me think of an old friend who refers to going to the toilet as 'visiting Aunt Mary' which always amuses me but is also a part of her unique personality and something I find endearing. I think these euphemisms can be used in literature to bring out a particular character in stories so can be used to advantage but would spoil the effect if over used.

    1. Carol never seen the visiting Ant Mary. But I know of a few saying they were seeing a man about a dog. I said this to a friend and she actually said what does it exactly mean as Dad (FIL) use to say it all the time and I explained it to her that it meant going to the bathroom. She was a city girl.

      Paula here we would say going to the bathroom because back growing up most older houses the toilet is in the bathroom. In America it still is part of the bathroom in most houses.


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