Euphemisms: history, types and examples


The euphemism is a substitution of an agreeable or less offensive expression in place of one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant to the listener,[1] or to make it less troublesome for the speaker, as in the case of doublespeak. The deployment of euphemisms is a central aspect within the public application of political correctness.

It may also substitute a description of something or someone to avoid revealing secret, holy, or sacred names to the uninitiated, or to obscure the identity of the subject of a conversation from potential eavesdroppers. Some euphemisms are intended to amuse.


1.1 Etymology

The word euphemism comes from the Greek word euphemo, 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 a euphemism are the unspeakable names for a deity, such as Persephone, Hecate, or Nemesis. Euphemism was itself used as a euphemism by the ancient Greeks, meaning 'to keep a holy silence' (speaking well by not speaking at all).

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 (*wlkw os), and deer (originally, hart; the deformation likely occurred to avoid confusion with heart). 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 longer occurs in the language. An example is the Slavic root for bear — *medu-ed-, which means "honey eater". One example in English is "donkey" replacing the old Indo-European-derived word "ass". The word "dandelion" (lit., tooth of lion, referring to the shape of the leaves) is another example, being a substitute for pissenlit, meaning "wet the bed", a possible reference to the fact that dandelion was used as a diuretic.

In some languages of the Pacific, using the name of a deceased chief is taboo. Among indigenous Australians, it is forbidden to use the name, image, or audio-visual recording of the deceased, so that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation now publishes a warning to indigenous Australians when using names, images or audio-visual recordings of people who have died.[2]

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.[3]

In a similar manner, classical Chinese texts were expected to avoid using characters contained within the name of the currently ruling emperor as a sign of respect. In these instances, the relevant ideographs were replaced by synonyms. While this practice creates an additional wrinkle for anyone attempting to read or translate texts from the classical period, it does provide a fairly accurate means of dating the documents under consideration.

The common names of illicit drugs, and the plants used to obtain them, often undergo a process similar to taboo deformation, because new terms are devised in order to discuss them secretly in the presence of others. This process often occurs in English (e.g. speed or crank for meth). It occurs even more in Spanish, e.g. the deformation of names for cannabis: mota (lit., "something which moves" on the black market), replacing grifa (lit., "something coarse to the touch"), replacing marihuana (a female personal name, María Juana), replacing cañamo (the original Spanish name for the plant, derived from the Latin genus name Cannabis). All four of these names are still used in various parts of the Hispanophone world, although cañamo ironically has the least underworld connotation, and is often used to describe industrial hemp, or legitimate medically-prescribed cannabis.

1.2 History of euphemisms in English

A great number of euphemisms in English came from words with Latin roots. Farb (1974) writes that after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066: "the community began to make a distinction between a genteel and an obscene vocabulary, between the Latinate words of the upper class and the lusty Anglo-Saxon of the lower. That is why a duchess perspired and expectorated and menstruated--while a kitchen maid sweated and spat and bled."

In the "good 'old' (read over the hill, chronologically-gifted) days" of the English language, there was a dazzling amount of delightful doubletalk not to mention a smattering of simply hilarious handles as seen below:

"brandy" -- referred to as "French Cream" by time-enhanced tabbies and dowager duchesses who added it to their tea (scandal broth)

"breeches" -- bumfiddles, galligaskins, inexpressibles

"brewer" -- Brother of the Bung

"constable" -- bus-napper

"coachman" -- Brother of the Whip

"dealer in fruit" -- costard monger

"eggs" -- cackling farts

"foot boy" -- catch fart

"footman" -- bone picker

"fiddler" -- gut scraper or tormentor of cat gut

"indigent" -- Gentleman of Three Outs, i.e. without money, without wit, and without manners

"match-maker" -- buttock broker

"parson" -- autem bawler who conducts his affairs in an "autem cacle tub" (church meeting hall)

