Euphemize This! Or Don’t

The best English teachers will tell you that to “be direct” is to make a point clearly and concisely, both in writing and in speech. Still, directness always leaves room for euphemism, defined as the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend. Words and terms like laid off or let go for fired, portly or heavy-set for fat, and intimacy or lovemaking for sexual intercourse are part and parcel of our language.

Other euphemisms aren’t so much the stuff of polite discourse as words meant to aggrandize or fool, and it is these you will do well to avoid. Just because a TV station cuts to a message instead of a commercial and a car dealer shines up a used car by calling it pre-owned doesn’t mean you should adopt such terms. Also be wary of euphemisms amounting to doublespeak – expressions designed to disguise hard realities or flat-out deceive; herewith three blatant examples: enhanced interrogation for torture; misspeak for lie; and voter ID for voter suppression.


You’ll also be wise to shun euphemisms that cross the line from polite to mealymouthed. You speak candidly (and to lots of folks, refreshingly) when you discard the word landfill for dump; adult entertainment for pornography; the golden years for old age; and overindulge for get drunk. Remember, though, that circumstances and situations often come into play. You should by no means excise death and die from your vocabulary, but be sure to speak the language of bereaved family members if they use pass away, depart, expire, or similar wording.*

*See also Don’t Kill Death!


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