“Euphemism” may be a term you’ve heard tossed around in pop culture and day-to-day speech, since it has made its way into the vernacular. For example in the BBC series Robin Hood, Sam Troughton’s character asks, “What do you call it when you use a sweet, innocent word but what you really mean is something else?” Little John helpfully supplies, “A lie.” Maid Marian, rolling her eyes and looking like she’d rather be anywhere else, offers, “A euphemism?”
Correct, Marian. Let’s take a closer look at the euphemism definition in literature, some examples of euphemism in everyday conversation, and how we can use them effectively in our writing.
What is a euphemism?
A euphemism is a socially- or politically-correct turn of phrase used in place of a term that may be offensive or difficult for some people. The word comes from the Greek euphēmismos, which means “words of good omen.”
Euphemisms are common in everyday speech and older works of literature, and many euphemistic phrases have become iconic in their time period—like people in the 1920s saying they’re going to “iron their shoelaces” to mean they’re going to use the bathroom. Many common examples become so ingrained in our language that we no longer remember they used to have another meaning, like “passed away,” as a common euphemism for death.
What’s the purpose of euphemism in a story?
Now that we understand a bit more about the euphemism meaning in literature, let’s explore why we might choose to incorporate this literary device into our story instead of using literal words.
1. To avoid censorship
In classic literature, euphemisms were often used to soften controversial subjects that writers couldn’t speak out loud. Blatantly discussing certain ideas, like sex or abortion, could lead to a book getting restricted, censored, or banned. By using a euphemism instead of using obvious and dangerous language that was considered harsh for the time, the writers could still communicate the real ideas and events of their story, but in a more delicate, acceptable way.
In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” the central characters deal with an unwanted pregnancy and subsequent abortion. However, Hemingway avoids using those terms directly, instead referring to the abortion procedure as, “They just let the air in.” The writer uses enough detail and brings the two characters to life enough that the audience understands what’s happening even if it’s never stated outright.
2. To communicate character and place
Euphemistic language says a lot about the time your story takes place in and the characters who are using those euphemisms. Certain euphemisms have fallen out of use today, even though they were popular at one time. For example, “making whoopee” is an old term for having sex that was popular in the 1930s through the 1950s. You can use older, out-of-time euphemisms like this one as an aspect of dialect to establish setting in your story.
Likewise, you can use euphemistic language in dialect to distinguish your characters; some may prefer to discuss polarizing topics outright, while another may prefer to allude to them more delicately. Each of these ways of speaking communicates something about the characters in your story.
3. To create poetic imagery
The beauty of language is that we can use words to elevate an idea from the basic to the extraordinary. You might choose to use a euphemism not only to soften a harsh idea, but to give it a new facet and encourage your reader to look at it in a different way.
For example, in the poem “Cowper’s Grave,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning describes: “How discord on the music fell, and darkness on the glory” to illustrate to the way madness (“discord”) and depression (“darkness”) overtook a promising man. Not only does her choice of words soften these stark ideas, but it communicates them with sensitivity and beauty, helping the reader to see them from a more intimate perspective.
4. To reach a broader audience
Even today, not everyone may want to read about polarizing topics or bodily functions in explicit detail. While contemporary audiences are more open to overt literature than we were in the past, incorporating euphemistic language may keep you from alienating sensitive readers and allow them to enjoy your story, too.
Euphemism and other literary devices
As you can see, euphemism is a useful literary device writers can use to give another dimension to a story. However, there can be some confusion about the difference between them and other, similar figures of speech. Let’s look at the definition of some other literary devices and how to distinguish them from true euphemisms.
1. Euphemism vs. innuendo
The difference between innuendo vs. euphemism is that euphemisms are intended to be polite ways of addressing an uncomfortable or unpleasant topic, while innuendos are intended to be derogatory or harmful. Although they both use sweet, simple words to veil their true meaning, euphemisms are generally used to make the listener, reader, or audience feel more at ease, while innuendos are meant to make someone uncomfortable.
2. Euphemism vs. colloquialism
The difference between colloquialism vs. euphemism is that a colloquialism is a piece of modern, casual expression, while a euphemism is trading one word or phrase for another. A colloquialism might be something like saying a meal was a “rip-off” (it was overpriced), or that you’ll “take a rain check” on a date (you’ll postpone it until another time—maybe because last time the food was a rip-off). These aren’t euphemisms because they’re not disguising a more sensitive or offensive topic.
Very often euphemistic speech is colloquial—like “kicked the bucket” to indicate death—but sometimes euphemisms are written in more formal language, too. You might call lying to someone “an economical truth,” or a workplace mistake an “unanticipated miscalculation.” Both of these devices are used in everyday speech.
3. Euphemism vs. idiom
The difference between idiom vs. euphemism is that a euphemism directly substitutes a difficult or sensitive idea, while an idiom uses figurative language to say something in a more creative or relatable way. Some examples of idioms are telling someone to “break a leg” before they go on stage, or telling them you think they’re “the bee’s knees.” Note how these idioms aren’t substituting for a difficult idea—rather they’re figures of speech that have become commonplace in our language.
