A euphemism is handy when you need to replace another word or description for something you wrote that is too harsh, blunt, unpleasant, or embarrassing. Like, you know, ah, gimme a good way to talk about a bad thing.
Ya wanta back up—do the samo samo in reverse through the rear-view mirror? Try a dysphemism. Use a negative connotation instead of a positive one; call a cemetery a boneyard. Euphemisms and dysphemism are hideouts and work especially well where puritanical roots are inlaid—they say BS and mean it, but if challenged they step back and say, you know, baby shoes. Winston Churchill was talking about lies when he admitted to terminological inexactitudes.
Polite women have been known to deny saying the queen-mother of dirty words by insisting they said fudge. Instead of testicles they talk about a man’s junk.
Euphemisms are common in everyday conversations, social media postings, and snarly notes. We say someone is between jobs to avoid saying they are unemployed. We don’t say old, we soften that reality by saying they are getting on. He’s not the sharpest pencil in the box when he’s stupid. Fat guys become big boned. Rude girls are placated when we say they don’t suffer fools gladly. Some people never get fired but they were let go. Others are made redundant because their jobs don’t exist. That sounds better than saying they’ve been replaced by a computer.
Unquestionably, politicians live by euphemisms. They talk about dicey or unpopular situations without talking about them. Instead, they use euphemisms. On the left it’s called political correctness—on the right it’s patriotic correctness. Using euphemisms transmits political-tribal membership without the risk of losing ambivalent voters to support a policy choice. If the politician gets nasty about the other political tribe’s euphemisms might get them elected President. Don’t use the accurate legal term, illegal alien, which used to be a term without political bias by nativists; say illegal immigrant to hide racism and bigotry.
Was there anyone in the hall when Ella Fitzgerald sang her classic 1958 song but did not know what she was talking about? “Another bride, another June, Another sunny honeymoon; Another season, another reason; For makin’ whoopee.” She know millions of people went home that night to make whoopee. Shakespeare’s Othello said it this way. “I am one sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are making the beast with two backs.”
Janet Jackson got close when she had that famous “wardrobe malfunction.”
In the 2019 election one side of the aisle used “blue collar” to appeal to white audiences without college degrees. “Let’s Go Brandon” became code for insulting Joe Biden. Trump was defined by two sentences. “Molecular gastronomy! The President’s submission to the final challenge was a race foam atop a tweet that had been sous-vided in racial juices and paired with a dehydrated dog whistle.”
The New York Times spilled the beans when they reported the death of democracy under the cover of euphemism. “You can date it to Republican repackaging of the estate tax as a “death tax,” or tax cuts for the rich morphing into “tax relief” for the overly burdened. And were French fries really “freedom fries” during a spasm of faux patriotism? The Democrats are doing it now with the Green New Deal and ‘Medicare for all’ — both of which sound pleasantly pie-in-the-sky and historically resonant until you look at the details.”
Nixon should have won a euphemistic prize for his borrowing of Calvin Coolidge’s 1920 presidential campaign phrase—the silent majority. Before that it was the favorite euphemism for people who had died. Nixon modernized it in his November 3, 1969, speech. “And so tonight—to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans, I ask for your support.” He was talking under his breath about Americans who did not join in the large demonstrations against the Vietnam War and who did not join the so-called counterculture. He degraded them without mentioning them.
The ethical use of euphemisms in creative writing is a loose net that favors words used in place of shocking, inappropriate, or unpleasant language. It’s ethically permissible to be subtle, or coy if your character is subtle or coy. But in informative or academic writing, using euphemisms is generally thought to be dishonest of misleading. In both cases, using euphemisms can be cliché, which suggests lazy writing. Fortunately, lazy writing is neither ethical nor unethical. It’s just mailing it in instead of burning enough midnight oil.
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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