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Euphemism: Social Linguistic And Psychological Aspects

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 4139 words Published: 1st May 2017

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According the New Oxford Dictionary of English (Oxford University Press 2001) euphemism is a mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing.

In the Wikipedia encyclopedia (February 2007), a euphemism is an expression intended by the speaker to be less offensive, disturbing, or troubling to the listener than the word phrase it replaces, or in the case of doublespeak to make it less troublesome for the speaker.

When a phrase is used as a euphemism, it often becomes a metaphor whose literal meaning is dropped. Euphemism may be used to hide unpleasant or disturbing ideas, even when the literal term is not necessarily offensive. This type of euphemism is used in public relations and politics, where it is sometimes disparagingly called doublespeak. Sometimes, utilizing euphemisms is equated to politeness. There are superstitious euphemisms, based (consciously or subconsciously) on the idea that words have the power to bring bad fortune (for example, not saying the word “cancer”) and religious euphemisms, based on the idea that some words are sacred, or that some words are spiritually impelling.

In Euphemism and Dysphemism: language used as a shield and weapon (1991), Allan and Burridge claimed that euphemism is characterized by avoidance language and evasive expression, speaker uses words as a protective shield against the anger or disapproval of natural or supernatural beings. It is an expression that seeks to avoid being offensive.

But because our background relies on linguistics euphemism is not merely a response to taboo: it also functions where the speaker avoids using a distasteful expression and/ or an infelicitous style of addressing or naming.


The word euphemism comes from the Greek word euphemos, meaning “auspicious/good/fortunate speech/kind” which in turn is derived from the Greek root-words eu (ευ), “good /well” + pheme (φήμη) “speech/speaking”. The eupheme was originally a word or phrase used in place of a religious word or phrase that should not be spoken aloud; etymologically, the eupheme is the opposite of the blaspheme (evil-speaking). The primary example of taboo words requiring the use of an euphemism are the unspeakable names for a deity, such as Persephone, Hecate, Hemesis or Yahweh. By speaking only words favorable to the gods or spirits, the speaker attempted to procure good fortune by remaining in good favor with them.

Historical linguistics has revealed traces of taboo deformations in many languages. Several are known to have occurred in Indo-European languages, including the original Proto-Indo-European words for bear (*rtkos), wolf (*wlkwos), and deer (originally, hart).

In different Indo-European languages, each of these words has a difficult etymology because of taboo deformations – a euphemism was substituted for the original, which no means “honey eater”. One example in English is “donkey” replacing the old Indo-European-derived word “ass”.

In some languages of the Pacific, using the name of a deceased chief is a taboo. Amongst Australian Aboriginal people, it was forbidden to even use the name or the image of the deceased, so that today the Australian Broadcasting Commission publishes an apology to indigenous people for using names or images of people who have recently died. Since people are often named after everyday things, this leads to the swift development of euphemisms. These languages have a very high rate of vocabulary change. (Dyen, Isidore, A.T. James & J.W.L. Cole. 1967. Language divergence and estimated word retention rate)

The “Euphemism Treadmill”

Euphemisms often evolve over time into taboo words themselves, through a process dubbed ‘the euphemism treadmill’ by Steven Pinker. (cf. Gresham’s Law in economics, founded by Sir Thomas Gresham in 1566). This is the well-known linguistic process known as pejoration.

Words originally intended as euphemisms may lose their euphemistic value, acquiring the negative connotation of their referents. In some cases, they may be used mockingly and become dysphemistic. For example, the term “concentration camps”, to describe camps used to house civilian prisoners, was used by the British during the Second Boer War, primarily because it sounded bland and inoffensive. However, after the Third Reich used the expression to describe its death camps, the term gained negative connotation. Since then, new terms have been invented for them, such as internment camps, resettlement camps, etc.

Also, in some versions of English, toilet room, itself a euphemism, was replaced with bathroom and water closet, which were replaced respectively with restroom and W.C.

Connotations easily change over time. Idiot, imbecile, and moron were once neutral terms for a person of toddler, preschool, and primary school mental ages, respectively. As with Gresham’s law (1566), negative connotations tend to crowd out neutral ones, so the word mentally retarded was pressed into service to replace them. As a result, new terms like mentally challenged or special have replaced retarded. A similar progression occurred with

Lame → crippled → handicapped → disabled → differently-abled.

Although in that case the meaning has also broadened (and hence has been narrowed with adjectives, which themselves have been euphemised); a dyslexic or colorblind person would not be termed crippled. In the early 1960s, Bill Veek, who was missing part of a leg, argued against the then-favored euphemism “handicapped”, saying he preferred “rippled” because it was merely descriptive and did not carry connotations of limiting one’s capability the way “handicapped” (and all of its subsequent euphemisms) seemed to do.

