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.

Euphemisms are also used to 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

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


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 first letters 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" 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.

Figures of speech

  • Ambiguous statements (it for excrement, the situation or a girl in trouble for pregnancy, passing away or passed or go for death, do it or come together in reference to a sexual act, tired and emotional for drunkenness)
  • Understatements (asleep for dead, drinking for consuming alcohol, hurt for injured, etc.)
  • 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")


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


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.

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 or a blind person. 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.

Words from a foreign language

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.[9] This practice of word substitution became so frequent that the expression "pardon my French" was adopted in attempts to excuse the use of profanity.


Euphemisms may be formed in a number of ways. 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.

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.[10] Feck is a minced oath originating in Hiberno-English and popularised outside of Ireland by the British sitcom Father Ted. Some examples of 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, which rhymes with cunt.[11]

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.[12] 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.[13] As early as 1939, Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich used the term Sonderbehandlung ("special treatment") to mean summary execution (most likely by hanging) 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[14] 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 infamous to the entire world during the Nuremberg Trials.[15]

A euphemism may itself devolve into a taboo word, through the linguistic process known as semantic change (specifically pejoration) described by W. V. O. Quine,[16] and more recently dubbed the "euphemism treadmill" by Harvard professor Steven Pinker.[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] In the 20th century, where the words lavatory or toilet were deemed inappropriate (e.g. in the United States), they were sometimes replaced with bathroom or water closet, which in turn became restroom, W.C., or washroom. Another example in American English is the replacement of colored with Negro and then Black and then African American.[19]

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".[20]

Euphemisms are at risk of being misunderstood and used literally by young children who are acquiring language, and by older people who are learning a foreign language. An example is the "pregnant fireman" type of children's solecism, where a child might hear someone define pregnancy euphemistically as "carrying a child," then mistakenly extend that meaning and refer to a fireman literally carrying a child as pregnant.

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?"

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.[21]

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.[22] 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".[23]

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.)". 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 - The New Yorker". Retrieved December 1, 2015.
  6. Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2003), Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9781403917232 / ISBN 9781403938695
  7. affirmative action as euphemism
  8. Enhanced interrogation as euphemism
  9. "Definition of ENCEINTE". Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. Retrieved 2017-05-20.
  10. "Obscene, Indecent and Profane Broadcasts". U.S. Federal Communications Commission. Archived from the original on 2013-12-09. Retrieved 2014-01-20.
  11. Collins Dictionary, definition of "berk"/"burk", retrieved 22 July 2014.
  12. 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= (help)
  13. Solzhenitsyn, Alexander (1974). The Gulag Archipelago I. New York, NY: Harper Perennial. p. 6. ISBN 0-06-092103-X
  14. "". Archived from the original on 28 May 2013. Retrieved 20 May 2017.
  15. "Wannsee Conference and the "Final Solution"".
  16. Quine, W.V. (1987). Quiddities. Belknap Press. pp. 53–54.
  17. "The game of the name" (PDF). The New York Times. 1994-04-03. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-05-15. Retrieved 2011-01-19.
  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. Why We Have So Many Terms For 'People Of Color'
  20. Ringe, Don (2006). From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-955229-0.
  21. "George Carlin's stand up act: Euphemism". YouTube.
  22. 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.
  23. 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; ISBN 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.
  • The dictionary definition of euphemism at Wiktionary
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