Our Love Affair with Euphemisms


By Ralph Keyes

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How did die become kick the bucket, underwear become unmentionables, and having an affair become hiking the Appalachian trail? Originally used to avoid blasphemy, honor taboos, and make nice, euphemisms have become embedded in the fabric of our language. Euphemania traces the origins of euphemisms from a tool of the church to a form of gentility to today’s instrument of commercial, political, and postmodern doublespeak.

As much social commentary as a book for word lovers, Euphemania is a lively and thought-provoking look at the power of words and our power over them.


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Table of Contents

Copyright Page


Mincing Words

IN KENT HARUF'S novel Plainsong, two elderly bachelor brothers agree to take in a pregnant high-school student. When she arrives, they show her around their old farmhouse. At the threshold of a small room, one says, "Here's where you step out." The girl looks puzzled.

"You know," explains the man. "The commode. The indoor outhouse. Well, what do you call it?"

"That'll do fine," says a teacher accompanying the girl.

"That's what she always called it," continues the man, referring to his mother. "I'm just trying to be proper. I'm just trying to get us started off on the right chalk."

Aren't we all? This man was struggling with the age-old challenge of finding respectable euphemisms for dubious terms. Any word or phrase that gives us pause is a candidate for euphemizing. What gives us pause varies from place to place, however, and from era to era. Is it God? Better we should say gosh. Does talk of breasts make us queasy? Try bust. How about shit? Shoot will suffice. Lying sounds harsh, but spinning not so much.

We all rely on euphemisms to tiptoe around what makes us uneasy, and have done so for most of recorded history. Euphemisms are a function of their times. Sexually unresponsive women were once considered frigid. Then they were simply called inorgasmic or given the more hopeful designation pre-orgasmic. Today, female sexual dysfunction has become a euphemism for this condition. As for men, what once was called impotence has given way to erectile dysfunction. Neutralizing such uncomfortable terms doesn't just make it easier to talk about frigid women and flaccid men; it also allows drug companies to openly hawk their wares.

An excellent way to determine what we find embarrassing is to examine our verbal evasions. They indicate what's on our minds. What's bugging us. What makes us uneasy. What topics we consider taboo.

During a dinner party in Virginia before World War II, Winston Churchill asked the butler for some breast of chicken. According to Churchill family lore, a woman sitting next to him reprimanded the British guest for using this vulgar term. And what should he have asked for? "White meat," Churchill was told. The next day, Churchill sent the woman a corsage with the message, "Pin this on your white meat."

Using euphemisms is the verbal equivalent of draping nude statues. Doing so substitutes unthreatening words for ones that make us fidget. For this to work, the substitute words and what they allude to must be familiar. Would a recent immigrant from Kathmandu get the sexual subtext of "Your place or mine?" Unlikely. A euphemism can only do its job if most people recognize what's actually being discussed. Renaming "piss" poss would only confuse matters. Metaphorically calling it lemonade isn't much better. On the other hand, referring to number one is likely to elicit a nod of recognition. When an environmental activist said she'd stopped using "TP for number one," no further explanation was needed.

During the run-up to Barack Obama's inauguration, an FBI agent said they were preparing to help people get out of Washington "in case of an event" (presumably a terrorist attack or an assassination attempt). That same euphemism—event— has also been applied to nuclear power-plant accidents. To say that Obama's inauguration or a nuclear power plant could be subject to a wahoo or an occasion would technically involve a euphemism but one without any traction.

Of course, some euphemisms can be awfully subtle. This is especially true when talk turns to marginalized members of society. Before the term "gay" came to the rescue, heterosexuals commonly referred to homosexuals as having unspecified tendencies, predilections, or preferences. They were like that. That way. Theatrical. In news stories, "flamboyant," "confirmed bachelor," and "never married" could, and can, allude to gays.

Press accounts are a treasure trove of euphemisms. When journalists report that a public figure was "exuberant" or "flushed," they may be trying to tell us he was drunk. A reporter who wants to signal that a man is pompous without using that word can say he has gravitas. An obnoxiously loudmouthed individual may be called colorful. We all use circumlocutions this way. Someone with a bad temper is mercurial or moody. A dysfunctional family whose members alternate yelling at one another with pouting can be called complicated. That word is also applied to couples who nearly have their hands on each other's throats on a regular basis. ("They have a complicated relationship.") As marriage counselors say, such couples have unfinished business.

