English Language

Euphemisms – what are they and why are they used?

Lisa Tran

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Ah euphemisms… sweet-sounding words that hide the truth or promote social harmony. But what exactly are they? Do euphemisms help our society or hinder it? Euphemisms are used more often than you think and after reading this article your brain will be attuned to spotting them in everyday society. Therefore, you’ll be able to include them in your essays!

Firstly, let’s define what a euphemism is. Dictionary.com defines a euphemism as “the substitution of a mild, indirect, or vague expression for one thought to be offensive, harsh, or blunt”. The example it gives is the classic euphemism ‘to pass away’ as opposed to ‘die’. Think about all of the situations where ‘pass away’ may be used instead of ‘die’. Why would the speaker wish to euphemise (verb form of euphemism) die instead of saying it outright? Oftentimes, the use of euphemism is equated to societal politeness; in everyday terms this means that we want to save face or present social awkwardness with taboo topics. A taboo topic is a subject that society deems to be improper or unacceptable, while also be excluded from use of practice. Since death is such a sensitive topic, it generally is euphemised to promote social harmony.

It’s important, however, that when you talk about euphemisms you ensure you include MODERN examples, not overused and clichéd examples (such as ‘pass away’). An example of a modern day euphemism would be when Tony Abbott held a press conference on the Sydney Siege, calling it ‘politically motivated violence’. In my opinion, this would be a euphemism for ‘terrorism’. The question to ask and elaborate on would therefore be ‘why would Tony Abbott euphemism terrorism on public television?’. A possible reason may be that violence and terrorism have such a high level of associated stigma that using the word may evoke an unwelcomed response from the public. The purpose of Tony Abbott’s public address was to calm the public, and perhaps by using the word ‘terrorism’, it may evoke feelings of fearfulness within the public audience.

In addition, euphemisms may also be used to manipulate the intended audience. In times of war, reporters of newspapers often used manipulatory language to hide or conceal the truth. For example, the intentionally bloodless term “collateral damage,” used during war, is particularly irritating in this regard. Collateral in this context means “secondary,” or “indirect.” Damage means “physical harm caused to something in such a way as to impair its value, usefulness, or normal function.” The point of the term is to distance ourselves from the horror that actually happened: the killing and wounding of non-combatants during an act of war. In my opinion, basic respect for these victims should require accurate terminology in describing the carnage, rather than concealing the heinousness of the fatalities.

Can you think of any other euphemisms? Leave a comment below!

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