Thursday, February 24, 2011

“You want to throw me under the bus? Hit the road and don’t darken my door again or you’ll be pushing up daisies.”

The words and phrases we call euphemisms add color, power, humor and sensitivity to written and oral speech.  Created as substitutes for words or phrases that might make us uneasy, euphemisms may sensitize us, make us think more deeply, or make us laugh.

In his new book Euphemania, Our Love Affair with Euphemisms, Ralph Keyes explains that euphemisms are used to “neutralize uncomfortable terms,” especially those related to bodily functions. But, if you look and listen carefully, you’ll find euphemisms of every category everywhere.

Occasionally, when a euphemism lessens the harshness of a word or term, it makes the meaning more palatable but less effective. (“ill-advised” for “very poor or bad,” and “enhanced interrogation technique” for “torture.”)

Many euphemisms have to do with death. While there’s the somber “passed,” “out of his misery” and “crossed over,” we also have the humorous: “sleeping with the fishes” and “playing harp duets with Hoffa.” 

The government and the military are prone to creating euphemisms when they want to lessen the harshness of a topic.  “Friendly fire” and “collateral damage” are two examples. The medical profession, corporations, and individuals have their own euphemisms, sometimes called “doublespeak.” And, of course, euphemisms abound in books, magazines and newspapers.

Just this morning, I read a newspaper article about job-hunting in which someone was “pounding the pavement.” 

If you’d care to spill the beans about your favorite euphemisms, post a comment here or email me at No snail mail, please.


  1. Here is one I'll never forget - when, during the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings, one senator spoke of Hill's "proclivities" - code for lesbianism. Or when someone talks about a person's "agenda" they are really hinting at some deep, nefarious scheme.

  2. Probably my least favourite is, 'man of the cloth' for 'clergyman' - I don't understand why people should feel uneasy with 'vicar' or 'pastor' but then I have several in the family.

    I do like, 'gift of the gab' for 'talks incessantly'!

  3. Yes, "gift of the gab" is certainly a polite way of saying someone talks too much.