by Kate Woodford
We recently looked at the language that we use to describe lies and lying. One area of lying that we considered was ‘being slightly dishonest, or not speaking the complete truth’. One reason for not speaking the complete truth is to avoid saying something that might upset or offend people. Words and phrases that we use to avoid being offensive or upsetting are called euphemisms and there are a great number of them in the English language. Many euphemisms are known by native speakers of English, but are rarely used. Some are used to be intentionally humorous while others are very much part of normal, current English. Here, we focus on the last set – those euphemisms that genuinely are used by English speakers today to express things more gently or politely.
Not surprisingly, some of the most frequently heard euphemisms relate to death. A lot of people do not like to say that someone has died. It sounds too direct, perhaps even a bit shocking. They prefer instead to use the gentler phrasal verb pass away: I’m afraid her mum passed away yesterday. Another euphemistic way to say that someone has died is to say that you have lost someone: She lost her father only recently. Similarly, when people take a very sick or old pet to a veterinary surgeon in order to have it painlessly killed, they often say they have had the pet put to sleep: We’re all sad today, having had our beloved dog, Daisy, put to sleep.
Predictably, there are a number of euphemisms relating to age, most of which are intended to be funny. One, however, that is used seriously, especially in signs and notices, is the polite phrase senior citizen, meaning ‘old person’: Discounts are available for senior citizens.
Some people do not like to describe a woman as pregnant, perhaps feeling that the statement is a little direct and rude, or even just too medical. Instead, they say that she is expecting or she is expecting a baby/child: The singer is said to be expecting a baby boy with husband Ben Kennedy.
When a company stops employing people because there is no longer work for them, they sometimes use the euphemistic phrase to let people go: If this trend continues, we may have to let some staff go. (That verb ‘let’ suggests that the company is allowing the staff to leave whereas in fact, they have no choice in the matter.)
Finally, we sometimes have to give our opinion on something – a piece of clothing or a painting, for example – that we find strange or ugly. In this situation, people sometimes use the word interesting to describe the item in order to avoid saying anything more offensive.