It can apply to naming of racial or ethnic groups as well, when proposed euphemisms become successively “corrupted”.

George Carlin (Propaganda Critic: Word games › Euphemisms, September 2002) gave a famous monologue of how he thought euphemisms can undermine appropriate attitudes towards serious issues such as the evolving terms describing the medical problem of the cumulative mental trauma of soldiers in high stress situations:

Shell shock (World War I) → battle fatigue (World War II) → Operational exhaustion (Korean War) → (Vietnam War).

He contended that, as the name of the condition became more complicated and seemingly arcane, sufferers of this condition have been taken less seriously as people with a serious illness, and were given poorer treatment as a result. In the same routine, he echoed Bill Veek’s opinion that “crippled” was a perfectly valid term (and noted that early English translations of the Bible seemed to have no qualms about saying that Jesus “healed the cripples”).

3- Classification of euphemisms. (Wikipedia Encyclopedia, February2007)

Many euphemisms fall into one or more of these categories:

â-ª Terms of foreign and/or technical origin (derrière, copulation, perspire, urinate, security breach, mierda de toro, prophylactic, feces occur )

â-ª Abbreviations (SOB for “son of a bitch”, BS for “bullshit”, TS for “tough shit”, SOL for “shit out of luck”, BFD for “big fucking deal”)

â-ª Abbreviations using a “phonetic” alphabet (Charlie Foxtort for “Cluster fuck”, Whisky Tango Foxtort Oscar for “What the fuck, over?”, Bravo Sierra for “bullshit”)

â-ª Plays on abbreviations (barbecue sauce for “bull shit”, sugar honey ice tea for “shit”, Maryland farmer for “motherfucker”, catch (or see) you next Tuesday for “cunt”)

â-ª Use in most clinical settings (PITA PT for “pain in the ass patient”)

â-ª Indirections (behind, unmentionables, privates, live together, go to the bathroom, sleep together)

â-ª Mispronunciation (goldarnit, dadgummit, freaking)

â-ªLitotes (not exactly thin for “fat”, not completely truthful for “lied”, not unlike cheating for “cheating”)

â-ª Changing nouns to modifiers (makes her look slutty for “is a slut”, right-wing element for “right-wing”, of jewish persuasion for “jew”). 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. However, visual impairment can be a broader term, including, for example, people who have partial sight in one eye, a group that would be excluded by the word blind. There are three antonyms of euphemism: dysphemism, cacophemism, and power word. The first can be either offensive or merely humorously deprecating with the second one generally used more often in the sense of something deliberately offensive. The last is used mainly in arguments to make a point seem more correct.

4-The evolution of euphemisms.

Euphemisms may be formed in a number of ways. (Wikipedia Encyclopedia, February 2007) 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. There are an astonishing number of taboo deformations in English, of which many refer to the infamous four-letter words. In American English, words which are unacceptable on television, such as fuck, may be represented by deformations such as freak – even in children’s cartoons. Some examples of Cockney rhyming slang may serve the same purpose-to call a person a berk sounds less offensive than to call him a cunt, though berk is short for Berkeley Hunt which rhymes with cunt. Bureaucracies such as the military and large corporations frequently spawn euphemisms of a more deliberate (and to some, more sinister) nature. Organizations coin doublespeak expressions to describe objectionable actions in terms that seem neutral or inoffensive. For example, a term used in the past for contamination by radioactive isotopes is Sunshine Units.

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Military organizations frequently do kill people, sometimes deliberately and sometimes by mistake; in doublespeak, the first may be called neutralizing the target and the second collateral damage. Violent destruction of non-state enemies may be referred to as pacification. Two common terms when a soldier is accidentally killed (buys the farm) by their own side are friendly fire or blue on blue (BOBbing) (“Buy the farm” has its own interesting history).

Execution is an established euphemism referring to the act of putting a person to death, with or without judicial process. It originally referred to the execution, i.e. the carrying out, 3f a death warrant, which is an authorization to a sheriff, prison warden, or other official to put a named person to death. In legal usage, execution can still refer to the carrying out of other types of orders; for example, in U.S. legal usage, a writ of execution is a direction to enforce a civil money judgment by seizing property. Likewise, lethal injection itself may 3e considered a euphemism for putting the convict to death by poisoning.

Industrial unpleasantness such as pollution may be toned down to outgassing or runoff- descriptions of physical processes rather than their damaging consequences. Some of this may simply be the application of precise technical terminology in the place of popular usage, but beyond precision, the advantage of technical terminology may be its lack of emotional undertones, the disadvantage being the lack of real-life context.

