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A yellow sign with a pointed bottom. At the top is the number 5 in an oval with a blue background. Below it are the words "family planning", "feminine hygiene", "feminine protection" and "sanitary protection"
Sign in a Rite Aid drugstore using common euphemisms for (from top) contraceptives; vaginal douches; menstrual pads and tampons; and adult diapers, respectively

A euphemism (/ˈjuːfəmɪzəm/ YOO-fə-miz-əm) is an innocuous word or expression used in place of one that is deemed offensive or suggests 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 topics some consider taboo 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, e.g., death, sex, excretory bodily functions. They may be created for innocent, well-intentioned purposes or nefariously and cynically, intentionally to deceive and confuse.


Euphemisms are also used to mitigate, soften or 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] Another example of this is during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, where Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his speech starting the invasion, called the invasion a "special military operation".[6]

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.[7]: 181  The lexical item פעימות peimót, which literally means "beatings (of the heart)" is thus a euphemism for "withdrawal".[7]: 181 


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

Controversial use[edit]

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

Formation methods[edit]

Phonetic modification[edit]

Phonetic euphemism is used to replace profanities and blasphemies, diminishing their intensity. Modifications include:

  • Shortening or "clipping" the term, such as Jeez (Jesus) and what the— ("what the hell").
  • Mispronunciations, such as oh my gosh ("oh my God"), frickin ("fucking"), darn ("damn") or oh shoot ("oh shit"). This is also referred to as a minced oath.
  • Using acronyms as replacements, such as SOB ("son of a bitch"). Sometimes, the word "word" or "bomb" is added after it, such as F-word ("fuck"), etc. Also, the letter can be phonetically respelled.


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


Euphemisms formed from understatements include asleep for dead and drinking for consuming alcohol. "Tired and emotional" is a notorious British euphemism for "drunk", one of many recurring jokes popularized by the satirical magazine Private Eye; it has been used by MPs to avoid unparliamentary language.


Pleasant, positive, worthy, neutral, or nondescript terms are often substituted for explicit or unpleasant ones, with many substituted terms deliberately coined by sociopolitical movements, marketing, public relations, or advertising initiatives, including:

  • "meat packing company" for "slaughterhouse" (avoids entirely the subject of killing); "natural issue" or "love child" for "bastard"; "let go" for "fired", etc.


  • Metaphors (beat the meat, 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")


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.

Foreign words[edit]

Expressions or words from a foreign language may be imported for use as euphemism. For example, the French word enceinte was sometimes used instead of the English word pregnant;[12] abattoir for "slaughterhouse", although in French the word retains its explicit violent meaning "a place for beating down", conveniently lost on non-French speakers. "Entrepreneur" for "businessman", adds glamour; "douche" (French: shower) for vaginal irrigation device; "bidet" (French: little pony) for "vessel for intimate ablutions". Ironically, although in English physical "handicaps" are almost always described with euphemism, in French the English word "handicap" is used as a euphemism for their problematic words "infirmité" or "invalidité".[citation needed]


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.


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.[13] Into the present,[when?][citation needed] the United States Central Intelligence Agency refers to systematic torture as "enhanced interrogation techniques".[14] 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.[15] As early as 1939, Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich used the term Sonderbehandlung ("special treatment") to mean summary execution 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[16] 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 known to the outside world during the Nuremberg Trials.[17]


Negro is an example of a once-innocuous euphemism that has become outdated and offensive.

Frequently, over time, euphemisms themselves become taboo words, through the linguistic process of semantic change known as pejoration, which University of Oregon linguist Sharon Henderson Taylor dubbed the "euphemism cycle" in 1974,[18] also frequently referred to as the "euphemism treadmill". For instance, the act of human defecation is possibly the neediest candidate for a euphemism in all eras. 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.[19] In the 20th century, where the old euphemisms lavatory (a place where one washes) or toilet (a place where one dresses[20]) had grown from widespread usage (e.g., in the United States) to being synonymous with the crude act they sought to deflect, they were sometimes replaced with bathroom (a place where one bathes), washroom (a place where one washes), or restroom (a place where one rests) or even by the extreme form powder room (a place where one applies facial cosmetics). The form water closet, which in turn became euphemised to W.C., is a less deflective form.[citation needed] 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'.[21]

Another example in American English is the replacement of "colored people" with "Negro" (euphemism by foreign language), which itself came to be replaced by either "African American" or "Black".[22] Also in the United States the term "ethnic minorities" in the 2010s has been replaced by "people of color".[22]

