Euphemism: Toning Down What You Write

by | Writing | 8 comments

image by aitoff

What a Euphemism Is 


  • The word euphemism comes from a Greek word meaning sounding good.
  • A euphemism is a literary device in which the writer substitutes a softer, less offensive expression for a person, place, thing, or event. The word may sound more polite, but it gets the message across.


Common Examples of Euphemism 


  • Died ⇒ passed away, departed, bought the farm
  • Prison ⇒ correctional facility
  • Pregnant ⇒ in the family way
  • Fired ⇒ let go
  • Firing employees  downsizing, staff being realigned
  • Obese ⇒ stout, plump, portly
  • Unemployed ⇒ between jobs
  • Garbage man ⇒ sanitation engineer
  • Poor  working class, economically disadvantaged
  • Broke  negative cash flow
  • Lie  put a spin on the truth
  • image by OpenClipart-Vector-images

    Drunk  had a few
  • Body odor ⇒ manly scent, B.O.
  • Bald ⇒ thin on top
  • Blunder  faux pas
  • Before I die  before I go
  • Sweat  perspiration, misting
  • Genocide  ethnic cleansing
  • Used car  pre-enjoyed vehicle



Why Use Euphemisms


  • Writers employ euphemisms in dialogue if a character doesn’t want to be considered insensitive, prejudiced, or unkind. For example, a character might say in a meeting, “It’s not my fault the Dugan family lives in substandard housing.” However, he says to his wife, “How do people like the Dugans cause themselves to live in such a slum?”
  • A character may use euphemisms to escape responsibility for something. For example, when innocent people are killed, he may call this collateral damage.
  • Euphemisms sometimes help paint the period of the story. For example, using powder room for toilet instead of the more current restroom.
  • image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images

    They are often used to tone down profanity.
  • Writers use euphemisms to write figuratively about taboo issues. Possibly replace euthanize with put to sleep.
  • Euphemisms can add humor or hint at the ridiculous. For example, when a father asks why his teenage son was fired, the son says, “I was told I was partially proficient and the company’s staff was being re-engineered during a time when they’re dealing with under-performing assets.”


Euphemisms soften offensive expressions while getting the point across. Click to tweet.

When has one of your characters used a euphemism that helped define the character’s personality?

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  1. pamelasthibodeaux

    great post Zoe!
    Good luck and God’s blessings

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Thanks, Pam for stopping by.

  2. Cleo Lampos

    I tend to use a lot of them in my writing. After years of writing diagnostic reports for Special Education, it is hard to just come out and say what is obvious.

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Thank you, Cleo, for giving us a real life example. Sometimes I wonder what will offend someone more—the “obvious” or the euphemism.

  3. marilyn leach

    My main character uses euphemisms all the time, as she’s English and a vicar’s wife. I find that the British use a great deal of what we’d call euphemisms. Cheers

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Interesting, Marilyn. Would you care to share a few the British use?

  4. Marcia

    I used “get rid of” instead of “kill” or “murder” when telling Bible stories to the preschoolers.

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      I did too, Marcia. That’s a great example of using euphemisms.

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