Euphemism Study Guide (page 2)
This lesson focuses on euphemisms, words that we use to avoid using other words.
A euphemism is a substitution of a mild, indirect, or vague expression for one that might be thought offensive, harsh, or too blunt. This might suggest that speakers and writers use euphemisms merely to display good manners, but euphemisms are used for other reasons, not all of which are honest attempts to be more polite or avoid offending anyone.
Euphemisms are often used
- to avoid speaking directly about something one fears,
- to avoid speaking the truth; using double talk to hide one's real meaning,
- to avoid naming a person or thing, using a synonym in order to appear innocent of slander,
- to avoid naming something considered taboo (unacceptable, forbidden in polite society),
- to avoid repeating the same name or idea, as a name-calling device in political or social issue debates,
- to avoid revealing a secret or allowing others to overhear a name (frequently used in spy novels and movies),
- to avoid too much seriousness and make light of a difficult situation.
How Will Euphemisms Build Your Word Power?
As you know, the best way to increase your vocabulary is to read—this book and anything and everything else! Additionally, listen carefully to everything you hear—on the radio and TV, in conversations with friends, parents, and teachers. You'll pick up lots of new words to help increase your vocabulary. You'll soon be acquiring new words unconsciously, without using flash cards or study lists or even thinking about it!
Listening for euphemisms also increases your vocabulary and your sensitivity to word meanings. As you notice euphemisms, you'll automatically sense the variations and nuances (small differences in meaning) in language that euphemisms employ. For example, if someone says they live in a working class neighborhood, you may guess that they don't live in the wealthiest, fanciest part of town. When someone says a neighborhood is in transition, what do you think they mean? What reality does the uphemism cover?
How do you know if a word or phrase is a euphemism or simply a synonym? Ask yourself what the motive was for choosing the word or words. Why this particular word? Does it hide some secret motive? If the answer is yes, then it's probably a euphemism.
Euphemisms aren't usually made up of difficult words, but are usually a sign that a sensitive or complicated idea is being simplified or covered up. The following is a list of some common euphemisms. As you read the list, write down other euphemisms you've heard.
Euphemisms About Death
This is the largest category of frequently used euphemisms, no doubt because death is so universally feared and so little understood.
- passed away; checked out; bit the Big One; kicked the bucket; bought the farm; pushing daisies; sleeping the Big Sleep; gone six feet under
Notice how all these phrases include a hint of humor to mask the seriousness of the subject they are refusing to acknowledge directly.
Euphemisms About Politics
Next to death, the subject that probably causes the most emotion—and therefore prompts the frequent use of euphemisms—is politics. Have you heard politicians use any of these euphemisms, and can you describe what they actually mean?
- free the people; tax the rich and give to the poor; reclaim our cities; shake up Washington; loosen government controls; stop big government
Euphemisms About War
The terrible circumstances of war create numerous opportunities for speakers and writers to attempt to soften the blow of war's harsh realities.
- friendly fire (accidental killing of one's own comrades); collateral damage (killing innocent bystanders); pacification (killing or controlling citizens of enemy states); post-traumatic stress disorder, also referred to as PTSD (emotional and mental disturbances resulting from war experiences)
Euphemisms About Education
The educational system creates more than its share of euphemisms by seeking to paint a pretty picture (another euphemism) to address difficult problems.
- social promotion (advancing a failing student to the next grade even if his or her academic performance is not adequate); holding back (failing a student a whole grade year); English Language Learners (the latest term for people learning English as a second language); special ed (education for students who have difficulty in regular classes); No Child Left Behind (the policy of testing student and school performance against national standards to detect inadequate educational performance)
TIP: Listen and read carefully. When you catch a euphemism being used, try to translate it into the reality it's seeking to mask.
Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:
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