A euphemism is a mild or roundabout word or phrase used in place of one considered painful or offensive—for example, golden years for old age or economically disadvantaged for poor. Other kinds of euphemisms, rather than covering up, inflate or magnify, making something sound more important or grander than it is: technical representative for salesperson, for example, or handcrafted for handmade.

People use euphemisms to protect themselves and others from the harsh realities of life— senior citizen for old person, discomfort for pain, pass away for die. People also use euphemisms like sleeping together, having a relationship, or going to the bathroom to be polite. Terms such as idiot, imbecile, moron, and crippled were once neutral, but now these words are regarded as offensive and insensitive. Euphemisms often deal with profanity, body parts, bodily functions, sex, death, murder, societal taboos, superstitions, or other issues that may not be considered fit for polite conversation or writing. In social settings, euphemisms can be justified as preserving propriety.

People also use euphemisms to cover up or disguise motives and events. For example, the phrase a strategic movement to the rear sounds less humiliating than retreat. A preemptive strike is much more acceptable than a sneak attack.

Euphemisms and doublespeak are closely related. A phrase in doublespeak, like a euphemism, is a roundabout way of saying something. It can be hard to figure out what a statement in doublespeak means, which is what its originators had in mind. Doublespeak is almost always intended to confuse or deceive.

Avoiding euphemisms

Socially, you may need to use some euphemisms if you don't want to offend someone or be thought of as insensitive. In your writing, however, strive to be direct. Resist the temptation to be overly polite, to cover up hard facts, or to inflate something by using a euphemistic term.

Examples of euphemisms

Euphemisms are everywhere, and more are born every day. This brief list should make you think about the various reasons they exist.

  • au naturel, in the buff: naked

  • categorical inaccuracy: lie

  • collateral damage: in a bombing, civilian casualties and destruction of civilian buildings

  • comfort station: public toilet

  • (the) departed: the dead person; died

  • disincentive: penalty; reprisal

  • disinformation: lie

  • enhanced interrogation techniques: torture

  • ethnic cleansing: eliminating people from racial or national backgrounds different from your own; eliminating is itself a euphemism for deporting, or killing

  • fabricate: make up

  • freedom fighters: rebels fighting a government seen as hostile to one's own interests

  • friendly fire: artillery fire from one's own forces that accidentally or mistakenly wounds or kills someone on one's own side

  • furlough (employees): lay off

  • gaming: gambling

  • gentlemen's club: strip club

  • imbibe, feeling no pain (and many others): drink, getting drunk

  • inventory leakage: theft

  • job action: a strike or work slowdown

  • neutralize: to take out of action, to kill

  • out‐source: for cost‐saving purposes, to send work to workers outside of the organization (sometimes far away) to whom no benefits need be paid rather than hire full‐time workers with benefits

  • pacify: to repress or destroy an enemy

  • personal flotation device: life preserver on an airplane or boat

  • preowned: used, for example, used car

  • relocation center: an American‐style prison camp used to hold Japanese‐Americans during World War II

  • revenue enhancements: taxes

  • reverse engineering: taking something apart to see how it works and then copying it

  • stress‐producing stimulus: electric shock

  • surreptitious entry: break‐in

  • visually challenged: blind; challenged has become part of a host of euphemisms both serious and humorous (for example, vertically challenged for short)