Want to address an unpleasant subject? Use euphemisms

Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column on language

By Shashi Tharoor

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Shashi Tharoor, Congress leadership, Sonia Gandhi
Shashi Tharoor, Congress leadership, Sonia Gandhi

Published: Thu 13 Jul 2023, 4:20 PM

One of the loveliest features of the English language is the prevalence of euphemisms, inoffensive words or phrases that substitute for words that might otherwise be seen as rude or insulting. The term has Greek origins: the noun euphemismos comes from the verb euphemizein, meaning “to use auspicious words”.

The practice may have had religious origins. Since English was spoken in Christian countries where many took the commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of God in vain”, literally, they felt using the word “God” would be sacrilege. So they spoke instead of “the Lord”, “the Creator” or “the Almighty” — amongst the earliest known euphemisms. Those inclined to invoke “God!” as an exclamatory term of surprise modified the word to “golly” and “gosh”, while those who used “Jesus!” similarly turned it to “gee whiz”, later reduced by Americans to just “gee!” Saying “damn” or “hell” was also considered impolite for similar reasons, and the euphemisms “darn” and “heck” were born.

It’s painful to speak of death or dying, so euphemisms abound for those words: “pass away”, “depart”, “expire”, “decease”, “lost”, “gone”, “demise”, “met his Maker”, “is no more”, “is now in a better place” and “resting in peace” are all ways of avoiding the direct mention of death. When official spokesmen during a war speak of “collateral damage” instead of “civilian casualties” you know that people have been killed who shouldn’t have been. The use of figurative language through resorting to euphemisms softens the impact of an unpleasant subject. Thus a pet who is euthanised is “put to sleep”. There are even jocular expressions like “kick the bucket”, “six feet under”, “gave up the oxygen habit”, “sleeping with the fishes” and “pushing up daisies”, which may be used when you are talking about the death of someone you don’t like or don’t know, or joking about your own exit from the world.

How does euphemism differ from political correctness, which we have written about in previous columns and which often vitiates the power and beauty of language? It does and it doesn’t. Political correctness frequently relies on euphemisms: “postal carrier” for “postman”, “sanitation worker” for “garbage collector”, and “person with disabilities” for “handicapped person” are ways of avoiding the sexism or harshness of the older terms. It is always more humane to describe someone as “developmentally challenged” rather than, as in the old days, as “mentally retarded”. But political correctness goes beyond euphemism in avoiding, sometimes to a ridiculous extreme, expressions or actions that might be perceived as excluding, marginalising, or insulting others, and in particular showing great sensitivity towards those who face discrimination or disadvantage because of who they are. Euphemism is usually more social and less convoluted.

Both euphemism and political correctness try to avoid words which might make others uncomfortable or be seen as harsh, impolite, or unpleasant. But whereas political correctness is always humourless in its grim determination to avoid all possible offence, euphemism is merely a way of softening the impact of what is said, usually for the sake of politeness, discretion, or social convention. Euphemisms are most often used to avoid embarrassment or awkwardness in speaking of subjects like death, sex, ageing, bodily functions, and getting fired from a job. Political correctness, as we have seen in earlier columns, is often embarrassing in its contrivances.

Among the euphemisms that commonly serve as polite surrogates for “unmentionable” words previously used (here in brackets) are “pre-owned” (for second-hand, or used); “bun in the oven” (pregnancy); “senior” (old); “well-off” (rich); “big-boned” (overweight); “split” (divorce); “enhanced interrogation” (torture); “around the bend” (insane); “thin on top” (bald); “had one too many” (drunk); and “water landing” (crashed into the sea). When you say someone is “between jobs” rather than “unemployed”, or politely add, “he was sent to a correctional facility” rather than that he was jailed, you are using euphemisms and being politically correct at the same time.

One final consolation: euphemism has room for humour. “You’re being economical with the truth” is a euphemistic way of telling a friend she’s lying. “May I be directed to the smallest room in the house?” avoids asking the way to the toilet. And “sorry, my mind wandered” is better than confessing you weren’t paying attention. Time for me to wander off!



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