Euphemisms represent a flight to comfort, a way to reduce tension when conversing. They are comfort words. Euphemistic discourse softens the harsh, smoothes the rough, makes what's negative sound positive. It is akin to diplomatic language in which "We had a frank exchange of views" might mean, "We hurled insults at each other for a full hour."

Euphemisms add nuance and vagueness to conversation that's often welcome. Could anyone get through a day without heeding a call of nature or speculating about whether Jason and Amy may be sleeping together? Civilized discourse would be impossible without recourse to indirection. Euphemisms give us tools to discuss touchy topics without having to spell out what it is we're discussing. In her novel The Land of Green Plums, Nobel laureate Herta Müller portrayed a Romanian seamstress measuring the legs of a school headmaster for a pair of trousers she plans to make him. "At the crotch," wrote Müller (who uses no quotation marks), "she took a deep breath and asked: And where do you keep the key to the cellar, Mr. Headmaster, on the left or the right? Always on the right, he said. And for the cellar door, she asked, would you rather have buttons or a zipper?"

Particularly when it comes to topics such as sex, the body, and body wastes, euphemisms can be a blessing. These terms don't just scrub conversations clean, they keep us from having to acknowledge that we even know the words being euphemized, let alone what they mean. Or that such matters are on our mind. Referencing something like sex by saying "They were intimate" lets us allude to this topic without having to admit, "Yes, I think about naked bodies heaving in passionate embrace. Okay?"

Via the double entendre, euphemistic talk can be both discreet and bawdy, especially in mixed company. Even the most upstanding members of a church choir may enjoy an occasional veiled allusion, so long as they don't have to acknowledge what's actually being discussed. When men are present, a respectable spinster is unlikely to say, "I wish I could find a stud." But when stud finders came up during a discussion of home renovation in one such group, a proper middle-aged divorcée felt perfectly comfortable saying, "I could use one of those."


Eupheme was the nurse of ancient Greece's Muses. Her name literally means "good speaking" (eu = "good," pheme = "speaking"). Related Greek words mean to "speak fair" and to "use an auspicious word for an inauspicious one." They are the root of today's "euphemism." That term usually refers to polite words but not always. Although I began this project with the assumption that a clear distinction could be made between genteel euphemisms and other types of substitute words such as slang, jargon, and double entendres, the further I got, the more apparent it became that this distinction was too sharp. I came to see a broader matrix of substitute words that are euphemistic but not necessarily genteel. When, with a group of couples whose men were about to go hunting, a woman pinched her husband's ear and announced, "We have to unload daddy's gun before he can go anywhere," was she using slang, a double entendre, or a euphemism? Or all three?

This is why my definition of euphemism is broad: words or phrases substituted for ones that make us uneasy. Even slang terms can give us a hip way to avoid saying the unsayable. When a soldier reports that he offed an enemy, greased, or whacked him, on the one hand that's slang; on the other, such substitute words keep him from having to use the word "killed." Similarly, although it's hardly genteel for a woman to say that she and a man partied or got it on or did some horizontal dancing, this does keep uglier words out of the conversation.

Technically, euphemisms are a form of synonym. But they have far heavier freight to carry. That freight is what Euphemania is all about. It is not meant to be a compilation of euphemisms (many such books exist already). Rather, it's a consideration of the ways euphemisms enter our conversations and how they reflect their time and place. Euphemizing most often results from an excess of politeness and prudery, but it can also demonstrate creativity and high good humor. Shakespeare was not polite and was hardly prudish, but his plays brim with euphemistic wordplay.

As we'll see throughout this book, euphemisms are created in a wide variety of ways and for a multitude of reasons. This usually involves reducing the temperature of overheated terms. The hotter the topic, the cooler the words we rely on to discuss them. "They're upstairs in my bedroom getting to know each other better." "We rendered several hundred enemy soldiers inoperative." "The detainee was subjected to in-depth interrogation." "Eric engaged in inappropriate behavior. He was acting out."