"pimp" -- Brother of the Gusset

"roundabout story or way" - circumbendibus

"salesman's shop" -- Bow-Wow Shop (because the servant barks and the master bites)

"Sargeant At Arms" -- Brother of the Coif

"schoolmaster" -- bum brusher

"shoe-making" -- the art of gentle craft

"tea" -- cat lap, scandal broth

"undertaker" -- embalming surgeon

"upholsterer" -- bug-hunter

"wife" -- comfortable importance

1.3 Euphemism treadmill

Euphemisms often evolve over time into taboo words themselves, through a process described by W.V.O. Quine, and more recently dubbed the "euphemism treadmill" by Steven Pinker. (cf. Gresham's Law in economics). This is the well-known linguistic process known as 'pejoration' or 'semantic change'.

Words originally intended as euphemisms may lose their euphemistic value, acquiring the negative connotations of their referents. In some cases, they may be used mockingly and become dysphemisms.

For example, the term "concentration camp", to describe camps used to confine civilian members of the Boer community in close (concentrated) quarters, was used by the British during the Second Boer War, primarily because it sounded bland and inoffensive. Despite the high death rates in the British concentration camps, the term remained acceptable as a euphemism. However, after the Third Reich used the expression to describe its death camps, the term gained enormous negative connotation.

Also, in some versions of English, "toilet room", itself a euphemism, was replaced with "bathroom" and "water closet", which were replaced with "restroom" and "W.C." These are also examples of euphemisms which are geographically concentrated: the term "restroom" is rarely used outside of the United States and "W.C.", where before it was quite popular in Britain, is passing out of favor and becoming more popular in France and is the polite term of choice in Germany.

Connotations easily change over time. "Idiot", "imbecile", and "moron" were once neutral terms for a developmentally delayed adult of toddler, preschool, and primary school mental ages, respectively.[4] As with Gresham's law, negative connotations tend to crowd out neutral ones, so the phrase mentally retarded was pressed into service to replace them.[5] Now that, too, is considered rude, used commonly as an insult of a person, thing, or idea. As a result, new terms like "mentally challenged", "with an intellectual disability", "learning difficulties" and "special needs" have replaced "retarded". A similar progression occurred with:

lame → crippled → handicapped → disabled → physically challenged → differently abled

although in the case of "crippled" the meaning has also broadened (and hence has been narrowed with adjectives, which themselves have been euphemised); a dyslexic or colorblind person, for example, would not be termed "crippled". Even more recent is the use of person-centric phrases, such as "person(s) with disability, dyslexia, colorblindness, etc.", which ascribe a particular condition to those previously qualified with the aforementioned adjectives.

Euphemisms can also serve to recirculate words that have passed out of use because of negative connotation. The word "lame" from above, having faded from the vernacular, was revitalized as a slang word generally meaning "not living up to expectations". Connotation of a euphemism can also be subject-specific. The term "handicap" was in common use to describe a physical disability; it gained common use in sports and games to describe a scoring advantage given to a player who has a disadvantageous standing in ability, and this definition has remained common, even though the term as describing physical disability has mostly faded from common use. One exception to this is in the United States when designating "handicapped" parking spaces for such individuals.

In the early 1960s, Major League Baseball franchise owner and promoter Bill Veeck, who was missing part of a leg, argued against the then-favored euphemism "handicapped", saying he preferred "crippled" 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 (Veeck as in Wreck, chapter "I'm Not Handicapped, I'm Crippled"). Later, comedian George Carlin 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:[6]

shell shock (World War I) → battle fatigue (World War II) → operational exhaustion (Korean War) → posttraumatic stress disorder (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. He also contended that Vietnam veterans would have received the proper care and attention they needed were the condition still called "shell shock". In the same routine, he echoed Bill Veeck'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").

