Euphemisms: Covering Up an Often Ugly Truth

The definition of a euphemism is a polite, vague word or phrase that is used in place of word or phrase that might be considered offensive, harsh, unpleasant or inappropriate to say.

Using even blunter terms, R.W. Holder notes in the Oxford Dictionary of Euphemisms (2007), that in speech or writing “we use euphemism for dealing with taboo or sensitive subjects. It is therefore the language of evasion, hypocrisy, prudery, and deceit.”

The CIA and U.S. military are frequent user euphemisms such as enhanced interrogation in place of torture. According to Scott Horton’s April 2015 article for Harper’s “Company of Men” the term also has an insidious history, when he writes, “Unfortunately for the CIA, ‘enhanced interrogation’ turned out to be a translation of the same euphemism used by the Gestapo: verschärfte Vernehmung.”

Another military euphemism is Collateral damage. From Wikipedia, this definition: Collateral damage is a general term for deaths, injuries, or other damage inflicted on an unintended target. In American military terminology, it is used for the incidental killing or wounding of non-combatants or damage to non-combatant property during an attack on a legitimate military target.[1][2] In US military terminology, the unintentional destruction of allied or neutral targets is called friendly fire.

Critics of the term see it as a euphemism that dehumanizes non-combatants killed or injured during combat, used to reduce the perception of culpability of military leadership in failing to prevent non-combatant casualties.

Other euphemism examples:

  • A little thin on top’ instead of ‘going bald’
  • ‘Homeless’ instead of ‘bum’
  • ‘Letting him go’ instead of ‘firing him’
  • ‘Economical with the truth’ instead of ‘liar’
  • ‘Pre-owed’ instead of ‘used’
  • ‘Passed’ instead of died

The origins of euphemism comes from Classical Greek euph-mismos from euph-mizein, to use words of good omen from euph-mos, of good sound or omen from eu- (see eu-) + ph-m, speech from phanai, say: see ban.

As a writer I want to be aware of euphemisms, mainly so I can keep them out of my writing. But it’s also good to understand just what this figure of speech really means.

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