Is the word euphemism a euphemism?

No. According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a euphemism is a vague expression that is used to conceal a harsh reality. In effect, euphemisms reduce precision of thought. The word euphemism, however, precisely names the phenomenon, so it doesn’t conceal anything.

Some common examples of euphemism are: pass away for die and make love for copulate. My personal favorites are the American military-term pacification mission (the napalming of peasant villages) and medicine's embryo reduction procedure (abortion).

Some examples of political euphemism are: underprivileged (poor), working people (unionized labour), special (handicapped), and - a golden oldie - liquidate (murder).

If there were a scale of euphemism power, say from 1 to 10, where the higher the number the harsher the reality being hidden , the phrase final solution (extermination of the Jews) would probably get a 10 and pass wind (fart) would get a 1.

The drawback of euphemism is that no matter what you call the nasty thing, the thing (e.g. death) remains nasty and, eventually, the euphemism becomes as offensive as the word it replaced and a new one must be found.

Linguists call this phenomenon deterioration (timid linguists refer to it - euphemistically – as negative amelioration).

This is a recurring problem in the funeral business. Formerly, those who put you under ground were called undertakers, but when that became offensive they renamed themselves morticians (a label proposed in 1895 by Embalmer's Monthly). Today, if you peruse the Yellow-pages, you won't find the word mortician; you will, instead, find funeral directors.” You will also find the phrase memorial centre, which seems to be the euphemism in embryo for funeral home.

Politicians are masters of euphemism. According to George Orwell, the reason for this is: "… political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible ... thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness." For example, when Conservatives want to cut social welfare, they speak of "fiscal restraint" and "responsible government," and when social democrats want to raise taxes they speak of "social justice."

I once worked for a member of the Canadian parliament. While doing this, I observed first hand the powerful urge to euphemize and obfuscate. Within months of taking office, I learned that every time you spoke clearly about an issue, you would offend someone and probably lose a vote. Sometimes we would get a letter from a former supporter saying just that. Note that we never got letters from non-supporters saying that they would now vote for us because of something my boss said.

Now, as the primary goal of average democratic politician is to get re-elected, my boss decided to play it safe and never again say anything that might offend anybody anywhere (even the unborn). And he became extremely good at speaking about controversial issues and saying absolutely nothing. Watching him speak was like watching someone enthusiastically drink water – but he never lost an election.

Here are some MooT questions that deal with euphemism

(1) Richard Nixon's press secretary, Ron Ziegler, called them "inoperative statements." What do English speakers call them?

(2) Spell the term that feminists coined to remove the "man" from "woman."

(3) What large land-mass's name is a euphemism?

(4) According to the Ontario Department of Education, how does a sexist say "synthetic"?


(1) Lies -- During Watergate, the Nixon administration was caught telling so many lies that it had to call a press conference to own up to them. Nixon's press secretary Ron Ziegler - who was at that time to euphemism what Bobby Orr was to hockey - handled it by bluntly informing the Press Corps that all previous administration statements regarding the Watergate scandal were, henceforth, inoperative.

(2) Wimmin -- In Old English the word "man" meant "person"; thus, the word "woman" comes from "wifman", wife person; similarly, males were called "woepmen", weapon person's.

(3) Greenland -- Eric the Red (the primordial Real-Estate developer) named the ice-bound island "Greenland" to attract settlers

(4) Man-made -- A 1979 report commissioned by the Ontario Department of Education recommended that "sexist" terms, such as man-made and mankind, be replaced in all Ontario curricula by"non-sexist"; terms, such as synthetic and humanity.


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