Ever encounter euphemism examples that make you go… huh?
I distinctly remember standing in my grandmother’s kitchen one night when I was eight years old.
The adults in my extended family were sitting around the kitchen table drinking wine. Suddenly someone exclaimed, “That’s BS!”
I popped around the corner, eyes wide, and asked, “What’s BS?”
I watched their eyebrows lift. Waited as they scrambled for an answer. And then my aunt quickly answered, “It means baby shoes.”
They all laughed.
And I went back to what I was doing, not convinced she was telling the truth.
This may not have been my first experience with euphemistic language, but it certainly stuck with me over the years.
As I got older, I began to recognize there’s often a more polite way to say something:
Enter the euphemism.
What is Euphemism?
The folks here at Smart Blogger define euphemism as a “good way to talk about a bad thing.”
I’d expand that definition a bit and call it a polite expression for unpleasant truths or things that might otherwise be considered taboo or have a negative connotation.
As a writer, there will be times that a polite euphemism is necessary. Other times, using them could even improve your writing.
Let’s look at some other related literary devices (aka literary terms) you can use to build out your writerly toolbox.
Innuendo hints at the truth without directly stating something unpleasant or inappropriate.
For example, someone might indicate they got “extra help” on a test rather than admitting they cheated.
Being “PC” often involves language filled with euphemistic-sounding language. But in reality, political correctness is intended to be respectfully and directly polite.
For example, it’s politically correct to speak of someone’s struggles with mental illness rather than call them “crazy.”
No an idiom is not a dumb-dumb (you’re thinking of idoit!)
Idioms are often cultural words or phrases that imaginatively convey an idea. It’s a literary device that’s not meant to be taken literally.
For example, people often joke about brides and grooms getting “cold feet” right before the wedding.
When the substituted word or phrase has a negative connotation rather than a positive one, you might be dealing with a dysphemism.
For example, someone might refer to a cemetery as a “boneyard.”
And of course, no conversation on euphemisms would be complete without sharing one of my favorite George Carlin bits.
(Warning: Georgie uses some pretty strong language at times, so cover your youngster’s ears)
Now that you have that euphemism definition, let’s look at some common types of euphemism and explore the colorful world of figurative language further.
66 Examples of Euphemisms
Given our Puritanical roots here in the US, it’s no wonder euphemisms are everywhere. From bodily functions to religion to money, there are lots of topics folks are uncomfortable discussing.
Let’s look at the nine most common euphemism categories and several examples of each.
Examples of Euphemisms in Everyday Conversation
- The car isn’t used; it’s “certified pre-owned.”
- She’s not sick; she’s “under the weather.”
- He’s not a liar; he’s “creative with the truth.”
- They’re not in a sexual relationship; they’re “friends with benefits.”
- People don’t go to prison; it’s a “correctional facility.”
- He’s not poor; he’s “economically disadvantaged.”
- She didn’t break up with him; she “needed some space.”
Famous Examples of Euphemism
- It wasn’t a lie; it was a “terminological inexactitude.”
Perhaps we have been guilty of some terminological inexactitudes. – Winston Churchill, to the British House of Commons in 1906
- He didn’t say the f-word; he said “oh, fudge.”
Only I didn’t say “Fudge.” I said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the ‘F-dash-dash-dash’ word! – Ralphie, from the 1983 movie A Christmas Story
- She’s not talking about her buttocks; she’s referencing her “boom boom.”
Cause I got that boom boom that all the boys chase; All the right junk in all the right places. – Meghan Trainor, from her song All About That Bass
- He didn’t engage in an extramarital affair; he “slipped his moorings.”
I can, however, try to move forward in a manner that is consistent with the values to which I subscribed before slipping my moorings. – Former CIA Director David Petraeus, in apologizing for his affair
- He’s not trying to make direct physical contact; he wants to “get to second base.”
Me, I’m trying just to get to second base, and I’d steal it if she only gave the sign. – Billy Joel, comparing himself to Pete Rose in the song Zanzibar
- It’s not sexual intercourse; it’s “making whoopee.”
Another bride, another June; Another sunny honeymoon; Another season, another reason; For makin’ whoopee – Ella Fitzgerald, in her classic 1958 song Makin’ Whoopie
- Janet Jackson’s breast wasn’t exposed; it was a “wardrobe malfunction.”
I am sorry that anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance of the Super Bowl. It was not intentional and is regrettable. – Justin Timberlake, apologizing for his part in the accidental exposure during the 2004 Super Bowl
- You’re not fired; you’re being “let go.”
- He’s not unemployed; he’s “between jobs.”
- She didn’t get fired; she “chose to resign.”
- You’re not unable to find a job; you’re just “considering your options.”
- She’s not in a job that’s below her career level; she’s just “under-employed.”
