What do you do when you want to refer to something bad or offensive but don’t actually want to say something bad or offensive? You use a euphemism.
Euphemisms have been around in literature and everyday speech for centuries, and they’re a helpful workaround for getting your point across without being overly blunt. As a literary device, a euphemism serves to change the context, emotion, or purpose behind a statement. It can also be used for humor, especially when characters are in a tense or unpleasant situation.
Want to know more? Here’s a quick explainer on the basics, including a handy euphemism definition and some of the most popular examples of euphemisms in the English language.
What Is a Euphemism?
Simply put, a euphemism is a non-offensive way to say an offensive thing. This can be done by substituting a single word or by using an entirely different phrase, though in either case, the true meaning should be obvious to your audience.
A common use of euphemisms in everyday speech is the substitution of inoffensive words for swear words—a la, “that’s so fudging cool” or “it’s hot as heck out here.” And in literature and other types of media, euphemisms have served as a clever way to avoid censorship or adult ratings or to avoid taking the reader or viewer out of the scene with crass language. It also speaks to the personality of the character or the world in which they inhabit.
Euphemisms can be used to hide insults, but that’s not always their purpose. In many cases, a euphemism is no more than a preferred alternative to another word or phrase, with no hidden agenda or subtle intent to offend.
How to Use a Euphemism in Writing
You can use euphemistic language in your writing to make a point about a character or to orient readers in a certain place or time period. Likewise, euphemisms can be a useful stylistic device if you don’t want to use unpleasant language for whatever reason. Just make sure to follow a few best practices when writing euphemisms so that they enhance what you’re trying to do instead of detracting from it.
Consider Time and Place
Some euphemisms are firmly rooted in specific time periods or regions. Consider the popular Southern euphemism “that dog won’t hunt” when referring to a dumb idea. While it makes perfect sense to say this if your story takes place in the South or if you’re writing dialogue for a Southern character, it won’t make sense out of that context.
Similarly, character in the 1920s could certainly use the term “barneymugging” as an euphemism for sex, but there are much better choices for contemporary characters trying to do the same thing.
Keep in Context with Your Characters
Not all types of characters are liable to use euphemisms, or at least not in all instances.
When writing dialogue, consider if the euphemism you’re using is true to your character’s personality, as well as if they would actually use a euphemism there or just say what they really mean. And keep in mind that you can also work backward, intentionally using a euphemism as a means of characterization and to create more realistic and fully fleshed-out characters.
Euphemisms also serve a strategic purpose in writing and can be used to vary your language instead of using the same word or phrase over and over. If you notice that a certain term comes up repeatedly, play around with plugging in a euphemism instead to see if it lends a better flow to your work.
Also key when it comes to your euphemism strategy: Be sure that your readers will catch on to the true meaning. If your use of euphemism is so obtuse that it’s not clear what you’re trying to allude to, you’ll lose your readers on the page.
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Popular Euphemism Examples
Chances are, you use euphemisms all the time without even noticing that you’re doing so. Check out these common examples of euphemisms to get a feel for how and where they can be used, and try to identify euphemisms when you say or hear them in day-to-day conversations.
Popular examples include:
- “Let go” instead of “fired”
- “Bit the dust” instead of “died”
- “Big boned” instead of “fat”
- “Darn” instead of “damn”
- “Spin the truth” instead of “lie”
- “Unique looking” instead of “ugly”
- “Vertically challenged” instead of “short”
- “Stepping out” instead of “cheating”
- “Not the sharpest tool in the shed” instead of “dumb”
Euphemisms in Literature
Euphemisms have always had a place in literature. One frequently-cited instance is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, started in 1387 and completed in 1400. Modern readers are often surprised to learn that the book is rich with euphemisms for sex, death, and disease, since the terms that Chaucer swaps in are not those that most of us are familiar with today.
You can find euphemisms in other classic works, including Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, where a character notes that “her vices sprang up fast and rank,” referring to a case of syphilis. See too George Orwell’s 1984, where euphemism is used purposefully by the story’s fascist regime to sugarcoat their evil doings. The language imposed by the government, called “newspeak,” features many obvious euphemisms, including “joycamp” instead of “labor camp” and “goodthink” instead of “government-approved thoughts and ideas.”
The very best way to familiarize yourself with euphemisms and other literary terms is to engage with them in your reading. Pick up one of the books above to get a feel for how euphemism can enhance a story and lead to a more fully realized world, and look for euphemistic language in other texts for additional insight on how to use it in your writing.
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