Therapists, self-helpers, and recovery groups have given us a bonanza of mild euphemistic terms to take the place of spicier ones. Under their tutelage, we've replaced "problems" with issues and challenges. As the economy collapsed late in his presidency, George W. Bush said, "Our financial markets continue to deal with some serious challenges." Bush continually referred to global warming as an issue, not a "problem." He wasn't the only one to fall back on this type of circumlocution. Philanderers, I've recently read, have zipper-management issues. In lieu of "What you just said really pisses me off," any one of us can say, "I have issues with what you just said." Those who used to suffer from mental illness now have mental health issues. Thanks to the magic of modern psychotherapy, being able to say "she vented" allows us to avoid saying "she screamed in a rage." Liars are in denial. Patients who once had "nervous breakdowns" now have nervous breakthroughs.

Although it's gained momentum in recent years, the practice of turning negatives into positives has pride of place in the history of euphemism creation. After all, the Cape of Good Hope was once known, more accurately, as the Cape of Storms. What is actually death insurance has long been called life insurance. Impoverished countries once considered undeveloped became underdeveloped, then less developed, then developing. Today, they are optimistically called emerging. A manufacturer of inexpensive woodstoves calls the residents of such countries emerging consumers.

Putting a neutral sheen on negative experiences is a related, long-standing practice. Like their modern counterparts, ancient Greeks and Romans used the phrase if anything happens to me instead of "should I die." When they executed a prisoner, Romans said he was led away to punishment or simply led away. "Execution" itself is a onetime euphemism, evolving from the execution of a death warrant. In medieval times, prisoners condemned to die were put to execution.

Their euphemistic history helps explain the significance of many terms in current use. In the midwestern town where I live, brown paper grocery containers are called "sacks," not "bags." This always puzzled me until, in the course of researching this book, I discovered that bag is a euphemism for "scrotum" in some parts of the United States. When it comes to brown paper grocery containers, therefore, another term was needed to avoid that one. Hence, sack. (Those who live in settings where "sack" is synonymous with "scrotum" had best stay with "bag.")

To neutralize words that make us uncomfortable, euphemisms routinely convert vivid terms into innocuous ones. Yesterday's "tombstone" is today's grave marker. "Dumps" are now landfills or transfer stations. "Rubbish" became garbage then waste. What once was a "life jacket" is now a flotation device. Our grandparents' "clothesline" has been upgraded to a wind-energy drying device.

Euphemisms are nothing if not adaptable. A BBC correspondent just back from covering the conflict in Congo told a radio interviewer that soldiers there were "self-provisioning." When asked what this meant, the correspondent conceded that it was a euphemism for "loot and steal." Obviously, language evolves constantly. But in public discourse especially, its evolution has been in a blandly euphemistic direction. Taken to an extreme—as it so often is—such discourse can be deadly. That's because it enlists words in the service of evasion rather than communication. This is euphemania: taking the sting out of frank, clear words by converting them into inoffensive, synonym-like versions that desensitize us to the implications of, say, torture (applying pressure) or a stock-market collapse (equity retreat).

Euphemism as Tracking Device

Euphemisms are an accurate barometer of changing attitudes. That is the theme of this book. Verbal evasions put a spotlight on what most concerns human beings at any given time.

There is no better illustration of our changing euphemistic climate than the way we refer to children whose parents aren't married. These "bastards" or "children of sin" became illegitimate children, which begot born out of wedlock. During the late-eighteenth century, born on the wrong side of the blanket was a slangy euphemism for those presumably conceived somewhere other than a married couple's bed. In the Midwest, gone to visit her aunt in Indiana was once a euphemism for going to a home for unwed mothers. Today, we care so little about the marital status of a child's parents that we seldom even bother with such circumlocutions. At worst, we talk of love children or a love child. In general, though, the increasingly common fact that a child's parents aren't married is barely considered worth a euphemism.

The terms we use and those we avoid reflect deeper concerns, which change over time. Several centuries ago, when religion reigned, we converted "damn" to darn and "hell" to heck. Then prudery kicked in, and the gonads became family jewels, and the vagina, down there. Today, it's death, disability, and discrimination that provide fodder for euphemisms, as we grope for inoffensive terms to designate loved ones who have died, those with physical or intellectual limitations, and members of minority groups.

Although a society in which bumper stickers say SHIT HAPPENS and T-shirts proclaim LIFE IS A BITCH, THEN YOU DIE may have dispensed with many of the genteel euphemisms used in days of yore, it has hardly dispensed with euphemisms altogether. Even topics we discuss more candidly today than before are still subject to euphemizing, though with updated terminology. According to a 2008 press account, for example, a Belmont, Massachusetts, resident reported to police that an "anatomically correct term" had been spray-painted on a local fence.

