Euphemisms are common these days and can be noticed in literature and everyday conversations. The term refers to the substitution of a certain word or expression with another one. Usually, people create euphemisms for things that might sound offensive to other people. Generally, euphemisms are polite expressions used to mask something unpleasant or harsh.
Of course, the use of euphemisms isn’t limited to only being polite, especially in real-life conversations. Oftentimes, people use euphemisms to be impolite on purpose, during a hot argument or a disputable situation.
Despite being a rather prevalent term in culture and literature, the word “euphemism” dates back to 1680-1690 and derives from the word “euphēmos” (Greek), which can be translated as “the one that sounds well”. It’s a combination of two words – “well” and “to speak”, which clearly presents the meaning of the term.
There are a couple of terms related to the euphemism, which are often confused with each other. Innuendoes, for instance, are also used to present the unpleasant things in a more pleasant light, but, while euphemisms try to soften the truth, innuendos make hints about it.
Understatements are another way to sound more polite, but their role isn’t limited to only this one purpose. They are also used to make certain things sound less extreme or less important, for example, saying that someone has a little cold when, in reality, they are very sick, is an understatement. At the same time, when making euphemisms, it is common to mask the truth by using completely different words, for example, saying that someone’s feeling under the weather.
Euphemisms, being widely used and presented in different aspects of language, can be subdivided into different categories. The most common are slang, phonetic modifications, and figures of speech.
Slang words are frequently used to disguise some unpleasant or uncommon expressions and words. They can vary depending on the country and the region as slang directly depends on the place where it originates from.
Phonetic changes of the word turn this word or expression into a new euphemism. It sounds like the original but has a less offensive or softer meaning. People often modify curse words and create euphemisms for them in order to not sound impolite. Such words like “shoot” or “dang” are a perfect example of a phonetically modified euphemism.
Figures and patterns of speech are frequently employed to sound less harsh. They can be presented in the form of metaphors, comparisons, or equivocal statements.
Euphemisms are applied in both literary pieces and everyday conversations. In real life, they can be used when talking to children or people who might feel offended easily by harsh words. It is a tool that allows people to sooth the conversation, make it more polite and culturally appropriate. Euphemisms help people avoid sounding politically incorrect or present the awkward truth more softly.
As it is uncommon for writers to bypass delicate or difficult topics, they use euphemisms to illustrate the character’s natural behavior and speech. Euphemisms can be an important part of the general setting of the story and correspond with its style, complementing the image of the character and the tale. Euphemisms help the authors present the specifics of a certain culture or time, thus creating a more vivid picture for the reader.
Another reason to use euphemisms in literary works is to depict the feelings and emotions of the character. This linguistic tool can help the author portray the character’s embarrassment, shyness, manners, or, on the contrary, rudeness. This way, this literary technique serves to reveal the character’s true nature.
There are plenty of euphemism examples in common speech. For example, instead of saying “You’re fired”, people substitute this unpleasant phrase with “We have to let you go”. Here, euphemism serves to soften the harsh truth. Another example is saying “passed away” instead of “died” or “correctional facility” instead of “jail”.
Literary works are full of euphemism examples. For instance, Harper Lee uses a euphemism “Negro” to describe a race of people. While these days this term is considered politically incorrect and impolite, the book was written when “Negro” was an appropriate euphemism for the African-American race. This proves how euphemisms are able to illustrate the cultural peculiarities of a certain period and a certain society.
Shakespeare used many euphemisms in his works to add more lucidity to the characters’ personalities. For example, instead of telling her husband to kill the king, Lady Macbeth uses the phrase “he must be provided for”. The euphemism is clear and easy to understand, and it serves to present how Macbeth’s wife wanted to persuade him, trying to make the situation sound softer.
Another example from the Shakespeare’s works is the euphemism “the beast with two backs”, which Iago used to inform Desdemona’s father about her having sexual intercourse. This is another example how a euphemism can make the harsh news and the reality sound softer.