What is a Euphemism?

A euphemism is an indirect way of stating something that, in its original form, would be harsh, vulgar, or socially unacceptable. Generally, the euphemism has a more positive connotation than the original, to the point where the euphemism may even seem dishonest. To be “downsized,” for instance, sounds better than to be “fired” even though the result is the same.

Ordinary social discourse provides many opportunities for euphemism. A woman may not be described as “fat”; instead, she is “curvy” or “voluptuous.” We don’t ask to use the toilet but instead to use “the restroom.” We teach children euphemistic terms for their private parts — indeed, “private parts” is itself a euphemism.

How Do You Identify Euphemism in Writing?

In literary texts, writers use euphemism to add metaphoric value to what they are describing. For instance, in Othello, Iago describes sex between Othello and Desdemona as “making the beast with two backs.” This euphemism, which has a negative connotation, helps the audience to understand Iago’s contempt for Othello.

Finding euphemisms in older works of literature can be challenging because standards of socially accepted discourse change over the years. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s time, sex was not a forbidden topic, and his euphemisms are simply playful ways of describing graphic acts. During the Victorian Era, however, sexuality was kept tightly under wraps. “She visited him in his chamber” may — or may not — be a euphemism for the sexual act.

Examples of Euphemism

Euphemism Example 1. “The big sleep” and “going to meet one’s Maker” are two different euphemisms for death.

Euphemism Example 2. “To pray before the porcelain god” is a euphemism for the act of vomiting.

Euphemism Example 3. “H, E, double-toothpicks” was once a popular euphemism for the cuss word “hell.”

Euphemism Example 4. In Animal Farm, the pigs describe cutting back on food to the other animals as “a readjustment of rations.”

Euphemism Example 5. Starbucks’ small coffee is euphemistically called a “grande.”

Euphemism Example 6. “Collateral damage” is a euphemism for civilians killed during a military action.

Euphemism Example 7. “Letting the air in” is a euphemism for having an abortion in Ernest Hemingway’s story, “Hills Like White Elephants.”

(View all literary devices)