Euphemism (from Greek word eo-“nice” and phemo-“talking”) means the substitution of rude, obscene language, disgraceful, unacceptable public speech for the polite and courteous words and expressions.
Presence of euphemisms has been observed not only in English language, but in other languages as well. Ubiquity of euphemisms in the world’s languages is considered to be natural phenomena. It has attracted people’s attention for a long time. It exists in every known language, every speech community, or every social class, for almost all cultures seem to have certain notions or things that people try to avoid mentioning directly. It is deeply rooted in social life and it strongly reflects social values and cultural values. A language without euphemisms would seem to be vulgar and rude, void of politeness and vividness to some extent. It fulfills certain important functions in the world’s languages. One of the most significant functions of euphemisms, according to Pavlenko (2006), is “to protect speakers from undesired emotional arousal” (p.260). Commenting on this function, Miller (1999) has pointed out that given the existence of concepts deemed too offensive to speak about in almost all the world’s languages, there exists a need for speakers of different languages to find roundabout, indirect and socially acceptable ways of referring to such concepts. According to him, euphemisms can fulfill this important function by sanitizing the language which the speakers use. Echoing this view, Mayfield (2009) has noted that euphemisms “sanitize and camouflage actions, things, or events that could appear unacceptable in light of professed values” (p.270). Death, war, intercourse, bodily functions and disability are some of the concepts to which euphemisms routinely refer.
Euphemism as well as other stylistic devices is in a constant development. Language and human life are closely connected with each other. Namely, a human being defines the place where every specific euphemism should be present. Obscenity, inappropriateness and impoliteness are the places of habitat for euphemisms. But all of these concepts are subjectively defined by a human being. That’s why euphemism isn’t so much the concept of language as it is the concept of culture.
Frequently, in most languages (countries) euphemisms are used in similar situations, giving the meaning of similar cultural realia of different nations. Similarity in the usage of euphemisms is usually met at so called worldly sphere.
Traditionally, in many cultures people try to avoid speaking directly about death. In English speaking countries this topic also considered as a slightly taboo subject. The verb “to die” can be substituted with the following euphemisms: “to decease, to pass away, to join the majority (better, silent)”. By using euphemisms we not only follow socially accepted norms, rules of conduct, but also enrich our lexicon with new words and expressions. Below given example clearly defines the usage of euphemisms:
Thomas was sure that he would throw up, probably from tanking up on the party.
If to call the things with their names then the sentence takes the following form:
Thomas was sure that he would vomit, probably from drinking too much alcohol on the party.
It is not difficult to notice which expressions we tried to evade:
tanking up-drinking too much alcohol
Euphemism is interesting lingua-cultural phenomenon that attracts attention of not only professionals, but also connoisseurs of language.
There are given some common euphemisms of English language below:
– curvy, fluffy, full-figured or heavy-set instead of 'fat'
– lost their lives for 'were killed'
– wellness for benefits and treatments that tend to only be used in times of sickness
– restroom for toilet room in American English (the word toilet was itself originally a euphemism)
– ill-advised for very poor or bad
– pre-owned vehicles for used cars
– a student being held back a grade level for having failed or flunked the grade level
– the big C for cancer (in addition, some people whisper the word when they say it in public, and doctors euphemistically use technical terminology when discussing cancer in front of patients)
– bathroom tissue, or bath tissue for toilet paper (usually used by toilet paper manufacturers)
– economically depressed neighborhood or culturally-deprived environment for ghetto or slum
– force, police action, peace process or conflict for war
– alcohol-related, single-car crash for drunk driver
– mature or been around the block for old or elderly
– fee for fine
– gaming for gambling
– specific about what one eats for being a picky eater
– to have been paid for 'being fired from or by one's employer'
– to cut excesses (in a budget) for to fire employees
– differently abled for disabled
– chemical dependency for drug addiction
– dual-diagnosed for having both mental illness and drug problems
– mental health center for mental illness center
– feeling no pain (and dozens of others) for drunk
These lists might suggest that most euphemisms are well-known expressions. Often euphemisms can be somewhat situational; what might be used as a euphemism in a conversation between two friends might make no sense to a third person. In this case, the euphemism is being used as a type of indirect implication.
Briefly speaking, euphemism is a good favorable interpretation of a bad word, which can remove the threat to the vulnerable faces of the listeners; therefore the self-image will be defended during the interaction. Euphemisms play a very important role in daily communication. From the day it came into existence, it has lubricated our communication, helped establish a good relationship between human beings and even strengthened the social stability. The positive functions of euphemisms are to inflate and magnify, making the euphemistic items grander and more important than they really are. People use euphemisms to show their politeness, to avoid being offensive and to meet the psychological and beneficial needs of both speakers and listeners in communication.
- Mayfield, M. (2009). Thinking for Yourself. The United States of America: Cengage Learning.p.270.
- Miller, A. (Ed). (1999). Perspectives on Evil and Violence: A Special Issue of personality and Social Psychology Review. The United States of America: Routledge.
- Pavlenko, A. (2006). Bilingual minds: emotional experience, expression and representation. Toronto: Multilingual Matters. p. 260.