What Is Euphemism? 4 Ways To Use Euphemism in Writing, Plus Common Euphemisms in Everyday Speech

Written by MasterClass

Aug 13, 2019 • 4 min read

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If you’re not sure how to talk about a serious subject in your writing, you might think about using euphemism in your work. Good writers often employ euphemism to address sensitive subject matter in a tactful way.


What Is Euphemism?

A euphemism is a mild and inoffensive word or phrase that is used in the place of something that could be found offensive or displeasing. Euphemisms are found throughout art and culture and are extremely common in advertising. The word euphemism comes from the greek “euphēmismos,” which translates to “words of good omen.”

How Is Euphemism Used in Literature?

Early examples of euphemism can be found in the works of writers like Chaucer or Shakespeare, often to describe sex or licentious behavior.

Utilizing euphemisms in your writing can be a good tool for writing multi-layered, charged conversations between your characters and for improving the variety of your prose. Though we often think of the term euphemism as generalizing our language to opt for a less offensive word or phrase, euphemisms can sometimes actually give prose more specificity and provide relatable phrases we hear in our everyday lives.

4 Ways Euphemism Can Be Used in Writing

Euphemisms can serve a number of different purposes in writing.

  1. Avoid taboo. If you are writing about a taboo subject, euphemism can go a long way in allowing you to convey information without offending your readers’ sensibilities.
  2. Provide variety. Euphemisms provide you with multiple ways to say essentially the same thing. If you are writing something that requires you to repeat a word or phrase many times, consider using euphemisms to provide your writing with greater variety.
  3. Give insights into characters. The way that characters use or forgo euphemisms when talking about sensitive subjects says a lot about them. If you are trying to flesh out a fictional character, think about the euphemisms they might use to address something in a conversation. The English language is full of colorful euphemisms that can be employed in your dialogue to make your characters specific and natural.
  4. Humor. Euphemisms are often used ironically for comedic effect. Using euphemisms effectively can help create dramatic irony or undercut the severity of your writing and provide some levity.

Examples of Euphemism from Literature

Euphemism can be found in literature from many different eras. For example:

  • William Shakespeare. Shakespeare used puns, double entendres, and colloquial figures of speech to embed the topic of sex into an otherwise tame conversation between his characters. In Othello, Shakespeare uses the euphemism “the beast with two backs” as a euphemism for sex.
  • Geoffrey Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales is full of graphic innuendo and sexual references that may fly over the heads of modern audiences. One of the reasons for this is that Chaucer uses euphemisms throughout to refer to body parts and sexual acts that his audience would be familiar with.
  • George Orwell. In Orwell’s 1984, a totalitarian regime imposes a new form of language called “newspeak” on its populace. Newspeak is peppered with euphemisms to tamp down on freedom of thought and present the novel’s autocratic government in a positive light. Through Orwell’s skilled use of euphemism, his readers get examples of the thought and language control exerted by the government.

Common Euphemisms in Everyday Speech

Euphemisms are incredibly common in everyday speech. We use euphemisms all the time when we address touchy subjects in polite company. American English is full of common examples of euphemism and new words and phrases are constantly being adopted to address sensitive topics. These include:

  • Physical appearance. You might hear people use the word “homely” to describe someone who they find unattractive or “big-boned” to refer to someone who has a larger frame.
  • Sex. Sexual intercourse is a subject area rife with euphemisms. When we discuss sex we use euphemisms to either make light of the subject or omit more graphic language. “Making love” is one such euphemism that we commonly use to refer to sex. A more outdated version of this same euphemism is “making whoopee.”
  • Toilets. American English speakers use euphemisms to refer to a room with a toilet, calling it a “restroom” or a “bathroom” even if it doesn’t contain a bath. Speakers of other English dialects also refer to it euphemistically, calling it a “WC” (short for “water closet”).

Euphemism is an incredibly useful tool for writers. It allows you to talk about sensitive subjects while avoiding the collateral damage that loaded words or phrases might bring about. Using euphemisms well can help you vary your subject matter and elevate your prose.

Whether you’re creating a story as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, learning how to correctly deploy literary devices like euphemism is a powerful asset. Award-winning author Judy Blume has spent decades honing her craft. In her writing MasterClass, Judy provides insight into how to invent vivid characters, write realistic dialogue, and turn your experiences into stories people will treasure.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Judy Blume, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, David Baldacci, and more.