A Philosopher's Blog

Euphemism

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on January 14, 2015

With the start of a new semester, I have gotten a bit behind on my blogging. But, since I am working on a book on rhetorical devices, I have an easy solution; here is an example from the book:

When I was a kid, people bought used cars. These days, people buy fine pre-owned vehicles. There is (usually) no difference between the meanings 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. 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 would 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.

Euphemisms and some other rhetorical devices make use of the fact that words or phrases have connotations as well as denotations. Put a bit simply, the denotation of a term is the literal meaning of the term. The connotation of the term is its emotional association. Terms can have the same denotation but very different connotations. For example “child” and “rug rat” have rather different emotional associations.

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 euphemism is to replace the positive term with a neutral term that has the same meaning. For example, for “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

“Pre-owned” for “used.”

“Neutralization” for “killing.”

“Freedom fighter” for “terrorist”

“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.”

“Adult entertainment” or “adult material” for “pornography.”

“Sanitation engineer” for “garbage man.”

“Escort”, “call girl”, or “lady of the evening” for “prostitute.”

“Gentlemen’s club” for “strip club.”

“Exotic dancer” for “stripper”

“A little thin on top” for “bald.”

“In a family way” for “pregnant.”

“Sleeping with” for “having sex with.”

“Police action” for “undeclared war.”

“Downsized” for “fired.”

“Wardrobe malfunction” for “exposure.”

“Commandeer” for “steal.”

“Modify the odds in my favor” for “cheat.”

5 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on January 14, 2015 at 10:21 pm

    “Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear” – http://www.amazon.com/Words-That-Work-What-People/dp/1401302599

    “Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear” (.pdf) – http://www.mohamedrabeea.com/books/book1_10476.pdf

    “Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear” – http://youtu.be/vbP55N9trdM

  2. WTP said, on January 15, 2015 at 1:29 pm

    “Philosophy” for “Lying”

  3. Glen Wallace said, on January 16, 2015 at 1:44 am

    Here are some more proposed examples of euphemisms:

    “Sanctions” for “siege.”

    “Wealth effect” for “trickle down economics.”

    “Free market” for “laissez faire.”

  4. tom hewitt said, on January 17, 2015 at 10:35 am

    “Pre-owned” is a particularly insipid euphemism. All cars, even new ones, have been owned by someone, the manufacturer or dealer. It’s not like they’ve been found floating in the ocean.


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