A euphemism is an indirect expression used to replace that something that in some cases is deemed inappropriate or crude. The replacement makes the subject less obvious and is often confusing to those who have never heard it before. It should be a more polite variant of the same word or phrase. It hides the unpleasant nature of the sentence or phrase with something called an idiomatic expression. An idiomatic expression is a type of informal language that has a different meaning from the meaning of the words being used.
Euphemisms can also come in the form of abbreviations, such as W.C. rather than toilet or B.O. rather than body odour. There are also examples in which words from other languages that sound more polite, although they may not be, are used. Other examples are mispronounced words. These are used instead of curse or swear words. For instance, “darn” instead of “damn”.
Explore the term 'Euphemism'
Purpose of Euphemisms
Euphemisms are used by writers for a variety of reasons. The first and most obvious being the obscuring of something deemed offensive. But, there are other ways they can be used as well. A euphemism might take the place of a phrase and by doing so tell the reader something about the speaker. Someone who only speaks in euphemisms might be intentionally deceitful or overly bashful.
Another example might see a euphemism used to reveal something about the thing itself and the human relationship to it. Consider the ways that euphemisms are used in George Orwell’s 1984. In this novel, Orwell created a governmental system that is separated into different organizations. These include the Ministry of Love which deals with war and the Ministry of Truth which is concerned with torture and coercion. You can read a summary of 1984 here.
Examples of Euphemisms
- Kicked the bucket or passed away rather than died
- Correctional facility rather than jail
- Big-boned rather than overweight
- Put to sleep rather than euthanized
- Ethnic cleansing rather than genocide
- Birds and bees rather than sex
As these examples prove, euphemisms are used in literature and in everyday life. Once you start thinking about them, it becomes clear that they appear in every context among all social and cultural groups.
Examples of Euphemisms in Literature
Example #1 The Flea by John Donne
One of John Donne’s best-known poems, ‘The Flea’ is a great example of how euphemisms are used to refer to something obliquely. In the poem, Donne uses one of his metaphysical conceits to describe a speaker being bitten by a flea. This same flea bites his lover and their blood comes together in its body. Take a look at these lines from the poem:
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
The speaker uses the flea and its actions as a euphemism for sex. He cites it as evidence that nothing bad will happen if she gives himself to him (another euphemism!). Their essences mingled successfully inside the creature, so they will in real life as well.
Example #2 Macbeth by William Shakespeare
In Macbeth, there are numerous examples of literary techniques that help lovers of all kinds of literature understand the varied ways they can be used. In this particular passage from “the Scottish play” Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth speaks to her husband about the death of Duncan. She tries to convince him that he needs to get rid of him (another euphemism!) in this passage:
To beguile the time,
Look like the time. Bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue. Look like th’ innocent flower,
But be the serpent under ’t. He that’s coming
Must be provided for; and you shall put
This night’s great business into my dispatch,
Which shall to all our nights and days to come
Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom.
In the fifth line of this excerpt Lady Macbeth says that King Duncan must be “provided for”. This is a roundabout, euphemistic way of saying that he needs to be murdered. It is similar to saying that he needs to be “taken care of”.