The Every Once In A While Writer
Keying in to Euphemisms – an excerpt from a writers’ guide
The word euphemism comes from the Greek word euphēmismós and can be translated roughly to “fair speech”. Today however, it can be defined as an expression used to replace another to make writing or speech appear less blunt or offensive. In writing, euphemisms can be both your friend and your enemy depending on the context. Below are some instances where euphemisms are most commonly used.
Euphemisms are used to be more polite or socially acceptable. Take the following examples:
“Excuse me, I have to go pee.”
“Excuse me, I have to go to the restroom.”
“I’m sorry that your grandma died.”
“I’m sorry that your grandma passed away.”
Other cases are when we want to make something harsh sound more pleasant. Take the following examples:
“Because we are almost broke, the company will be firing employees.”
“Because we are experiencing inadequate fiscal supplies, the company will be downsizing personnel.”
“It is fair to assume that some students at Miami University take drugs.”
“It is fair to assume that some students at Miami University experiment with recreational chemicals.”
The final example is when we use a euphemism to avoid a negative stereotype and avoid insulting someone.
“The boy has to be in different classes because he is retarded.”
“The boy has to be in different classes because he is developmentally disabled.”
“The elderly lady is crippled, so she gets to park in the front of the building.”
“The elderly lady is differently abled, so she gets to park in the front of the building.”
As you can see from these examples, euphemisms tend to make ideas sound more congenial. As a society, as we become more uncomfortable with a word or phrase, we tend to create newer and ‘shinier’ words to cover up the unpleasantness. This is where the issue arises, do euphemisms cover up stereotypes? Can we hide negative connotations with fancier language? Obviously the last set of examples can be seen as insulting – even I strongly dislike the words used. But note, this is what writers need to be aware of. Many may argue that when we use a word to cover a stereotype, that word simply gains the same connotation as the original, suggesting that words do not exhibit meaning, but rather the subject itself.
Take the example from above: “The boy has to be in different classes because he is retarded.” This term is not commonly used. In fact, it is seen more in casual conversation than it is used professionally in modern society. Formerly, retarded itself was a euphemism itself for the word stupid because it was seen as less offensive. So how did we end up where we are now? We euphemize. And then we euphemize some more. Then some more! Words lose meaning and the underlying concept keeps peering through. No matter how, as we write or talk, we try to cover up the negative connotations, our audience subconsciously ties it back to the same negativity.
Euphemisms are the language of stereotypes. We hear one word, we tie it to the original concept, and we create a stereotype. Sadly, this is inevitable. Each of us grows up with generalized ideas about a group of people; and these negative stereotypes do not go away simply because we sugarcoat them. It’s like covering a disgusting fruitcake with yummy chocolate frosting. Yes, it may seem a whole lot more appealing, but the second you take a bite, you know what you’re really eating.
This may leave many writers – and readers – wondering. They wonder where the line is. Where do we euphemize and where do we insult? There is no direct answer to this. Many euphemisms are simply seen as socially acceptable compared to the blunt or harsh alternatives. However, many can be seen as just as insulting. And everyday, we see euphemisms in both lights. I opened saying that euphemisms can be your enemy or your friend in writing – it just depends how much chocolate frosting you want to cover that fruitcake with.