Euphemism | Definition, Characteristics, Examples in Literature

Euphemism | Definition, Characteristics, Examples in Literature


Euphemism Definition

Euphemism is a figure in which something offensive or harsh is stated in an agreeable or pleasant way.

It is, according to Scott, ‘the substitution of a less distasteful word or phrase for a more truthful but more offensive one’.

What is Euphemism?

Etymologically, euphemism means speaking well or favourably. The word has come from the Greek compound ‘eu’ (well’, ‘favourably) and ‘phemi’ (‘I speak).

Euphemism is a figure by means of which a harsh or disagreeable statement is expressed indirectly in an agreeable and pleasant manner. The purpose of the speaker is to spare one’s feeling.

Purpose of Euphemism

The main purpose of this figure is to soften a harsh or blunt expression. Euphemism consists in the use of an indirect form of speech instead of a bald, abrupt statement of an unpleasant truth’. It is always prompted by a kindly feeling. Sometimes courtesy demands its use when the direct mention of a thing might increase the grief of a person or hurt his soft feeling. Sometimes it is prompted by a sense of decorum since the direct mention of a thing might cross the limits of propriety and decency.

The sentence “He perished on the scaffold’ is an example of euphemism, for here a harsh fact (i.e., he was hanged) has been softened down. It is to be noted that sometimes a single word, but usually a roundabout expression, effects this figure.

Characteristics of Euphemism

The chief characteristics of this figure of speech are given below:

(i) A harsh or blunt thing is expressed in a pleasant or mild manner.

(ii) It is done in an indirect or roundabout way

(iii) Its purpose is to share one’s feelings, not to hurt them.


Euphemism Examples with Illustrations

(a) He is short in his accounts.

This is a euphemism. In this figure a mild and pleasant expression is used for a harsh or blunt one.

Here the harshness of a fact (i.e.. he is poor) is softened by the use of an agreeable expression.

(b) The bank has stopped payment.

The bank has stopped payment. This is Euphemism.

In Euphemism, a hard statement is expressed in an indirect way to make it agreeable and pleasant for the purpose of softening down something harsh or disagreeable.

Here the hard fact that the ‘bankers have become bankrupt’ is expressed indirectly and in an agreeable manner by the expression has stopped payment. The purpose of the speaker is, of course, to spare the feeling of his listener.

(c) They dropped down one by one. (Coleridge)

This is an instance of the figure of speech, Euphemism.

This figure consists in saying something unpleasant or offensive indirectly in a pleasant and agreeable manner in order to spare one from a shock or hard fact.

Here the poet wants to say they died’. This is a harsh fact He softens it down and makes it agreeable by the indirect statement dropped down’. The purpose here is, of course, lo spare the listener or reader from a hard or harsh fact.

Innuendo Vs Irony Vs Periphrasis Vs Euphemism

Though all these figures are based on indirectness, they have their differences, too. The first two figures are prompted by hostility while the last one by kindness. While innuendo hurts by injurious insinuation, irony does so by meaning the contrary of what is actually said. Euphemism is not prompted by hostile feeling; it wants to spare. Periphrasis, on the other hand, is prompted neither by kind nor by hostile feelings; it is used mainly for literary effect.

Examples of Euphemism in Literature

  1. The light-fingered gentry (i.e., pick-pockets) relieved him of his purse.
  2. [About Cowper] Discord (i.e., madness) fell on the music of his soul. (B.B. Browning)
  3. You said what was not (i.e.. you told a lie).
  4. The gang relieved him of his purse (i.e., robbed).
  5. “Henry VIII was singularly unfortunate in all his relations with women” (i.e., he divorced two and beheaded two more of his six wives).
  6. The army made a strategic retirement (i.e., retreated).
  7. He has fallen asleep (i.e., died).
  8. The old man breathed his last (i.e., died).
  9. They dropped down (i.e., died) one by one. (Coleridge)
  10. He that’s coming must be provided for (i.e., killed). (Shakespeare)
  11. Goldsmith was little, pitted with smallpox and awkward: and schoolboys are amazingly frank (i.e., they told it to his face without caring for his feelings). (Black)
  12. It cannot in the opinion of his Majesty’s Government be classified as slavery in the extreme acceptance of the word without some risk of terminological inexactitude (i.e., mistake) (Churchill)
  13. He is not as truthful as one might wish him to be (i.e., he is a liar).
  14. The knave came somewhat saucily into the world (i.e. born illegitimately). (Shakespeare)
  15. You are telling me a fairy tale (i.e., lie).
  16. The old lady at last breathed her last. (died, the hard fact indirectly softened down).

Euphemism in a Sentence


Harsh Words and Expressions Softened (Euphemism) Words and Expressions
young hooligans ‘Juvenile delinquents’
trousers ‘nether garments, unmentionables or inexpressible for trousers’
privy ‘latrine, water-closet, lavatory, loo, convenience, or toilet’
assassination ‘liquidation’
aggression liberation
backward countries ‘developing countries’
the poor lower income brackets
troublesome children ‘maladjusted’
insanity ‘mental disorder’
lunatic asylums mental hospitals


Euphemism for Death

  • Eternal Sleep/ Eternal Rest
  • Rest in Peace
  • Passed Away
  • Perished
  • Gone/ Lost forever
  • Succumbed
  • Demise
  • Decease
  • Breathed his/her last
  • Went to be with the Lord/ went to Heaven/ met his Creator
  • Kicked the bucket
  • Lost her battle, lost her life
  • Gave up the ghost


In this respect Fowler remarks: “Charwomen have become dailies, gaolers prison officers, commercial travellers sales representatives, and ratcatchers rodent operators‘. Dustmen are now refuse collectors or Street order lies: boarding houses guest-houses, butchers purveyors of meat or meat technologists; hair dressers tonsorial artists, and undertakers funeral furnishers or directors or morticians.

Euphuism Vs Euphemism

Euphuism, according to Fowler, ‘is often ignorantly used for euphemism with which it is entirely unconnected Euphuism is an ornately florid, precious and mazy style of writing (often alliterative, antithetical and embellished with elaborate figures of speech)’. It takes its name from Lyly’s Euphues. Harvey called Lyly’s style euphuism. A sample of the euphuistic style is given below:

“I see now that as the fish Scolopidus in the flood Araris at the waxing of the Moon is as white as the driven snow, and at the waning as black as the burnt coal. so Euphues, which at the first increasing of our familiarity was very Zealous, is now at the last cast become most faithless.”


Leave a Comment