EUPHEMISM: (noun) agreeable or inoffensive word to replace a rude or offensive one . an indirect term substituted for a more direct or unpleasant one . a mild alternative word
If you are like me, you find pleasure in knowing about words and enjoying their unusual qualities. Euphemisms fall into a special class of interesting words. A euphemism is “a mild or indirect expression substituted for one that is considered too harsh or stark when referring to something considered blunt or embarrassing.” Are euphemisms passe in this anything-goes age of ours? They may not be, but since times change—actually, it is attitudes that change—we might expect to see less effort on the part of English speakers to adjust their language by using euphemisms to make it more socially acceptable. But for the time being, we have plenty to choose from.
Some euphemisms have become so embedded into the English language that we don’t even realize that they are euphemisms. Several examples come to mind. Someone may have had a “career change” when, in reality, he or she was let go from the job. Or a company may refer to a “reduction in force” when people are being fired or positions are cut for cost-saving reasons. We use terms such as “economically disadvantaged neighborhoods,” instead of poor and “pre-owned vehicles” for used ones. In war, civilian casualties are often referred to as “collateral damage.” Have you ever received a “courtesy call” from someone running for political office or from a salesperson after you bought a car from a particular dealership? That call was not a courtesy: it was more like an annoyance. Then, some people may not be too eager to tell their creditor (or their friends) that they are broke, so they choose the face-saving explanation of being “financially challenged” or “financially embarrassed.” Our politicians do not lie; they “misspeak.” One may say euphemisms tend to sugar-coat our true intentions.
Linguist Albert Marckwardt calls euphemisms “verbal prudery,” but he says they may also be called “verbal glorification.” Some things we are a little shy about saying; others we want to make sound classier than they really are. For instance, “casket” instead of “coffin” seems a little more elegant. Here is where the prudery comes in: If you eat the “white” or the “dark” meat on the chicken, that substitution was made in order to avoid saying “breast,” which was considered vulgar in polite company in 19th century America. “Drumstick” also came into use as a substitute for “leg,” which was perceived to be crude language in the company of ladies. “Unmentionables” that women wore and could not be talked about then are now displayed in vivid color on television and in all sizes on racks closest to the aisle at Walmart. The glorification of the commonplace can be seen in the real estate industry’s use of “town homes” instead of “town houses” for a more pleasing appeal to buyers.
A number of words related to bodily functions acquired euphemistic substitutes to remedy the indelicacies, and so we have “rest stop,” rest room,” “powder room,” and an older version, “comfort station.” Early in U.S. history, brothels became known as “sporting houses,” “assignation houses,” and “houses of ill repute.” When my students and I read a Civil War novel set in Washington, D.C., we were amused that the ubiquitous prostitutes were called “Daughters of Eve.”
Euphemisms are not the same as political correctness (PC). PC, which came about in the 1970’s, is language that is extremely careful not to offend or upset any social group that has a disadvantage or that has been treated differently based on race, sex, disability, ethnicity, or nationality. PC has become negative, and is even used as an insult. It is against gender bias. For example, “man” and “men” have been expunged from certain well-known hymns, and “chairman” is forbidden when the person chairing a meeting is a woman. In such a case, some individuals use “chairwoman”; others use “chair,” which is actually illogical and linguistically inaccurate.
Dictionary-maker Noah Webster devoted some of his expertise to expurgating the Holy Bible, changing some of the more explicit wording that he thought objectionable. As he explained, he found “many words and phrases very offensive to delicacy and even to decency.” He had a problem with language “which cannot be uttered in company without a violation of decorum or the rules of good breeding.” So Webster made substitutions when he published a translation of the Bible. I think some individuals today would like to see euphemisms replace the word “sin” in the Scriptures to satisfy their comfort level because their lifestyle doesn’t conform to Bible standards. But they should know that a reasonable God provides grace, mercy, and love that can make scarlet sin become “as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18).
“Perhaps we have been guilty of some terminological inexactitudes.”
Nice post! I pray that our society eases up and remembers how powerful words really are.
I’m glad you liked today’s post, Chris. I hope your prayer is answered. There is far too much negativism in people’s language today. Thanks for your comment JN
Thank you for this wonderful post. I echo Chris’s sentiment.
Thank you for the positive feedback. As Chris said, words are powerful; they make a big impact on social interactions, so we need to use them wisely. I hope you’ll continue to read my posts. JN
Ouida E. Westney
I enjoyed reading this post. I must confess that I like the usage of euphemisms. Thank you for including some Biblical examples.
Although we live in an age when people don’t mind saying whatever they please–and television, not to mention the movies–doesn’t spare the language, we still need to show a little respect for one another’s sensitivities. Euphemisms sometimes help in this regard. Thanks, as always, for your kind comment. JN