What’s Up with the Use of Euphemisms?

January 19, 2020
The use of euphemisms prevails in human taboo themes such as sexual, physiological, eschatological and other "vulgar" realities. And also to the discourse of political correctness.

The use of euphemisms is present in daily life. For instance, when layoffs occur, you hear about “strategic cuts in the workforce”. If there’s a fuel price hike, the government says that “an adjustment to the price of fuel” took place. These are just some examples that imply that terms that conceal social realities are invading the world.

You often come across various concepts you try to avoid. Words that could be hurtful, inadequate, or foul-sounding and fill your vocabulary with euphemistic terms that, many times, you use without even being aware of what you’re expressing.

Today’s article will study what euphemisms are, as well as their origin, uses, and their usefulness.

A woman covering her mouth.

What’s the origin of the term?

The word euphemism comes from the Greek verb εὐφημίζομαι: “to say good words” —εὐ, in Greek, means “good”, and φημί, “speak”.

Thus, euphemisms are terms often used for replacing something you want to say but might be harsh or bad. Most people use these words to soften or reduce negative, derogatory, or offensive connotations.

The use of euphemisms is all about taboos, be it sexual, physiological, eschatological, and vulgar realities. People also use them in the politically correct discourse regarding race or ethnicity, age, disabilities, and social issues. In short, it encompasses the concept of courteous speaking.

Characteristics of euphemisms

For a word to function as a euphemism, its interpretation must remain ambiguous to the listener. They’ll either interpret it literally or euphemistically.

In addition, you can’t substitute a euphemism for another term and fully preserve the same cognitive, social, and stylistic effects. Specifically, there are no strict and absolute synonyms in the English language.

As the use of a euphemism extends, it becomes more like a synonym for the original term than a euphemism. And it’s the knowledge, social uses, and beliefs of the interlocutors that determine the detection of the euphemism within the context in which someone uttered it.

What are dysphemisms?

The word dysphemism is the antonym of euphemism. It’s a type of sarcasm in which people use pejorative and negative expressions for describing objects, facts, or people. An example of a dysphemism is the use of “idiot box” to refer to a television.

Both dysphemism and euphemism are literary figures, a special class of metaphors that people commonly study in discourse analysis.

Can language change reality?

Philologist Lázaro Carreter argues that “a euphemism always betrays a fear of reality, a shameful desire to hide it, a mask of language imposed on its true face, and, in short, an eagerness to annihilate it. But you can’t erase facts with words. I wish it was possible in the case of abominable matters. Terrorism, for example. Disguised by the murderers and spokesmen as an armed struggle”.

This is an opinion you may or may not agree with. Because it denies the use of euphemisms as these can’t change the reality to which one refers.

Similarly, some people argue that, although it’s clear that the use of other terms won’t change the reference point, the use of euphemisms is necessary.

For example, although you don’t call someone “fat”, they still won’t be thin. However, it’s a way to show some respect, courtesy, and observe decorum. Such people, thus, defend that the use of euphemisms is part of language since this is a social activity.

An array of dice with letters.

Euphemisms and politics

Politics is one of the areas where euphemisms are most common. By using a euphemism, a politician can, for example, hide an unpopular decision and present their proposals as something more tolerable for society. For example, given a tax increase against a crisis, you may hear them say they’re “making a tax adjustment to guarantee growth”.

Another very common example of euphemisms in politics is in the face of war conflicts. For example, the use of “collateral damage” softens the idea that armies murder ​​innocent people. Or the term “operation” when we’re referring to an invasion during an international crisis.

  • Ejemplos.co, https://www.ejemplos.co/eufemismo/
  • LeonHunter, https://www.leonhunter.com/por-que-son-necesarios-los-eufemismos/
  • Pedro J. Chamizo Domínguez, “La función social y cognitiva del eufemismo y del disfemismo” https://www.tremedica.org/wp-content/uploads/n15_tribuna-ChamizoDominguez.pdf