5-Euphemisms for the profane. (Wikipedia Encyclopedia, February 2007)

Profane words and expressions in the English language are generally taken from three areas: religion, excretion, and sex. While profanities themselves have been around for centuries, their limited use in public and by the media has only slowly become socially acceptable, and there are still many expressions which cannot be used in polite conversation. The common marker of acceptability would appear to be use on prime-time television or in the presence of children. The word damn (and most other religious profanity in the English language) has lost its shock value, and as a consequence, euphemisms for it (e.g. dang, darn-it) have taken on a very stodgy feeling. Excretory profanity such as piss and shit may be acceptable in adult conversation (provided that they are used in a literal sense rather than a figurative sense), while euphemisms like Number One and Number Two are preferred for use with children. Most sexual terms and expressions, even technical ones, either remain unacceptable for general use or have undergone radical rehabilitation (penis and vagina, for instance).

a- Religious euphemisms

Euphemisms for God and Jesus are used by Christians to avoid taking the name of God in a vain oath, which would violate one of the Ten Commandments. When praying, Jews will typically use the word “Adonai” (‘my master’). However, when in a colloquial setting, this is deemed inappropriate, and so typically one replaces the word “Adonai” with the word “HaShem,” which literally means, “The Name.” It is notable that “Adonai” is itself a word that refers to the Jewish God’s name, but is not the name itself. Traditionally, Jews have seen the name of God as ineffable and thus one that must not be spoken. Even in English, some religious Jews will write “God” as “G-d,” in imitation of most Hebrew writing which does not include vowels. Because of this, the “name” of God in ancient Hebrew writings is transliterated as JHVH, YHVH, or YHWH, the four letters collectively known as the tetragrammaton. The vowels of God’s spoken name are therefore unknown, though such pronunciations as Yahweh and Jehovah are common guesses. Euphemisms for hell, damnation, and the devil, on the other hand, are often used to avoid invoking the power of the adversary.

b- Excretory euphemisms

While urinate and defecate are not euphemisms, they are used almost exclusively in a clinical sense. The basic Anglo-Saxon words for these functions, piss and shit, are considered vulgarities, despite the use of piss in the King James Bible (in Isaiah 36:12 and elsewhere). The word manure, referring to animal feces used as fertilizer for plants, literally means “worked with the hands,” alluding to the mixing of manure with earth. Several zoos market the byproduct of elephants and other large herbivores as Zoo Doo or Zoopoop, and there is a brand of chicken manure available in garden stores under the name Cock-a-Doodle Doo. Similarly, the string of letters BS, or the word bull, often replaces the word bullshit in polite society.

There are any numbers of lengthier periphrases for excretion used to excuse oneself from company, such as to powder one’s nose or to see a man about a horse (or dog). Slang expressions which are neither particularly euphemistic nor dysphemistic, such as take a leak, form a separate category.

c- Sexual euphemisms

The Latin term pudendum and the Greek term αιδοίον (aidoion) for the genitals literally mean “shameful thing”. Groin and crotch refer to a larger region of the body, but are euphemistic when used to refer to the genitals. Euphemisms are more common in reference to sexual practices or orientations, particularly non-heterosexual ones, as shown in this quote from the UK version of Queer as Folk, which includes both euphemisms and dysphemisms regarding male homosexuality:

Because I’m queer, I’m gay, I’m homosexual, I’m a poof, I’m a poofter, I’m a ponce, I’m a bum boy, batty boy, backside artist, bugger, I’m bent, I am that arse bandit, I lift those shirts, I’m a faggot-arsed, fudgepackin’, shitstabbin’ uphill gardener. I dine at the downstairs restaurant, I dance at the other end of the ballroom, I’m Moses and the parting of the red cheeks. I fuck and am fucked, I suck and am sucked, I rim them and wank them, and every single man has had the fucking time of his life, and I’m not a pervert. Virtually all other sexual terms are still considered profane and unacceptable for use even in a euphemistic sense.

d- Euphemisms referring to profanity itself

In the French and Spanish language, words that mean “swear word” are used as exclamations in lieu of an actual swear word. The Spanish word maldición, literally meaning “curse word”, is occasionally used as an interjection of lament or anger, to replace any of several Spanish profanities that would otherwise be used in that same context. In French (especially Canadian French), the word sacre, meaning “religious profanity”, is sometimes used as a substitute for an actual religious profanity (most commonly sacrament).

