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Euphemism: The Good Speech

Introduction

Maja sits down on the couch and turns on the TV. A crime show is on. The protagonist says, “The statement that our source of information gave us is inoperative. However, the documents he provided remain sensitive. I need my Administrative Assistant to file them before we begin our pre-emptive strike.” Maja is unsure of exactly what the main character is saying.

Explanation

Maja’s confusion likely stems from the fact that the main character used several euphemisms. If he hadn’t, he might have said, “The information that our spy gave us is false. However, the documents he provided remain secret. I need my secretary to file them before we begin our sneak attack.” 

The original euphemistic phrase allows the speaker to avoid acknowledging facts that might make his leadership sound unethical, such as his use of a spy and his plan to attack the enemy without any warning. He also calls his secretary an “Administrative Assistant,” which makes this role sound extremely important, adding to his official-sounding order. 

Definition of Euphemism

A euphemism is a figure of speech that substitutes a harsh or offensive word or phrase for a more pleasant one.

How It Works

The word euphemism entered the English language in the 16th century from the Greek word euphemismos. The term derived from the root eu-, meaning “good,” and the ending -pheme, meaning “speech.” When euphemisms replace normal speech with this “good speech,” it is often to avoid taboos, which prohibit the discussion of certain topics at a given socio-cultural moment. 

A euphemism used to avoid taboo language is referred to as a negative euphemism because it diminishes the force of the unpleasant topic. Some of the most common negative euphemisms avoid discussing death, suffering, and bodily functions. The terms harvesting, population control, and civilian casualties, for example, are all negative euphemisms for death. A positive euphemism, on the other hand, inflates the term up for substitution and makes it sound more important. Calling a broken-down house a “handy man’s special” or a nurse a “healthcare professional” are both examples of positive euphemism.

Why Care?

Positive euphemisms can be so outrageous as to be comedic, but they can also heighten the grandeur of a job or product. This can be misleading in some instances, such as when a realtor is calling a home a “handy man's special” because it is held together by a handful of rusted nails but positive euphemisms aren't all about trickery. For example, you might prefer to call a trash collector a “sanitation worker.” Both terms describe the same job, yet "sanitation worker" commands more respect than “trash collector.” Positive euphemisms can thus help us examine our personal biases. Calling someone a sanitation worker emphasizes the vital function they serve in keeping our community clean and healthy. It also eliminates the stereotypical connotations of the term “trash collector,” namely that it is a job for the uneducated and lazy.

Negative euphemism can also serve a positive function: they help facilitate conversations on uncomfortable topics. For example, there are a lot of euphemisms for death because it can be a hard subject to talk about. It may be easier to tell a friend that your family member has passed on and been laid to rest than to say that they have died and been buried. This way, you can inform your friend without having to cause yourself the unnecessary mental stress that those harsh words create. 

Negative euphemisms hold even more power for larger-scale situations where they’re often used to minimize the significance of taboo words and concepts. In order to be effective social leaders, citizens need to be aware of the realities that are hiding behind euphemisms. For example, some statistics use the term “low food security” and “very low food security” instead of “hunger” and “starvation.” Although the euphemistic term may be preferable in a scientific context because it is a measurable amount, it could also contribute to a misunderstanding about what exactly these people are experiencing based on their level of “food security.” The words “hunger” and “starvation,” on the other hand, are more likely to gain the empathy and action of readers who associate those words with the pain that a lack of food causes. 

The effects of euphemisms can range from benign and enlightening to misleading and secretive, so it’s critical to identify them and uncover their meaning. Euphemisms can draw attention to the pleasant aspects of something, or they can shield the truth and its impact. Thus, in your own speech and writing, be conscientious about the fact that there is a time and place for euphemisms.

Think Further

  1. When is a speaker likely to use a euphemism? When are they unlikely to use them?
  2. What are some euphemisms you’ve heard recently?
  3. Why might euphemisms be difficult to detect?

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Learn More

  1. “Euphemism.” Oxford English Dictionary, 1989, www.oed.com/view/Entry/65021?redirectedFrom=euphemism.
  2. “Euphemism.” Women and Language, vol. 30, no. 1, 2007, p. 54. Gale Academic OneFile,https://link-gale-com.exlibris.colgate.edu/apps/doc/A167507781/AONE?u=nysl_ce_colgul&sid=AONE&xid=5d95bc61.
  3. “Euphemism—Dictionary Definition.” Vocabulary.com, www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/euphemism.
  4. Mahmood, Zaynab. “A Linguistic Study of Euphemism in English.” 2017. University of AL Qadisiyah. http://qu.edu.iq/repository/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/engs-14.pdf.
  5. Pan, Qi. “A Tentative Study on the Functions and Applications of English Euphemism.” Theory and Practice in Language Studies. Vol. 3, No. 11, 2013, pp. 2107-2111.