Much as we might like to think that our modes of expression involve a straight trajectory of opening up, shedding inhibitions, and becoming more candid, that's just not the case. The terms and targets of our euphemizing have simply shifted. An explosion of topics have become eligible for euphemistic discourse: not only the usual suspects of sex, body parts, and bodily secretions, but also money, diseases, and certain foods, to name just a few of the many subjects we euphemize today.

Euphemisms have gone from being a tool of the church to a form of gentility to an instrument of commercial, political, and postmodern doublespeak. Our time is one in which "sweet words dance hand in hand with dreadful facts," writes D. J. Enright in the excellent essay collection Fair of Speech: The Uses of Euphemism. Originally meant to avoid blasphemy and be polite, euphemisms are now just as likely to be a tool of cover-up and obfuscation. Businesses that once showed "losses" now have negative cash flow. Politicians don't "lie" but do sometimes misspeak. Bombardiers no longer "drop bombs"; they unleash vertically deployed antipersonnel devices.

Because what makes us uncomfortable changes with the times, there is a constant demand for new euphemisms. And we are up to the task of supplying them. "It is a poor week when I fail to note two or three new euphemisms," observes euphemism compiler R. W. Holder.

The Euphemism Carousel

Euphemisms must step lively to keep pace with changing attitudes. Another era's tacky comment is today's hip remark. Yesterday's polite euphemism is tomorrow's prissy evasion. "Cherry" was once considered more respectable than "hymen." Now, just the opposite is true. The former is thought to be vulgar, the latter decent.

Since language is in constant flux, as are social values, euphemisms can quickly lose their utility. Good words become bad words become good words again, in endless succession. Euphemisms are like a verbal carousel: some words hop on, others jump off, still others stay put for the entire ride and sometimes lose their euphemistic status in the process. Those that do their job capably, with minimal fuss, slip easily into the vernacular and stay there. Sleep with has been a euphemism for sex for centuries; pass away for dying since the Middle Ages. Cemetery— from the Greek word for "sleeping place"—was initially a euphemism for the more ominous "graveyard" but proved so functional that it became our standard term for this setting.

Like "cemetery," a notable number of today's everyday words began as euphemisms. Penis, Latin for "tail," in Cicero's time was put to work as a euphemism for the male sex organ. Once this term lost its euphemistic cover, others stepped up to take its place, then shape-shifted. "Dork" was originally a synonym for "penis." Similarly, "jerk" once referred to a man who masturbates (echoes of which can still be heard in today's phrase "jerk off").

In an eye-opening study, linguist Muriel Schulz explored the carousel ride of words that refer to women. A striking number morphed from innocent to dubious to downright derogatory. Early on, "nymphet" referred simply to an attractive young woman. So did "broad." "Hussy" evolved from huswif ("housewife") in Old English. But the trajectory of women-specific words Schulz analyzed wasn't always downhill. Some were rehabilitated. Before retrieving its good reputation, wife had become a euphemism for "mistress" in the Middle Ages; niece for the illegitimate daughter of a priest. Girl at one time referred euphemistically to prostitutes. So did cat. (Think cathouse.)

Like courtesans who become society matrons, tainted euphemisms can regain their respectability over time. It's not at all uncommon for terms once considered vulgar or risqué to lose their stigma. "Poke," a sometime synonym for "fuck," today is a cute term for contacting someone online or for giving a patient an injection ("a little poke"). "Bloody"—once the most offensive of words in Britain—is today a relatively innocuous piece of verbal punctuation. "Blast" was once considered so blasphemous that English schoolchildren were punished for uttering this word. In 1869, a linguist warned that the term "ornery" is "shocking and should never pass the lips of any one." As that onetime synonym for "lewd" began to be used semiaffectionately ("he's an ornery cuss"), it lost its shock value in the same way that "bastard" went from being pure profanity to an occasional term of affection ("You old bastard, you!").

This is typical of the carousel whirl in which words are both soiled and cleansed. Even as some euphemisms go mainstream, others are contaminated by association with the topic they refer to and become just as dubious as the word they replaced. They're fallen euphemisms. The classic example is fart, a medieval euphemism that over time took on the odor of the act it referred to and itself became offensive. Similarly, retarded was originally a polite way to describe those more rudely called "idiots," "imbeciles," or "morons." Today, the word "retarded" is considered so insulting that there is a movement to ban its use.

