English Language

Euphemism (English Language)

Nick Farmer

October 30, 2020

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[Video Transcription]

Sometimes when using language we may want to, or need to discuss a topic that is uncomfortable to deal with directly. For these cases we often employ the technique of euphemism to make the bad things sound better. As Quentin Crisp put it, "Euphemisms are unpleasant truths wearing diplomatic cologne".

Semantic fields and situational contexts

Euphemism is found in a wide range of semantic fields and situational contexts, but a few where they appear often include:

  • In the domain of politics and political correctness
  • In public-facing language, such as press conferences and interviews
  • In discussions around uncomfortable topics such as death, termination of employment, and sex
  • In the corporate world

So this begs the question of why people sometimes choose to employ euphemism, and what social effects it has on relationships and also society as a whole?

The purpose of euphemism

There are two sides to the euphemism coin, which are important to keep in mind when discussing and observing the use of euphemism. On the one hand, it can allow us to talk about uncomfortable topics more easily and without losing face, but on the other it can mask the truth or even be used to actively confuse others.

Many would argue that the primary purpose of euphemism is to maintain positive face, and it can often be very effective in doing so. Let’s consider the example of an employer navigating the social taboo topic of dismissing one of their employees. No matter how they go about broaching this topic, some of the face needs of the employee will not be met. According to a variety of online human resources sites, some of the euphemisms that employers or hiring managers are encouraged to use, include:

  • "Exit strategy”
  • “Career change opportunity”
  • “Freeing for availability to the industry”
  • “Making a team move”

These terms are widely favoured over the bluntness of something like “you’re fired”. By using such euphemisms, employers seek to put the focus onto the minor upsides of being laid off, rather than directly dealing with what will often feel like a personal attack for the employee. In this way, they try to, although not necessarily effectively, meet the face needs of both their employee and themselves in navigating this socially taboo topic.

The euphemisms that we use can also reflect and reveal our shifting social mores as the euphemisms that we use change over time. For example, if we consider the words we use surrounding the semantic domain of animal slaughter, we are seeing more and more euphemisms being employed today, as the topic becomes taboo and unpalatable. Instead of “killing” animals, today people are describing animals as being “depopulated” or “harvested”. We can even see this shift in how we describe the deaths of household pets, who are “put down”, rather than “euthanised”. Such euphemisms reflect our society’s shifting values and attitudes, namely that we now value animal life far more than we have in the past. We now wish to avoid the negative connotation surrounding the traditional lexemes of this semantic field, in order to maintain social harmony and positive face.

However, euphemism is also often used to hide or conceal the truth, and can mislead both those who hear it, and even those who use it. Clear communication is sometimes sacrificed for the sake of maintaining one’s positive face. When euphemism is used to obfuscate the truth, it is often classed as “doublespeak”, a term stemming from the neologisms “doublethink” and “newspeak” in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. For example, local councils may describe a “pot-hole” as a “pavement deficiency” to save face in being unwilling or unable to repair roads. This term is deliberately ambiguous as to the nature of the specific damage, and has been chosen over the far clearer and more familiar term “pot-hole” in an effort to obscure the truth. According to linguist Kate Burridge, euphemisms such as these “tell us how it isn’t”.

Even something as commonplace as life-insurance policies are in reality euphemistic terms for something that really insures one’s death. But insurance agencies and carriers don’t want their product being associated with the social taboo of death, and instead they choose to use the more positively-connoted term “life” to create positive brand recognition. All sorts of euphemisms surround us constantly, and we are often so used to them being used, that we don’t even notice.

Linguist Stephen Pinker describes a “euphemism treadmill”, which is a good metaphor for the way that the connotations of euphemisms can often change over time, as they are used and over-used. The classic example of this process is in the terms used by Nazi officials in the late 1930s and '40s to describe the Holocaust. Initially, the term “Sonderbehandlung” or “special treatment” was used to refer to the summary execution of so-called “unfavourable people”. However, this term quickly became as negatively connoted as the term it was designed to replace among the German people, and so the phrase “die Endlösung der Judenfrage”, “the final solution to the Jewish Question” was formulated - a phrase which again became infamously associated with the atrocities of the Holocaust during the Nuremburg trials. In fact, we’ve observed the overwhelmingly negative connotation of this former euphemism recently in Australia, with Fraser Anning being met with widespread criticism after using this term in the senate. In this example, we can see how over time euphemisms can lose their ameliorating effect as they become more associated with that which they are trying to mask.

Whether you believe that euphemisms are a valuable and useful part of our language, or that they are ambiguous and misleading, their prevalence in our contemporary Australian society make them an important part of a discussion of the evolving semantics of Australian English and of language as a whole.

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