A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on February 18, 2013
Historic car wreck on car cemetery in Kaufdorf...
A pre-owned car. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was assigned to committee number eight at 5:00 pm today, so I’m facing a bit of a challenge getting regular posts completed on time. I’ve also got the seven year program review, 4 classes and much more…

But, since I am working on a book on rhetoric, I can inflict some rough draft material on you until I either a) get more time or b) die.


When I was a kid, people bought used cars. These days, people buy fine pre-owned cars. There is no difference between the meaning of “used car” and “pre-owned car”—both refer to the same thing, namely a car someone else has owned and used. However, “used” sounds a bit nasty, perhaps suggesting that the car might be a bit sticky in places. In contrast, “pre-owned” sounds rather better. By substituting “pre-owned” for “used”, the car sounds somehow better, although it is the same car whether it is described as used or pre-owned.

If you need to make something that is negative sound positive without actually making it better, then a euphemism should be your tool of choice. A euphemism is a pleasant or at least inoffensive word or phrase that is substituted for a word or phrase that means the same thing but is unpleasant, offensive otherwise negative in terms of its connotation. To use an analogy, using a euphemism is like coating a bitter pill with sugar, making it easier to swallow.

The way to use a euphemism is to replace the key words or phrases that are negative in their connotation with those that are positive (or at least neutral). Naturally, it helps to know what the target audience regards as positive words, but generically positive words can do the trick quite well.

The defense against a euphemisms is to replace the positive term with a neutral term that has the same meaning. For example, if someone say “An American citizen was inadvertently neutralized during a drone strike”, the neutral presentation would be “An American citizen was killed during a drone strike.” While “killed” does have a negative connotation, it does describe the situation with more neutrality.

In some cases, euphemisms are used for commendable reasons, such as being polite in social situations or to avoid exposing children to “adult” concepts. For example, at a funeral it is considered polite to refer the dead person as “the departed” rather than “the corpse.”

Examples of Euphemisms

“Pre-owned” for “used.”

“Neutralization” for “killing.”

“Freedom fighter” for “terrrorist”

“Revenue enhancement” for “tax increase.”

“Down-sized” for “fired.”

“Between jobs” for “unemployed.”

“Passed” for “dead.”

“Office manager” for “secretary.”

“Custodian” for “janitor.”

“Detainee” for “prisoner.”

“Enhanced interrogation” for “torture.”

“Self-injurious behavior incidents” for “suicide attempts.”

“Democrat” for “Communist.”

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11 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on February 18, 2013 at 8:34 pm

    I think “pre-owned” originally meant: “relatively new with low milage” concerning vehicles. I ran into this issue with the local paper, which refused – and still refuses – to use the word “murder” when someone is murdered in their city, even when the person is charged with fist degree murder. They always refer to murders, when firearms are used, as “shooting deaths” which, as you know, could be accidental, and don’t sound as ugly as “murder” does. Likewise, when was the last time you heard of anyone being charged with “rape”? It’s always “sexual assault” and never “rape”. “Rape” is such an ugly word, too. As is “baby killing for hire” when we can call the same thing “a woman’s choice”.

  2. WTP said, on February 18, 2013 at 10:03 pm

    a quibble…it’s “Democrat for Socialist” and THEN “Socialist for Communist”. FIFY.

  3. T. J. Babson said, on February 18, 2013 at 11:25 pm

    Let’s not forget about “man-caused disasters.”

    • biomass2 said, on February 19, 2013 at 9:38 am

      Sometimes it’s impossible to remove the “man” from the “man-made disasters”. BP, Chernobyl. . .

  4. WTP said, on February 19, 2013 at 12:01 pm

    From Ace Of Spades:

    Sanford, who you’ll recall famously “hiked the Appalachian Trail” which is as we all know is a euphemism for “cut out on my wife, kids and the state I’m Governor of to screw my mistress in Argentina”. I think it makes more sense in Spanish but there you have it.

    • T. J. Babson said, on February 19, 2013 at 1:06 pm

      On the AT, nobody knows you’re a dog 🙂

  5. biomass2 said, on February 19, 2013 at 12:11 pm


    “My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence,”
    “The satellite photos shown by Mr. Powell reflected what he called “concealment” activity undertaken in response to the resumption of UN inspections last November, while other images depicted suspected manufacturing sites for biological and chemical weapons.”

    “facts” not ^exactly^
    “‘concealment’ activity” It’s not exactly a euphemism (but it’s a handy phrase to use to weave a story that is composed of ” not assertions” that are based on not-exactly-‘facts’.

  6. tha art uv wurdz said, on February 20, 2013 at 4:44 am

    like 9.99 supposedly being better than advertising R.10.00 flat.

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