A complementary "dysphemism treadmill" exists, but is more rarely observed. One modern example is the word scumbag, which was originally a reference to a used condom, now is a fairly mild epithet.[7] This is in stark contrast to the related term douchebag, which is still semi-common but has a much more negative connotation.[citation needed]

Similarly, spastic was once a neutral descriptor of a sufferer of muscular hypertonicity in British English. But after Joey Deacon appeared on UK children's TV programme Blue Peter, children began to use "spastic" (and variants such as "spaz" and "spacker") as an insult and the term is now seen as very offensive. The Spastics Society changed their name to Scope in 1994; children then began to use "Scoper" as a similar insult. While the term was developing into an insult in British English, it was evolving in a radically different fashion in American English. In the U.S., "spastic" became a nonoffensive synonym for clumsiness, whether physical or mental, and nerdiness, and is very often used in a self-deprecating manner. The difference between the British and American connotations of "spastic" was starkly shown in 2006 when golf great Tiger Woods used "spaz" to describe his putting in that year's Masters. The remark went completely unnoticed in America, but caused a major uproar in the UK.

In his remarks on the ever-changing London slang, made in Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell mentioned both the euphemism treadmill and the dysphemism treadmill. He did not use these now-established terms, but observed and commented on the respective processes as early as in 1933.


2.1 Usage of euphemisms

When a phrase is used as a euphemism, it often becomes a metaphor whose literal meaning is dropped. Euphemisms may be used to hide unpleasant or disturbing ideas, even when the literal term for them is not necessarily offensive. This type of euphemism is used in public relations and politics, where it is sometimes called doublespeak. Sometimes, using euphemisms is equated to politeness. There are also superstitious euphemisms, based (consciously or subconsciously) on the idea that words have the power to bring bad fortune (for example, not speaking the word "autism"; see etymology and common examples below), and there are religious euphemisms, based on the idea that some words are holy, or that some words are spiritually imperiling (taboo; see etymology).

2.2 Classification

Many euphemisms fall into one or more of these categories:

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

· Abbreviations (GD for goddamn, SOB for son of a bitch, BS for bullshit, TS for tough shit, SOL for shit out of luck or PDQ for pretty damn(ed) quick,[8] BFD for big fucking deal, "MOFO for "motherfucker", POS for piece of shit, STFU or STHU for shut the fuck/hell up, RTFM for read the fucking manual /restart the fucking machine)

o Abbreviations using a spelling alphabet, especially in military contexts (Charlie Foxtrot for "Cluster fuck", Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Oscar for "What the fuck, over?", Bravo Sierra for "bullshit" — See Military slang)

o Plays on abbreviations (H-e-double hockey sticks for "hell", "a-double snakes" or "a-double-dollar-signs" for "ass", Sugar Honey Iced Tea for "shit", bee with an itch or witch with a capital B for "bitch", catch (or see) you next Tuesday (or Thursday) for "cunt")

o Use in mostly clinical settings (PITA for "pain in the ass" patient)

o Abbreviations for phrases that are not otherwise common (PEBKAC for "Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair", ID Ten T Error or ID-10T Error for "Idiot", TOBAS for "Take Out Back And Shoot", SNAFU for "Situation Normal: All Fucked Up")

· Abstractions and ambiguities (it for excrement, the situation for pregnancy, going to the other side for death, do it or come together in reference a sexual act, tired and emotional for drunkenness.)

· Indirections (behind, unmentionables, privates, live together, go to the bathroom, sleep together, sub-navel activities)

· Mispronunciation (goldarnit, dadgummit, efing c (fucking cunt), freakin, be-atch,shoot — See minced oath)

· Litotes or reserved understatement (not exactly thin for "fat", not completely truthful for "lied", not unlike cheating for "an instance of cheating")

· Changing nouns to modifiers (makes her look slutty for "is a slut", right-wing element for "Right Wing")

· Names, like John Thomas or Willy for penis, Fanny for vulva (british), etc.

· Slang, eg. pot for marijuana, laid for sex and so on

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, or even those with uncorrected poor vision, 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.

2.3 The evolution of euphemisms

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