A yellow sign with a pointed bottom. At the top is the number 5 in an oval with a blue background. Below it are the words "family planning", "feminine hygiene", "feminine protection" and "sanitary protection"
Sign in a Rite Aid drugstore using common American euphemisms for (from top) contraceptives, vaginal irrigation devices, tampons, and menstrual pads, respectively

A euphemism (/ˈjuːfəmɪzəm/) is an innocuous word or expression used in place of one that may be found offensive or suggest something unpleasant.[1] Some euphemisms are intended to amuse, while others use bland, inoffensive terms for concepts that the user wishes to downplay. Euphemisms may be used to mask profanity or refer to taboo topics such as disability, sex, excretion, or death in a polite way.[2]


Euphemism comes from the Greek word euphemia (εὐφημία) which refers to the use of 'words of good omen'; it is a compound of (εὖ), meaning 'good, well', and phḗmē (φήμη), meaning 'prophetic speech; rumour, talk'.[3] Eupheme is a reference to the female Greek spirit of words of praise and positivity, etc. The term euphemism itself was used as a euphemism by the ancient Greeks; with the meaning "to keep a holy silence" (speaking well by not speaking at all).[4]



Reasons for using euphemisms vary by context and intent. Commonly, euphemisms are used to avoid directly addressing subjects that might be deemed negative or embarrassing, e.g. death, sex, excretory bodily functions. They may be created for innocent, well-intentioned purposes or nefariously and cynically, intentionally to deceive and confuse.


Euphemisms are also used to mitigate, soften or downplay the gravity of large-scale injustices, war crimes, or other events that warrant a pattern of avoidance in official statements or documents. For instance, one reason for the comparative scarcity of written evidence documenting the exterminations at Auschwitz, relative to their sheer number, is "directives for the extermination process obscured in bureaucratic euphemisms".[5]

Euphemisms are sometimes used to lessen the opposition to a political move. For example, according to linguist Ghil'ad Zuckermann, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the neutral Hebrew lexical item פעימות peimót ("beatings (of the heart)"), rather than נסיגה nesigá ("withdrawal"), to refer to the stages in the Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank (see Wye River Memorandum), in order to lessen the opposition of right-wing Israelis to such a move.[6]:181 The lexical item פעימות peimót, which literally means "beatings (of the heart)" is thus a euphemism for "withdrawal".[6]:181


Euphemism may be used as a rhetorical strategy, in which case its goal is to change the valence of a description.[clarification needed]

Identification problematic

The act of labeling a term as a euphemism can in itself be controversial, as in the following two examples:

There is some disagreement over whether certain terms are or are not euphemisms. For example, sometimes the phrase visually impaired is labeled as a politically correct euphemism for blind. However, visual impairment can be a broader term, including, for example, people who have partial sight in one eye, those with uncorrectable mild to moderate poor vision, or even those who wear glasses, groups that would be excluded by the word blind or even partially blind.

The coining and usage of euphemisms reveals what the coiner or speaker/writer considers, perhaps only sub-consciously, to be shameful, and may thus be an indication of prejudices or opinions held.[citation needed]

Formation methods

Phonetic modification

Phonetic euphemism is used to replace profanities, diminishing their intensity. Modifications include:

  • Shortening or "clipping" the term, such as Jeez (Jesus) and what the— ("what the hell" or "what the fuck")
  • Mispronunciations, such as frak, frig (both the preceding for "fuck"), what the fudge, what the truck (both "what the fuck"), oh my gosh ("oh my God"), frickin ("fucking"), darn ("damn"), oh shoot ("oh shit"), be-yotch ("bitch"), etc. This is also referred to as a minced oath.
  • Using acronyms as replacements, such as SOB ("son of a bitch"), what the eff ("what the fuck"), S my D ("suck my dick"), POS ("piece of shit"), BS ("bullshit"). Sometimes, the word "word" or "bomb" is added after it, such as F-word ("fuck"), S-word ("shit"), B-word ("bitch"), N-word ("nigger"), etc. Also, the letter can be phonetically respelled. For example, the word piss was shortened to pee (pronounced as the letter P) in this way.