- He wasn’t fired; his company is “downsizing.”
- They didn’t decide to quit and find other work; they wanted to “pivot” their career.
- He’s not cheap; he’s “economical.”
- The bill isn’t past due; there’s an “outstanding payment.”
- They aren’t chronic over-spenders; they’re just experiencing “lifestyle inflation.”
- It’s not a purchase you’re trying to justify; it’s an “investment.”
- She’s not on a budget; she’s “thrifty.”
- Someone didn’t try to persuade them with a financial bribe; they were “paid off.”
- The company didn’t illegally change the information in their accounting; they “cooked the books.”
Euphemisms for Death & Dying
- He didn’t die; he “passed over to the other side.”
- She’s not deceased; she’s the “dearly departed.”
- They didn’t die; they “bought the farm.”
- She’s not deceased; she “kicked the bucket.”
- The family dog didn’t die; they went “over the rainbow bridge.”
- He’s not deceased; he’s “sleeping with the fishes.”
- They didn’t die; they “met an untimely demise.”
Examples of Religious Euphemisms
- You don’t mean to take the Lord’s name in vain; you’re simply saying “Gosh, Golly, Ye Gads, or by Jove.”
- It’s also potentially blasphemous to call on Jesus Christ; you might say “Gee Whiz, Cripes, Jeepers, Jiminy Cricket, or maybe even Jibbers Crabst).
- It’s not speaking of damning someone or something; it’s “Durn, Darn, Dang, or Doggone.”
- It’s possibly problematic to use the term Lord the same way; you might exclaim “Lordy, Lawd, or Lawdy.”
- It’s also not talking about Christ’s wounds; it’s “Zounds.”
- They’re not an Atheist; they have “theological ambivalence.”
- You wouldn’t say hell; instead, you’d say “what the Sam Hill?”
Examples of Euphemism in Literature
- Holden Caulfield isn’t asking Stradlater if he had sex on a date; he’s asking if “he gave her the time.”
“What’d you do?” I said. “Give her the time in Ed Banky’s goddam car?” – Scene from J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye
- She’s not talking about her sexual appetite; she’s referencing her “instrument.”
In wifehood I will use my instrument, As freely as my Maker has it sent. – The Wife of Bath’s Prologue from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales
- He’s not speaking about sexual intercourse; he’s telling her father that his daughter is “making the beast with two backs.”
I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs. – Iago in William Shakespeare’s play Othello
- He doesn’t want to be called insane; he’d rather you refer to him as “differently moraled.”
Don’t ever call me mad, Mycroft. I’m not mad. I’m just… well, differently moraled, that’s all. – Acheron Hades in Jasper Fforde’s novel The Eyre Affair
- He’s not talking about his potential death; he wants to communicate what happens if he “passes during some nocturnal blackness.”
If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm, When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn… – Stanza from Thomas Hardy’s poem Afterwards
- The animals aren’t getting less to eat; there simply needs to be a “readjustment of rations.”
It had been found necessary to make a readjustment of rations. – Squealer, to the other animals in George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm
- They didn’t have sex that resulted in pregnancy; he “plowed her” and she “cropped.”
She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed; He plowed her, and she cropped – Agrippa, speaking of Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra
Euphemisms for Bodily Functions
- He didn’t pass gas; he “broke wind.”
- They don’t have a cold; they have “the sniffles.”
- She’s not menstruating; it’s her “time of the month.”
- You don’t talk to your children about sexual intercourse and pregnancy; you tell them about “the birds and the bees.”
- He doesn’t have to urinate; he’s going to “see a man about a horse.”
- They didn’t vomit; they “tossed their cookies.”
- She’s not crying; her “eyes are leaking.”
Other Common Examples of Euphemisms
- You’re not old; you’re “over the hill.”
- She’s not pregnant; she “has a bun in the oven.”
- It’s not a strip club; it’s a “gentleman’s club.”
- It’s not an annoying telemarketer calling; it’s a “courtesy call.”
- The item isn’t stolen; it just “fell off the back of a truck.”
- It’s not a tiny cramped apartment; it’s “cozy.”
- It’s not pornography; it’s “adult entertainment.”
- They didn’t get a divorce; they “consciously uncoupled.”
- It’s not a lie; it’s an “alternate fact.”
- It’s not torture; it’s “enhanced interrogation.”
This certainly isn’t a comprehensive list of all the numerous euphemisms out there, but it should give you an idea of the types of phrases you can work into your creative writing (or everyday speech).
Euphemism Examples for the Tactful Writer
The next time you find yourself writing about a sensitive subject, you now have another literary device to use.
Your readers likely don’t need things softened to the point of “baby shoes,” but you can still avoid collateral damage on your way to a compelling piece of writing.
You only have one life to live — and lots of words to write — before you “meet your maker.”