6-Euphemisms for death. (Wikipedia Encyclopedia, February 2007; Dead and Buried: Death Euphemisms, March 2007)

The English language contains numerous euphemisms related to dying, death, burial, and the people and places which deal with death. The practice of using euphemisms for death is likely to have originated with the “magical belief that to speak the word “death” was to invite death; where to “draw Death’s attention” is the ultimate bad fortune-a common theory holds that death is a taboo subject in most English-speaking cultures for precisely this reason. It may be said that one is not dying, but fading quickly because the end is near. People who have died are referred to as having passed away or passed or departed. Deceased is a euphemism for “dead”, and sometimes the deceased is said to have gone to a better place, but this is used primarily among the religious with a concept of Heaven. There are many euphemisms for the dead body, some polite and some profane, as well as dysphemisms such as worm food, or dead meat. The corpse was once referred to as the shroud (or house or tenement) of clay, and modern funerary workers use terms such as the loved one (title of a novel about Hollywood undertakers by Evelyn Waugh) or the dearly departed. (They themselves have given up the euphemism funeral director for grief therapist, and hold arrangement conferences with relatives.) Among themselves, mortuary technicians often refer to the corpse as the client. A recently dead person may be referred to as “the late John Doe.” The terms cemetery for “graveyard” and undertaking for “burial” are so well-established that most people do not even recognize them as euphemisms. Contemporary euphemisms and dysphemisms for death tend to be quite colorful, and someone who has died is said to have passed away, passed on, checked out, bit the big one, kicked the bucket, bitten the dust, bought the farm, cashed in their chips, croaked, given up the ghost (originally a more respectful term, cf. the death of Jesus as translated in the King James Version of the Bible Mark 15:37), gone south, shuffled off this mortal coil (from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet), or assumed room temperature. When buried, they may be said to be pushing up daisies or sleeping the big sleep or taking a dirt nap or six feet under. There are hundreds of such expressions in use. (Old Burma-Shave jingle: “If daisies are your favorite flower, keep pushin’ up those miles per hour!”).

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“Euthanasia” also attracts euphemisms. One may put one out of one’s misery, put one to sleep, or have one put down, the latter two phrases being used primarily with non-humans. There are a few euphemisms for killing which are neither respectful nor playful, but rather clinical and detached. Some examples of this type are terminate, wet work, to take care of one or to take them for a ride, to do them in, to off, frag, smoke, whack or waste someone. To cut loose (from U.S. Sgt. Massey’s account of activities during the American occupation of Iraq) or open up on someone, means “to shoot at with every available weapon.” To terminate with [extreme] prejudice originally meant to end one’s employment without possibility of rehire (as opposed to lay off, where the person can expect rehire if business picks up), but now the term usually means kill. Often (though not always) an adjective is added for emphasis. In the movie Apocalypse Now, Captain Willard is told to terminate Colonel Kurtz’s commission “with extreme prejudice.” The Dead Parrot Sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus contains an extensive list of euphemisms for death, referring to the deceased parrot that the character played by John Cleese purchases (the sketch has led to another euphemism for death: “pining for the fjords”, although in the sketch it was used by the shop owner to mean the parrot was not dead, but was merely quiet and contemplative). A similar passage occurs near the beginning of The Twelve Chairs, where Bezenchuk, the undertaker, astonishes Vorobyaninov with his classification of people by the euphemisms used to speak of their deaths. Also a scene in the film Patch Adams features Patch (Robin Williams) dressed in an angel costume, reading out various synonyms and euphemisms for the phrase “to die” to a man dying of cancer. This evolves into a contest between the two men to see who can come up with more, and better, euphemisms, ending when Patch comes up with “and if we bury you ass up, we’ll have a place to park my bike.”

7- Euphemism in politics (Doublespeak)

What, distinguishes doublespeak from other euphemisms is its deliberate usage by governmental, military, or corporate institutions. Doublespeak is in turn distinguished from jargon in that doublespeak attempts to confuse and conceal the truth, while jargon often provides greater precision to those that understand it (while potentially confusing those who do not). An example of the distinction is the use by the military of the word casualties instead of deaths-what may appear to be an attempt to hide the fact that people have been killed is actually a precise way of saying “personnel who have been rendered incapable of fighting whether by being killed, being badly wounded, being captured in battle, being psychologically damaged, being incapacitated by disease, being rendered ineffective by having essential equipment destroyed, or having been disabled in any other way.” “Casualties” is used instead of “deaths,” not for propagandists or reasons of squeamishness, but because most casualties are not dead, yet nevertheless useless for waging war.

This type of euphemism may be found often in policy debate, such as the use of “affordable” to mean “subsidized” or the use of “homeland” for “United States”. (Lutz, 1987. Doublespeak: From “Revenue Enhancement” to “Terminal Living”. How government, business, advertisers, and others use language to deceive you. New York).

Common examples






building engineer




physically challenged


Mentally challenged


special, exceptional







Died, dead

passed away, passed

Old person

senior citizen, senior







Illegal drugs

illegal substances


substance abuse




the homeless



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