Why and When To Use a Euphemism

Have you ever been drinking an adult beverage in a colorful bar while discussing a coworker who was recently let go? If you understood that sentence, then you’ve probably used a euphemism or two.

Euphemisms are a figure of speech that have different denotations and connotations. When you read the above sentence, you understood that I asked if you’ve ever drunk alcohol at a dive bar while talking about a fired coworker. But there was something nicer about the first version, right?

That’s the power of euphemisms. They’re a crucial tool that allows us to say what we mean without really saying it — like a secret code everyone’s in on. So, how can you use euphemisms to their fullest potential? Let’s take a look at these terminologically inexact phrases. 

What Is a Euphemism?

Euphemisms are substitutes. If you can’t or won’t speak directly, you need an acceptable replacement word that’s less emotionally charged. Enter euphemisms. 

What Is the Euphemism Definition?

To paraphrase the dictionary, a euphemism is a milder expression that replaces a harsh, embarrassing or unpleasant word or phrase. You don’t have to know the textbook definition of euphemisms to use them, but it’s helpful to have a clear explanation when you’re studying this rhetorical device. 

Why Use a Euphemism?

Let’s get it out in the open: A euphemism is inherently manipulative language. When you use one, you’re trying to create a particular response in your audience while tiptoeing around the truth.

That sounds horrible, right? Well, it isn’t always.

When you think about it, all language is manipulative. We use words to tell people what we want them to know, which can be for good reasons or bad. Euphemisms are the same way — they’re rhetorical devices, just like simileshyperbole and anaphora. A hammer can build a house or tear it down, and so too can a euphemism enhance communication or disrupt it. The deciding factor is how you choose to wield the device. 

To Present an Idea in a Certain Way

Euphemisms are frequently used to create a particular “spin.” For example, if you’re trying to convince someone that a situation isn’t so bad, you may use euphemisms:

  • “My cousin isn’t firing on all cylinders” instead of “My cousin is dumb”
  • “He’s lost his marbles” instead of “He’s having a mental breakdown”
  • “I’m in-between jobs” instead of “I’m unemployed”

To Disguise Purpose

Politicians are well-known for using euphemisms to disguise their purpose. When a policy provokes outcry, public figures use euphemism to hide the truth:

  • “Enhanced interrogation techniques” instead of “torture”
  • “Air operations” instead of “military attacks via drones”
  • “Extreme vetting” instead of “discrimination against certain refugee groups

To Make a Subject More Comfortable

Euphemisms can soften deeply emotional topics, which is why they’re commonly used in sensitive discussions. For example, when people are grieving, you may use euphemisms to speak about their loved ones’ deaths. This thoughtful approach considers their feelings, which a more direct tactic may hurt.

  • “Aunt Mable passed yesterday” instead of “Aunt Mable died yesterday.”

What Are Common Euphemism Examples?

The English language contains thousands of euphemisms. Here are a couple you’ve probably heard:

  • Birds and the bees: the mechanics of human reproduction
  • Correctional facility: prison
  • Big-boned: overweight
  • Sniffles: runny nose
  • Break wind: flatulence
  • Economically disadvantaged: poor
  • Outstanding payment: past-due bill
  • Downsize: fire employees

Euphemisms for Sex

Mentioning sex is taboo in many English-speaking circles, as many people see it as a private matter. To combat the discomfort of these discussions, many people use a euphemism. Here are common euphemisms for sex:

  • Score
  • Have relations
  • Do it
  • Make love
  • Know in the Biblical sense
  • Hanky panky
  • Hit a home run
  • Amorous congress
  • Be intimate
  • Get lucky
  • Roll in the hay
  • Go all the way

The above are the most “polite” options, but there are hundreds of euphemisms for sex. Interestingly, some of them are more descriptive than the actual word. If you’re trying to downplay discomfort, make sure you stay away from the more outlandish variations. 

Euphemisms for Menstruation

Menstruation can be an uncomfortable topic for people who don’t menstruate, and it’s even taboo in some cultures. As a result, some people prefer a euphemism. Here are common euphemisms for menstruation:

  • That time of the month
  • Period
  • Menses
  • Have one’s monthly visitor

One thing to keep in mind is that avoiding direct discussion of menstruation contributes to its stigma. It’s a perfectly natural biological function that no one should be ashamed of, so many organizations working toward gender equality encourage people to use the scientific term. 

Euphemisms for Using the Toilet

Defecation and urination are natural bodily functions, but they’re not exactly pleasant to talk about. That’s why most people use euphemisms. Here are common euphemisms for using the toilet:

  • Go to the bathroom
  • Use the facilities
  • Visit the restroom
  • Powder one’s nose
  • Do one’s business
  • Use the washroom
  • Answer nature’s call
  • Relieve oneself
  • Make a pit stop
  • Freshen up
  • Visit the conveniences
  • Go to the euphemism

OK, that last one isn’t exactly common, but it is real and was even used by Dr. Suess! 

Euphemisms for Death

Talking about death is uncomfortable for various reasons: It deals with loss, is often connected to painful or traumatic circumstances and is an inevitability we all face. Using euphemisms can soften the reality of it. Here are common euphemisms for death:

  • Pass away
  • Pass on
  • Depart
  • Be deceased
  • Rest in peace
  • Rest eternally
  • Lose the battle
  • Succumb
  • Not make it
  • Be in a better place
  • Go to Heaven
  • Be called home
  • Expire
  • Cross over

When Should You Use a Euphemism?

Sometimes you can’t say what you mean because it’ll hurt someone or negatively affect your reputation. In these circumstances, it’s best to use a euphemism.

Now that you’ve reviewed the many forms and functions of euphemisms, you can use them effectively in everyday life, whether you’re joining the Vikings (“pursuing a career”) or staying on the tractor (“staying retired”). What’s the weirdest euphemism you’ve ever heard? Let us know in the comments below!

Cara Secrist
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