To alter the pronunciation or spelling of a taboo word (such as a swear word) to form a euphemism is known as taboo deformation, or a minced oath. In American English, words that are unacceptable on television, such as fuck, may be represented by deformations such as freak, even in children's cartoons.[9] Feck is a minced oath originating in Hiberno-English and popularised outside of Ireland by the British sitcom Father Ted. Some examples of Cockney rhyming slang may serve the same purpose: to call a person a berk sounds less offensive than to call a person a cunt, though berk is short for Berkeley Hunt,[10] which rhymes with cunt.[11]


Euphemisms formed from understatements include: asleep for dead and drinking for consuming alcohol. "Tired and emotional" is a notorious euphemism for "drunk", used by British parliamentarians of one another.


Pleasant, positive, worthy, neutral or non-descript terms are substituted for explicit or unpleasant ones, with many substituted terms deliberately coined by socio-political progressive movements, cynically by planned marketing, public relations or advertising initiatives, including:

  • "meat packing company" for "slaughter-house" (avoids entirely the subject of killing); "natural issue" for "bastard"; "let go" for "fired" or "dismissed" (implies a generosity on the part of the employer in allowing employee to depart); "intimate" for "sexual," "adult material" for "pornography"; "issue" for "problem"; "high-net worth" for "rich"; "plus-sized" for "overweight," "escort/sex-worker" for "prostitute" (down-plays/morally elevates the activity); "memorial marker" for "gravestone"; "staff-member" for "servant"; "colleague" for "employee" (apparent promotion from servant to partner); "operative" for "worker" (elevates status); "turf-accountant" or "book-maker" for "betting shop" (professionalises an unworthy activity); "marital aid" for "sex toy" (converts to an object fulfilling a worthy objective); or "final expenses" for "funeral costs". Basic ancient and (overly) direct Anglo-Saxon words such as deaf, dumb, blind, lame, all have modern euphemisms.

Over time it becomes socially unacceptable to use the former word, as one is effectively down-grading the matter concerned to its former lower status, and the euphemism becomes dominant, due to a wish not to offend.


  • Metaphors (beat the meat or choke the chicken or jerkin' the gherkin for masturbation, take a dump and take a leak for defecation and urination respectively)
  • Comparisons (buns for buttocks, weed for cannabis)
  • Metonymy (men's room for "men's toilet")


The use of a term with a softer connotation, though it shares the same meaning. For instance, screwed up is a euphemism for fucked up; hook-up and laid are euphemisms for sexual intercourse.

Foreign words

Expressions or words from a foreign language may be imported for use as a replacement for an offensive word. For example, the French word enceinte was sometimes used instead of the English word pregnant;[12] abattoir for "slaughter-house", although in French the word retains its explicit violent meaning "a place for beating down", conveniently lost on non-French speakers. "Entrepreneur" for "business-man", adds glamour; "douche" (French: shower) for vaginal irrigation device; "bidet" (French: little pony) for "vessel for intimate ablutions". Ironically, whilst in English physical "handicap" is almost always substituted for a modern euphemism, in French the English word "handicap" is used as a euphemism for their problematic words "infirmité" or "invalidité".


Periphrasis, or circumlocution, is one of the most common: to "speak around" a given word, implying it without saying it. Over time, circumlocutions become recognized as established euphemisms for particular words or ideas.


Bureaucracies frequently spawn euphemisms intentionally, as doublespeak expressions. For example, in the past, the US military used the term "sunshine units" for contamination by radioactive isotopes.[13] An effective death sentence in the Soviet Union during the Great Purge often used the clause "imprisonment without right to correspondence": the person sentenced would be shot soon after conviction.[14] As early as 1939, Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich used the term Sonderbehandlung ("special treatment") to mean summary execution of persons viewed as "disciplinary problems" by the Nazis even before commencing the systematic extermination of the Jews. Heinrich Himmler, aware that the word had come to be known to mean murder, replaced that euphemism with one in which Jews would be "guided" (to their deaths) through the slave-labor and extermination camps[15] after having been "evacuated" to their doom. Such was part of the formulation of Endlösung der Judenfrage (the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question"), which became known to the outside world during the Nuremberg Trials.[16]


