John Larrysson Column: Euphemisms:Polite Lies

Euphemisms are words or expressions that politely replace something too disturbing to say in plain language. Students ask to go to the washroom. We do not want them to tell us what they really need to do. We know that they do not need washing. The word washroom is used as a polite lie, called a euphemism.

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Sometimes, such as in the case of washroom, a variation is put on a word to avoid being offensive. A very small flat might be called cosy by a polite guest. A person who drinks too much alcohol is described as having a drinking problem. Of course drinking is not the problem, what and how much is being drunk is the problem. The statements are true, but are not exactly the full intended meaning.

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Sometimes word substitution is used. A teacher hits his toe and says, “sugar”, instead of a profanity. (I often use the word sugar in this manner.) Other times the original word is only changed phonetically. In English it is impolite to use religious names as exclamations. So some people will say Jeez instead of Jesus.

Taking euphemisms literally can be humorous. A mother used the word banana when talking to her son. She used this euphemism to avoid directly mentioning a part of the male body that must be washed. The precocious boy, left the shower, went into the kitchen and got an actual banana from the fruit bowl, washed it and gave it to his mother.

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A student in class would get in trouble if they say the word for human excrement beginning with the letter s, but not if they use the euphemism s-word. As in the case when a girl shouted, “Mr. Larrysson, Tommy used the s-word!” In English the student can also avoid getting into trouble by using a word from a different, historically higher-status, language. So instead of saying there is some dog's s-word on the ground, he can use a Latin word and say: Don't step in the dog's faeces. (It is not actually the correct Latin word; it means dregs.) The point is just to use another word as a substitution, but to have the real meaning guessed.

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Business managers want to avoid saying that they are firing people because management failed to keep their company profitable. Instead they say they are downsizing the company, as if they deliberately wanted a small company instead of a large one. It is rude to say that someone is a liar, so instead the euphemism economical with the truth is used. When an army accidentally shoots their own soldiers, it is called friendly fire, which sounds much more gentle.

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Euphemisms can sometimes confuse people who have had less English experience. Which is more polite than saying, that they have poor English ability. However politeness often requires us to hide what we really want to say and hope that the listener understands our meaning anyway. Next week, I will cover when euphemisms can be dangerous.

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by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for two decades.


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