Euphemisms (Words used to Avoid Offending People)

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.

25 thoughts on “Euphemisms (Words used to Avoid Offending People)

  1. Paulo

    It is very important know how to say some euphemisms, because speaking a foreign language you sometimes can say things that sound ironic or offensive for native speakers.

  2. Sima

    In the text about euphemisms you use the phrase ‘there are a number of euphemisms…’. Is it OK to use the plural form of the verb ‘be’ in this case? I was taught to use the singular form ‘is’ when followed by the article ‘a’. Could you comment on the usage, please? It’s a bit baffling for a non-native speaker.

    1. Nhi

      I think ‘a number of’ means several, so the object here is a plural noun (euphemisms)and that’s why you must use “there are” before it.

      1. soar into clouds

        a number of actually means many,in huge quantity,of course it is with plural verbs😊

  3. ANNA stb

    Being tactful and precise at the same time is in general a challenging task, let alone in a foreign language! So, that is a very helpful piece of information!

  4. Tubtim

    Thank you for information. I have learnt a lot. Being a non-native speaker, it is very vital to know what should or shouldn’t be said.

  5. it’s like the truth covered by chocolate … i don’t agree with this i like truth without chocolate …. Whenever human courage decreased whenever start searching for something to hide his cowardice words full of hypocrisy. Do I have to be a hypocrite to love me. Or frank and clear to hate me. I prefer the second … because there is good and evil … ugly and beautiful .. black and white ……. there is nothing in between …….

    1. Savannah

      I mean actually there are lots of things between all of those examples. Gray is between black and white. Plain is between ugly and beautiful. And as for good and evil, there’s a lot of words smack dab in the middle of the two, fine, okay, decent, not bad (but not good.) Etc…

  6. So true,l was shocked the other day after l lost my sister when my best friend called me and say “sorry for your lose, l never knew your sister died” that was after she called and l was still sad that caused me not to speak loud as l used’s better to use polite words like “passed on/away ,lost someone,than put it directly,to me it sound like discourteous manner.

    1. EJ

      Aww… I also agree with you! It is so much more better to say something in a polite way in order not to hurt one’s feeling.

      #veryinterestingBlog btw

  7. Pingback: Figures of speech | ELT Infodump

  8. Leesa Moran

    Until the appropriate age to explain the difference in shut up and hush to my daughter, she thought shut up was a bad word. A friend ask why we didn’t use shut up. After some thought and not wanting to offend her I simply said tact.

  9. Fled From Nowhere

    There are also entire ‘constructions’ to sound less direct and soften your message, like, for example, when one says ‘I’m not a big fan of…’ or ‘I don’t like it very much’.

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