Posted by: Jodi | May 11, 2011

The Subtle (and not so subtle) Art of the Euphemism

It’s been a while since we’ve journeyed to Grammarland, that mythical place where language usage rules and parts of speech mingle.  Today we shall tackle the euphemism, that funny phrase either used or invented that refers to something entirely different, usually something not discussed in polite society.  The concept is fairly simple, in fact, if you can spell the word euphemism you are ahead of most of society, including me – my brain really wants the word to have an “N.”

No comment.

Euphemism is formally defined by -Ologies & -Isms as: “the deliberate or polite use of a pleasant or neutral word or expression to avoid the emotional implications of a plain term, as passed over for died.”  (for more definitions, go here.)

We use euphemisms everyday without even thinking about it.  Most commonly used ones revolve around bathroom usage.  Unless you’re five you do not announce, “I have to go pee.”  How many of these do you use?

  • Relieve yourself
  • Powder your nose
  • Talk to a man about a horse
  • Be excused
  • Do your business
  • Answer the call of nature
  • Visit the ladies room

I’m sure there are more, but you get the idea.  The problem with creating euphemisms in fiction is that they must be understood by both characters and reader.  This is especially challenging when working in a created world.  For it to work and not be misunderstood, the reader must understand a bit about the culture and personality of whoever is talking.  For the most part the character will be trying to avoid saying something that might offend or hurt another character.  When used correctly it can add subtle humor and that sought for “between the lines” understanding between character and reader.

I was going to ask for the favorite sayings and phrases of my readers, but when it comes to this topic, perhaps I shouldn’t…

Want more?  Check out EuphemismList.com

Not happy yet? There is a Euphemism Generator as well.  Be warned.

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Responses

  1. I can’t help remembering the movie “Patch Adams,” when the main character (Robin Williams) dressed up as an angel and recited a lengthy list of euphemisms for dying.

    Death. To die. To expire. To pass on. To perish.
    To peg out. To push up daisies. To push up posies.
    To become extinct.
    Curtains, deceased, demised, departed and defunct.
    Dead as a doornail. Dead as a herring.
    Dead as a mutton. Dead as nits.
    The last breath. Paying a debt to nature. The big sleep.
    God’s way of saying, “Slow down.”
    To check out.
    To shuffle off this mortal coil.
    To head for the happy hunting ground.
    To blink for an exceptionally long period of time.
    To find oneself without breath.
    – To be the incredible decaying man. – Worm buffet.
    – Kick the bucket. – Buy the farm.
    – Take the cab. – Cash in your chips.

    • One of my favorite scenes, and delivered perfectly by one of comedy’s greats. Thanks for sharing Randall!

  2. Good post, Jodi. Thought provoking. I wonder what the choice of euphemism says about the particular “time in history” of a story, or if it matters. Something to think about.

    • I’m sure when it comes to being historically correct it would be important to research popular euphemisms of the day. Yet another reason I shy away from historical fiction, too many details to research!


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