Frequently, over time, euphemisms themselves become taboo words, through the linguistic process of semantic change known as pejoration, which University of Oregon linguist Sharon Henderson Taylor dubbed the "the euphemism cycle" in 1974.[17] For instance, toilet is an 18th-century euphemism, replacing the older euphemism house-of-office, which in turn replaced the even older euphemisms privy-house and bog-house.[18] The act of human defecation is possibly the most needy candidate for the euphemism in all eras. In the 20th century, where the old euphemisms lavatory (a place where one washes) or toilet (a place where one dresses[19]) had grown from long usage (e.g. in the United States) to synonymous with the crude act they sought to deflect, they were sometimes replaced with bathroom (a place where one bathes) washroom (a place where one washes) or restroom (a place where one rests) or even by the extreme form powder-room (a place where one applies facial cosmetics). The form water closet, which in turn became euphemised to W.C., is a less deflective form.

Another example in American English is the replacement of colored with Negro (euphemism by foreign language),[20] then the "honest" non-euphemistic form "Black" making a brief appearance (due to 1960s political forces attempting to normalise black skin) before being suppressed again by the present euphemistic "African American". Venereal disease, which associated shameful bacterial infection with a seemingly worthy ailment emanating from Venus the goddess of love, soon lost its deflective force in the post-classical education era, as "VD", which has now been replaced by the three-letter acronym "STD" (sexually transmitted disease) or "STI" (sexually transmitted infection).

The word shit appears to have originally been a euphemism for defecation in Pre-Germanic, as the Proto-Indo-European root *sḱeyd-, from which it was derived, meant 'to cut off'.[21]

In popular culture

Doublespeak is a term sometimes used for deliberate euphemistic misuse of words to distort or reverse their meaning, as in a "Ministry of Peace" which wages war, and a "Ministry of Love" which imprisons and tortures. It is a portmanteau of the terms Newspeak and doublethink, which originate from George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The word euphemism itself can be used as a euphemism. In the animated TV special Halloween Is Grinch Night (see Dr. Seuss), a child asks to go to the euphemism, where euphemism is being used as a euphemism for outhouse. This euphemistic use of euphemism also occurred in the play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where a character requests, "Martha, will you show her where we keep the, uh, euphemism?"

The song Makin' Whoopee from the 1928 musical Whoopee! introduced us to a new euphemism for sexual intercourse. The phrase "make whoopee" was often used on the popular game show The Newlywed Game starting in the late 1960s, whenever the host asked a question about sexual relations. This successfully avoided the network censors.

In Wes Anderson's film Fantastic Mr. Fox, the replacement of swear words by the word cuss became a humorous motif throughout the film.

In Tom Hanks's web series Electric City, the use of profanity has been censored by the word expletive. "[Expletive deleted]" entered public discourse after its notorious use in censoring transcripts of the Watergate tapes.

In Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, the curses of the scientist Ebling Mis have all been replaced with the word unprintable. In fact, there is only one case of his curses being referred to as such, leading some readers to mistakenly assume that the euphemism is Ebling's, rather than Asimov's. The same word has also been used in his short story "Flies".

George Carlin has stated in audio books and his stand-up shows that euphemisms soften everyday language and take the life out of it.[22]

In Battlestar Galactica (2004), use of the words "frak" and "frakking" was directly substituted for the English slang words "fuck" and "fucking", confounding the censors. Other science fiction series have similarly used word substitution to avoid censorship, such as "frell" instead of "fuck" in Farscape, "gorram" and "rutting" instead of "goddamn" and "fucking" in Firefly, and "frag" instead of "fuck" in Babylon 5.[23] The Good Place takes this word substitution to its logical extreme, replacing all profanities with similar-sounding English words under the premise that such words may not be spoken in a perfect afterlife in order to avoid making anyone uncomfortable; "son of a bitch" becomes "son of a bench", "bullshit" becomes "bullshirt", and "fuck" becomes "fork".[24]

In The Sims series, the word WooHoo is used as a euphemistic slang for various activities of sexual intercourse in the series.