In a related process, respectable terms that are requisitioned as euphemisms can quickly lose their respectability. Cicero complained that when "penis" became a euphemism for the male sex organ, it could no longer be used to refer to animals' tails. During Cicero's time, Roman youth used deliciae as a playful euphemism for sex (it essentially means "a diversion" or "pleasure"). After taking on sexual connotations, however, deliciae itself became taboo. Some centuries later, when "occupy" became a euphemism for lovemaking during the late Middle Ages, that term could no longer be used in polite conversation. A similar fate befell "intercourse," which originally simply meant "to communicate" before it was commandeered as a polite synonym for copulation (to the chagrin of residents of Intercourse, Pennsylvania). "Hook up" used to mean little more than connecting with someone. Today it can mean so very much more.

This is a constant problem with euphemisms. Using them can be like trying to conceal the naked body of an actress beneath a gossamer gown. Euphemizing represents a forlorn hope that renaming something might change its essence. Negative connotations are not in taboo words themselves, however, but in what they refer to. As a result, euphemisms can only protect our sensibilities for so long.

Consider how we deal verbally with the sensitive topic of insanity. Here, terms that start out as euphemisms invariably end up as affronts. This leads to a constant verbal turnover. In their definitive books Euphemism and Dysphemism and Forbidden Words, Australian linguists Keith Allan and Kate Burridge have explored this verbal degeneration in some detail. The term lunatic was initially a euphemistic reference to a form of mental illness associated with changing lunar phases. Touched originally suggested that a demented person had been touched by God's hand. At one time, deranged simply meant "disordered" or "disturbed" before it took on more ominous connotations as a euphemism for "mad." Crazy derived from the more benign term "crazed," which meant "flawed" or "cracked." Cracked itself is an enduring synonym for "mentally ill," though not one we'd now consider polite. Today, we turn to psychology for neutral descriptors such as syndrome and disorder. How long such terms will stay respectable is anyone's guess.

In a gruesome illustration of euphemism degradation, concentration camp—a term initially used by the British as an innocuous name for internment centers they created during the Boer War—became sinister due to the hideous reality of what took place in Nazi death camps that also used this name. Several decades later, when reporters said tens of thousands of interned Tamils were in concentration camps, Sri Lankan authorities took offense. They insisted that these were actually welfare camps.

The Euphemism Cookbook

As we'll see throughout this book, euphemisms are created in a wide variety of ways. The most common way is to simply substitute an acceptable word for one that's considered unacceptable. (Sugar! Fudge!) Sometimes these substitute words are invented ones that sound similar to the verboten term. (Shucks! Fooey!) In the process, we often assign harmless little words to stand in for charged ones. Do, for example, is commonly used as a synonym for "fuck," "kill," "defecate," and other questionable acts.

In some cases, the word substituted comes from another language, carrying scant odor of taboo. When Americans are not sure if it would be a good idea to say "balls" aloud, they can always resort to the Spanish cojones and often do. Soixante-neuf is a double-duty euphemism, one relying on both French and numbers to refer to mutual cunnilingus and fellatio. (Those willing to forgo the added cover of French simply say "sixty-nine.") "Cunnilingus" and "fellatio" themselves have a Latin root. Latin has done a lot of euphemistic heavy lifting over the millennia. Think "phallus," "pudenda," "areola," "testes," "coitus," and so many more. College students in medieval Europe were advised to use Latin words instead of ones in the vernacular that might be considered profane. Modern sex educators use as many Latin terms as possible to avoid embarrassment when discussing body parts. In an account popular in England some decades ago, a British soldier who had been shot in the buttocks during World War I was asked by a woman visiting his hospital ward where he was wounded. The soldier responded, "I'm sorry, ma'am. I can't say. I never studied Latin."

Professional jargon, much of it Latin based, is another primary source of euphemisms that rely on the "blind them with science" approach. Thus, prophylactic for "condom," localized capacity deficiencies for "traffic bottlenecks," seismic activity


On Sale
Dec 14, 2010
Page Count
288 pages
Little Brown Spark

Ralph Keyes

About the Author

Ralph Keyes is the author of 15 books, including The Courage to Write and I Love It When You Talk Retro. He has written for Esquire, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, GQ, Newsweek, and Harper’s. Keyes lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he writes, lectures, and is a Trustee of the Antioch Writers’ Workshop.

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