4. Euphemism vs. metaphor
The difference between metaphor vs. euphemism is that a metaphor substitutes one image for another in a creative or unexpected way, while a euphemism substitutes one idea for another in order to create a sense of comfort and safety. Sometimes euphemisms can be metaphors—for example, calling a bathroom a “throne room”—but not always. A euphemism is always intended to soften a sensitive idea, while a metaphor is intended to show the reader an idea in a new way.
3 euphemism examples in literature
Euphemistic language shows up in our everyday language all the time. Here are a few writers who have used it effectively in their stories.
1. William Shakespeare
Shakespeare loved using euphemisms in his work for sex, death, or other potentially offensive ideas. This is likely because stealthily including references to ribald topics meant that he could appeal to all audiences: the bawdy and the docile, the debaucherous and the pristine. Euphemism examples include his reference to “the beast with two backs” in Othello, which is a euphemism for sex, and in Macbeth, when the scheming Lady Macbeth says that King Duncan “must be provided for”—that is, killed.
2. Stephen King
Stephen King is a master of colloquial language, which his characters use across many of his novels. One great example of a euphemism comes from his nonfiction masterpiece On Writing, where he discusses a beloved literary journal: “Lodgepine Review has gone to that great writer’s workshop in the sky. The forthcoming summer issue will be the last.” Instead of flatly saying that Lodgepine Review has gone defunct, he softens the language by saying instead that it’s ascended to writerly heaven.
3. Tom Hardy
Tom Hardy uses many euphemisms for death in his poem “Afterwards.” These include “If I pass during some nocturnal blackness,” “when my bell of quittance is heard,” and several others. Rather than relying on phrases that already exist in the language of the time, he creates new, beautiful images with new meaning that are still clear enough for the reader to understand.
Avoiding the “euphemism treadmill” in your writing
Euphemisms are one of the fastest evolving aspects of language. They’re great for giving your story a new facet, as well as creating vivid settings and characters. The danger of euphemisms, however, is that many tend to be short-lived in contemporary vernacular. This means that euphemistic language we commonly use today may not be as easily recognized ten or twenty years from now. Like the belt of a treadmill, euphemisms are constantly emerging and slipping away as language continues to evolve.
You can use euphemisms to great effect in historical fiction to ground your story in a time and place. However, be cautious using certain expressions in contemporary fiction because they can be seen dated very quickly. (Look again to our earlier example of “making whoopee.”) Ideally, your story should feel as present and relevant in decades to come as it did to those readers’ grandparents. If the euphemism you choose has faded out of use by then, it can create distance for your reader.
Like Tom Hardy, you can dodge the “treadmill” of euphemistic language by creating euphemisms of your own. Just about anything can become a euphemism if the context is clear. You can also draw on classic euphemisms and then flip them in your own way. This keeps the euphemism from being tied to a certain time period.
For instance, “in the sky” has become a common euphemism for heaven—and, by proxy, death. As we saw in Stephen King’s writing, above, you can add any additional language you’d like to it, and the reader will understand what you’re trying to say. For example, “That picnic blanket in the sky.” “That debutante ball in the sky.” “That smelly gym locker room in the sky.” And so on.
Try to come up with your own poetic way of communicating delicate ideas. This will keep your writing fresh and present no matter how much time passes between your story and the person reading it.
Common examples of euphemism from everyday language
Euphemisms are used in everyday conversation all the time. Here are some examples of euphemism you’ve probably come across before without even realising it.
Early retirement and company downsizing are both examples of phrases used to describe someone being fired.
Big boned is a way of gently saying someone’s fat.
Collateral damage and enhanced interrogation are both examples of euphemistic phrases associated with war; “collateral damage” often means there have been civilians killed, while “interrogation” is a softer way of saying “torture.”
Correctional facility is a commonly used term that means “prison”
Kicked the bucket is what someone says when a person (usually someone they don’t like very much) has died.
Time of the month is a way to refer to menstruation with more political correctness.
Conscious uncoupling is an easier and more impersonal way to refer to a difficult breakup or divorce.
Over the hill is a fun and sympathetic way to say someone’s reached old age.
In the family way is now slightly out of date, but for a long time it was used to describe a woman’s pregnancy.
Cautions of using euphemism in writing
Euphemistic language can be a fun way to replace literal language and communicate setting and character. However, it can be precarious when used in more formal writing, such as speeches or academic texts. In these contexts, this literary device can be seen as transparent or insincere.
For example, a famous politician once confessed to being “guilty of some terminological inexactitudes”—ie. he admitted he was lying. Another made a public speech about “slipping [his] moorings” in reference to having a dishonest affair. Instead of making them sound good, these euphemisms made them feel dishonest and even disrespectful to their audience since they weren’t capable of owning the truth. The same can happen when talking about war or other difficult topics.
When using euphemisms in your work, be aware of who your target audience is and consider if your euphemism will add to or take away from the message you’re trying to communicate—in short, highlighting the truth or burying it.
Euphemisms soften and elevate your story
Euphemisms are a useful literary device to keep in your writer’s toolbox, since they can help make your writing more appropriate for a wider audience and handle difficult topics with sensitivity. They can also be a fun way to explore language and push our limits as writers in the way you communicate. By using euphemisms in your writing, you’ll create an accessible space for everyone and a more interesting story, too.