On the Use of Euphemisms

There are plenty of topics that make people uncomfortable. To get around this discomfort, speakers and writers have been employing euphemisms for centuries.

A euphemism is “the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant.”1“euphemism,” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/euphemism. Accessed 10/10/2022.. The word itself comes from the Greek εὐφημισμος euphēmismós, from the noun εὐφημια euphēmía meaning “good speech” (an antonym of βλᾰσφημιᾱ blasphēmia “deceitful speech”).

Euphemisms are often used to avoid subjects that are usually considered impolite or taboo:

Deathdemisedpassed onis no moreceased to beexpiredgone to meet one’s makerlatebereft of liferests in peacepushing up the daisiesshuffled off this mortal coilrun down the curtain, and joined the choir invisible2From Monty Python’s famous Dead Parrot Sketchkicked the bucket, gone to one’s great reward, crossed over, bought the farm, departed, deceased, lost, no longer with us, gave up the ghost, in a better place, gone home, transitioned, and of course the most common of all: passed away

Losing a Job: let go, between jobs, downsized, taking early retirement, pursuing other opportunities, considering options

Sex: making love, doing it, sleeping with, fooling around, going all the way, hooking up

Bodily functions: powder your nose, break wind, visit the ladies’ room, indisposed, number one, number two, time of the month

It’s easy to see why people use euphemisms; who wants to discuss unpleasant or offensive matters directly? But should a writer employ them in their writing?

To Be Honest

The major problem with euphemisms is that they conceal the truth. Admittedly, that is their purpose. But they should be used cautiously by writers concerned with clarity and direct communication.

When writing a note to a friend or speaking in private contexts, you should speak in whatever language you find the most comfortable and appropriate. But when writing, a directness in your language can be essential to clarity.

The execution of Sir Thomas More
Sir Thomas More: not about to “pass away.”

For example, I recently came across a statement that referred to Sir Thomas More, one-time Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII, having “passed away” in 1535. On its surface, such a comment seems unremarkable. However, it obscures an important aspect of the story of Thomas More—he was beheaded as a traitor for refusing to support the 1534 Act of Supremacy that made Henry the Head of the Church of England.

Say what you will about beheadings for treason, but they are unlikely to be what you think of when you hear someone has “passed away”—a euphemism that evokes the image of gently fading from life into death.

Euphemisms are desired for exactly the same reason they are problematic: they obscure the hard reality that the speaker is uncomfortable addressing.

If the aims of good writing are clarity and effective communication, then writers should tread lightly with euphemisms. The best writing does not use flowery or circumspect language but speaks plainly and directly, confronting its readers with the truth—pleasant or otherwise—and trusting that they will appreciate the honesty.