In the sixteenth century, the British aristocracy was developing its own elaborate cour language, characterized by circumlocutions and amplifications, or, in other words, beating around the bush, running around in circles, and excessive verbiage. This courtly argot was known as "euphuism" and was given its name by author Euphues( 1578). By the early 1580s, the author George Blount used the term" euphemism" in English, defining it as " a good or favorable interpretation of a bad word'. Although the terms " euphuism" and " euphemism" do not share the same meaning, they both describe a manner of speaking that leans toward indirectness in the service of pleasantness.[1]
Euphemism comes from ' euphemia' ( the Greek word), which means " the use of good omen". Originally, it was a word connected with religion, meaning that people should not speak aloud. Euphemism= eu- + -pheme, in which ' eu' means ' well" and ' pheme' means ' speech'. commonly, euphemism is defined as an auspicious or exalted term that is used to replace a more down-to-earth term. For example, using 'sanitation engineer' to replace 'garbage man', or ' culturally different children' for ' slum children'. So to induce the foreaboved explanation, we can put it in this way as the Advanced Learner's English-Chinese Dictionary (the 6th Edition) does:" euphemism means an indirect word or phrase that people often use to refer to sth embarrasing or unpleasant, sometimes to make it seem more acceptable than it really is." [2] or just like the Webster's Online Dictionary defines:" euphemism is a substitution for an expression that may offend or suggest something unpleasant to the receiver, using instead an agreeable or less offenive expression." [3]

Formation of euphemism:
There are many ways to form euphemism such as omission, substitution of synonyms, understatement, acronym or abbreviated words and so on.
  • By omitting some harsh word would make that language sound milder lest we offend or disturb others. The expression "she is expecting " is much more less likely to offend others than saying she is pregnant directly.
  • Although synonyms have the same or similar meanings, there is difference in the shades of meaning. Using synonyms is an important method to achive euphemizing. To begin with, let's look at the definition of these to words. "Thrift" means "the habit of saving money and spending it carefully so that none is wasted",[4] while " economical" means " not spending more money than necessary". [5] Compared with "economical", " thrift" is more approving has a more positive side. So using " thrift" in place of " economical" can better show our praise or well meaning to others.
  • Understatement makes something seem less important, impressive, serious, etc. than it really is, [6] which is also commonly used to people who are partial to euphemism. " steal" can be expressed as " take other's things without permission", which is obviously milder and gentler than the original one.
  • Meanwhile, acronym is also one important way to reach the effect of euphemism. Generally, when it comes to something embarrasing or unpleasant, acronym can often help us avoid saying something unpleasant, expecially in the area of sexual activities. For example, people just say "M.L" rather than saying " making love" plainly and directly.
  • Moreover, analogy also contributes a lot to the formation of euphemism. It is used particularly in job area. Take " street cleaner" or " garbage man" for example, we can euphemise them by expressing in another way, such as call them as " city beautician" or " sanitation engineer'.
  • There is one point I would like to mention is that the tone which is milder can also achieve the effect of euphemism, such as " would you like to..." or " would you please..." . [7]

classifications of euphemism:
Euphemism can be divided into three types: positive euphemism, negative euphemism and neutral euphemism. [8]
  • positive euphemism means using more agreeable words or pleasant words to replace the humble ones. For example, " city beautician" for "street cleaner", another example is "shoe rebuilder" for " cobbler".
  • negative euphemism refers to the replacement of pejorative words for less offensive ones. such as we use " insane asylum" more frequently rather than " madhouse".
  • neutral euphemism referd to the substitution for foreign words.

comments on euphemism:
Just like many other things that have both positive and negative sides, take the free market economy for example, which will promote the development of economy on the one hand, but also is likely to cause economic disorder on the other hand, so it is with euphemism. Euphemism can amuse others and could also mislead people.
  • As to the positive side, first of all, some euphemisms are equated to politeness. By using a more moderate and mild substitution to replace the original one lest it disturbs or offends others. It can help eliminate rudeness and vulgarity in interpersonal conversation. For example, we use 'senior citizens' to replace " old people", or " mental institutions" for " lunatic asylums".Especially in the area of death, euphemism plays a very important role in people's expression about death. Death is a sensitive word, so no matter in Foreign countries or China, we always avoid to use the words with literal meanings about death. Rarely do we say a person " die" directly in front of others, eapecially at the present of people who have relations with the dead. We use " pass away" or " kick the blanket" or " go to heaven" to denote the meaning of death. Secondly, some euphemisms are used because of privacy, especially, the sexual aspects. In the public, we are likely to say " go to the washing room or restroom" or " answer god's call" instead of " pee" or " toilet". We say " have an affair with somebody" instead of " have sex with somebody". In this way, the chances of offending others are greatly reduced.

  • Of course, there are negative sides about euphemism. It is used to mislead peoples by scoundrels who are phony or try to hide what they are really talking about. Euphemism is contemptible when the name of substitution makes us see something that is not true or diverts our attention frome something that it really is. "A rich enemy excites their cupidity; a poor one, their lust for power. East and West alike have failed to satisfy them...To robbery, butchery, and rapine, they give the lying name of 'government'; They creat a desolation and call it peace. Tacitus implies that it is the power of language to efface the memory of actual cruelties, behind the facade of a history falsified by means of euphemism, the painful particulars of war are lost."[9] Such as the expression made by American government " Sunshine Operation" to replace " hydrogen bomb", which has no other purpose but to figure out how widely and well it kills. It is very frightening by giving pretty names to essentially ugly realites.

  • Some people think that euphemising would reduce the precision of words and is always tamper with the truth, but others, take Neil Postman for example, hold the opposed oppinion.They do not think people who use " earthy " language, which are often blunt, uncomfortably accurate, are speaking more directly or with more authenticity than people who employ euphemism. Saying that someone is "dead" is not to speak more plainly or honestly than saying he has "passed away". [10] Euphemizing does not actually change the nature of the things , but it does cause certain subtle difference in our perceptions and attitudes on subjects as a companiment to the change of name. " Euphemizing may be regarded as one of our more important intellectual resources for creating new perspectives on a subject." said Neil Postman.[11] By renaming " old people" " senior citizens", people's attitudes begin to shift, and then they will approach things in a slightly different frame of mind.

reference resources:
[1]Baidu. Euphemism.
[2] Euphemism Advanced Learner's English-Chinese Dictionary (the 6th Edition)
[3]Euphemism Webster's Online Dictionary
[4] Thrift Advanced Learner's English-Chinese Dictionary (the 6th Edition)
[5] Economical Advanced Learner's English-Chinese Dictionary (the 6th Edition)
[6] Understatement Advanced Learner's English-Chinese Dictionary (the 6th Edition)
[7]WangBo, " On The Formation and Classification of English Euphemisms."
[8] WangBo, "On The Formation and Classification of English Euphemisms."
[9]Bomwich.David. " Euphemism and American Violence". April 3, 2008.
[10] "Ray " et al , pp. 154-158. Neil Postman.
[11] "Ray " et al , pp. 154-158. Neil Postman.
Further Reading:
  • R.W.Holder: How Not to Say What You Mean: A Dictionary of Euphemisms, Oxford University Press, 501 pages, 2003.
  • The New York Reviews of Books. Volume 55, Number 5. Bromwich.David " Euphemism and American Violence". April 3, 2008.