See also


  1. ^ "Euphemism". Webster's Online Dictionary.
  2. ^ "euphemism (n.)". Etymonline.com. Retrieved 7 January 2014.
  3. ^ φήμη, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  4. ^ "Euphemism" Etymology". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 10 June 2015.
  5. ^ Timothy Ryback (November 15, 1993). "Evidence of Evil". Newyorker.com – The New Yorker. Retrieved December 1, 2015.
  6. ^ a b Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2003), Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-1403917232, 978-1403938695 [1]
  7. ^ affirmative action as euphemism
  8. ^ Enhanced interrogation as euphemism
  9. ^ "Obscene, Indecent and Profane Broadcasts". FCC.gov. U.S. Federal Communications Commission. Archived from the original on 2013-12-09. Retrieved 2014-01-20.
  10. ^ although properly pronounced in upper-class British-English "barkley"
  11. ^ http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/berk Collins Dictionary, definition of "berk"/"burk", retrieved 22 July 2014.
  12. ^ "Definition of ENCEINTE". www.merriam-webster.com. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. Retrieved 2017-05-20.
  13. ^ McCool, W.C. (1957-02-06). "Return of Rongelapese to their Home Island – Note by the Secretary" (PDF). United States Atomic Energy Commission. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-09-25. Retrieved 2007-11-07. Cite journal requires |journal=
  14. ^ Solzhenitsyn, Alexander (1974). The Gulag Archipelago I. New York: Harper Perennial. p. 6. ISBN 0-06-092103-X
  15. ^ "Holocaust-history.org". www.holocaust-history.org. Archived from the original on 28 May 2013. Retrieved 20 May 2017.
  16. ^ "Wannsee Conference and the "Final Solution"".
  17. ^ Henderson Taylor, Sharon (1974). "Terms for Low Intelligence". American Speech. 49 (3/4): 197–207. doi:10.2307/3087798. JSTOR 3087798.
  18. ^ Bell, Vicars Walker (1953). On Learning the English Tongue. Faber & Faber. p. 19. The Honest Jakes or Privy has graduated via Offices to the final horror of Toilet.
  19. ^ Frence toile, fabric, a form of curtain behind which washing, dressing and hair-dressing were performed (Larousse, Dictionnaire de la langue francise, "Lexis", Paris, 1979, p.1891)
  20. ^ Why We Have So Many Terms For 'People Of Color'
  21. ^ Ringe, Don (2006). From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-955229-0.
  22. ^ "George Carlin's stand up act: Euphemism". YouTube.
  23. ^ Moore, Trent (December 16, 2012). "Shazbot! Check out 14 frakkin' awesome sci-fi curse words". SYFY WIRE. Retrieved October 9, 2019.Moore, Trent (December 16, 2012). "Shazbot! Check out 14 frakkin' awesome sci-fi curse words". SYFY WIRE. Retrieved October 9, 2019.
  24. ^ Bricker, Tierney (September 19, 2016). "The Good Place's Kristen Bell and Ted Danson Reveal Their Forkin' Favorite Alternative Curse Words". E! Online. Retrieved October 9, 2019.

Further reading

  • A Keith; Burridge, Kate. Euphemism & Dysphemism: Language Used as Shield and Weapon, Oxford University Press, 1991. ISBN 0-7351-0288-0.
  • Benveniste, Émile, "Euphémismes anciens and modernes", in: Problèmes de linguistique générale, vol. 1, pp. 308–314. [originally published in: Die Sprache, I (1949), pp. 116–122].
  • "Euphemism" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 9 (11th ed.). 1911.
  • Enright, D. J. (1986). Fair of Speech. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-283060-0.
  • Fussell, Paul: Class: A Guide Through The American Status System, Touchstone – Simon & Schuster Inc., 1983. ISBN 0-671-44991-5, 0-671-79225-3.
  • R.W.Holder: How Not to Say What You Mean: A Dictionary of Euphemisms, Oxford University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-19-860762-8.
  • Keyes, Ralph (2010). Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms. Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 978-0-316-05656-4.
  • Maledicta: The International Journal of Verbal Aggression (ISSN US).
  • McGlone, M. S., Beck, G., & Pfiester, R. A. (2006). "Contamination and camouflage in euphemisms". Communication Monographs, 73, 261–282.
  • Rawson, Hugh (1995). A Dictionary of Euphemism & Other Doublespeak (second ed.). ISBN 0-517-70201-0.
  • Smyth, Herbert Weir (1920). Greek Grammar. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. 678. ISBN 0-674-36250-0.

External links

  • The dictionary definition of euphemism at Wiktionary

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