Venereal disease, which associated shameful bacterial infection with a seemingly worthy ailment emanating from Venus, the goddess of love, soon lost its deflective force in the post-classical education era, as "VD", which was replaced by the three-letter initialism "STD" (sexually transmitted disease); later, "STD" was replaced by "STI" (sexually transmitted infection).[23]

Intellectually disabled people were originally defined with words such as "morons" or "imbeciles", which then became commonly used insults. The medical diagnosis was changed to "mentally retarded", which morphed into a pejorative against those with intellectual disabilities. To avoid the negative connotations of their diagnoses, students who need accommodations because of such conditions are often labeled as "special needs" instead, although the word "special" or "sped" (short for "special education") has begun to crop up as a schoolyard insult.[24][better source needed] As of August 2013, the Social Security Administration replaced the term "mental retardation" with "intellectual disability".[25] Since 2012, that change in terminology has been adopted by the National Institutes of Health and the medical industry at large.[26] There are numerous disability-related euphemisms that have negative connotations.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Euphemism". Webster's Online Dictionary. Archived from the original on 2007-07-28. Retrieved 2014-03-16.
  2. ^ "euphemism (n.)". Archived from the original on 7 January 2014. Retrieved 7 January 2014.
  3. ^ "Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, φήμη". Retrieved 2023-05-27.
  4. ^ "Euphemism" Etymology". Online Etymology Dictionary. Archived from the original on 20 March 2015. Retrieved 10 June 2015.
  5. ^ Timothy Ryback (November 15, 1993). "Evidence of Evil". – The New Yorker. Archived from the original on June 18, 2018. Retrieved December 1, 2015.
  6. ^ "Year in a word: 'Special operation'". Financial Times. 29 December 2022.
  7. ^ a b Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew.
  8. ^ affirmative action as euphemism
  9. ^ Enhanced interrogation as euphemism
  10. ^ although properly pronounced in upper-class British-English "barkley"
  11. ^ "definition of "berk"/"burk"". Collins Dictionary. Archived from the original on 2014-07-27. Retrieved 22 July 2014.
  12. ^ "Definition of ENCEINTE". Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. Archived from the original on 2017-06-13. Retrieved 2017-05-20.
  13. ^ McCool, W.C. (1957-02-06). Return of Rongelapese to their Home Island – Note by the Secretary (PDF) (Report). United States Atomic Energy Commission. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-09-25. Retrieved 2007-11-07.
  14. ^ McCoy, Alfred W. (2006). A question of torture : CIA interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Internet Archive. New York : Metropolitan/Owl Book/Henry Holt and Co. ISBN 978-0-8050-8248-7.
  15. ^ Solzhenitsyn, Alexander (1974). The Gulag Archipelago I. New York: Harper Perennial. p. 6. ISBN 0-06-092103-X
  16. ^ "". Archived from the original on 28 May 2013. Retrieved 20 May 2017.
  17. ^ "Wannsee Conference and the "Final Solution"". Archived from the original on 2018-07-10. Retrieved 2015-06-05.
  18. ^ Henderson Taylor, Sharon (1974). "Terms for Low Intelligence". American Speech. 49 (3/4): 197–207. doi:10.2307/3087798. JSTOR 3087798.
  19. ^ 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.
  20. ^ French toile, fabric, a form of curtain behind which washing, dressing and hair-dressing were performed (Larousse, Dictionnaire de la langue française, "Lexis", Paris, 1979, p. 1891)
  21. ^ Ringe, Don (2006). From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-955229-0.
  22. ^ a b Demby, Gene (7 November 2014). ""Why We Have So Many Terms for 'People of Color'"". NPR. Archived from the original on 12 December 2019. Retrieved 12 December 2019.
  23. ^ "STI vs. STD: Overcoming the Stigma | Power to Decide". Archived from the original on 2022-02-25. Retrieved 2022-02-25.
  24. ^ Hodges, Rick (2020-07-01). "The Rise and Fall of 'Mentally Retarded'". Medium. Archived from the original on 2020-12-07. Retrieved 2021-02-13.
  25. ^ "Change in Terminology: "Mental Retardation" to "Intellectual Disability"". Federal Register. 2013-08-01. Archived from the original on 2021-03-08. Retrieved 2021-03-10.
  26. ^ Nash, Chris; Hawkins, Ann; Kawchuk, Janet; Shea, Sarah E (2012-02-17). "What's in a name? Attitudes surrounding the use of the term 'mental retardation'". Paediatrics & Child Health. 17 (2): 71–74. doi:10.1093/pch/17.2.71. ISSN 1205-7088. PMC 3299349. PMID 23372396.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  • The dictionary definition of euphemism at Wiktionary