Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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When is a euphemism not a euphemism?

There are many phrases (e.g. “right-sizing” and “collateral damage”) that are typically considered euphemisms or rhetorical tricks. It is quite possible that their use often does have a rhetorical intent; however, there may equally well be valid reasons for their use.

Consider “right-sizing”: The use of this phrase instead of “down-sizing” could simply serve to emphasize a change in outlook, from “bigger is better, but for now we have to cut our size to survive” to “we have over-stretched and must shrink to reach our optimal size”. Notably, this shift in outlook is actually a sign of higher rationality, and should be welcomed. Whether it actually is the explanation in any particular case, is a very different question.

Other reasons for such phrasings can include brevity, a more exact terminology, the filling of a niche where no previous word had the right scope, and similar.

If we look, in turn, at “down-size” (also once accused of being a euphemism), it provides the advantage of active and short formulations: Consider “We have to down-size.” vs. “We have to reduce the scope of our operations.” or “We have to reduce our work-force and office space.” (notably, down-sizing has a wider meaning than just lay-offs, and could, at least in modern use, include more or less any kind of reduction). “We have to shrink.” is not a suitable replacement, because it screams for an object (shrink what?).

Similarly, consider “myocardial infarction” (aka “heart attack”). A physician may have very valid reasons to use this phrase, without in anyway wanting to trivialize a life-threatening situation or to sound important (but he would be well advised to use “heart attack” when talking to a concerned relative of a patient):

The term “infarction” is used generally for tissue damage caused by reduced or interrupted blood flow; and “myocardial” specifies that the heart (“card-”) muscle (“my-”) was involved. To a physician, this term can fit into a more generic framework of problems than implied by “heart attack”, trigger the right associations, be understandable even when his English is poor—and he would be able to deduce at least some of the appropriate implications, even if he not previously unaware of them.


What kind of incompetent physician does not know what a heart attack is? I hope: none. I even suspect that the average physician would prefer “heart attack” over “myocardial infarction”. However, the same principle applies to a much greater range of medical problems, where even the best in the field may run into cases where there is no non-generic term available, where his English is too poor, or where he is not familiar with the disease. Heart attacks, however, are sufficiently well-known that the principle can be illustrated to laymen (including me) without advanced knowledge of medical terminology.

What it all boils down to: The mere possibility of using a certain word as a euphemism does not make it one, nor does the fact that it may be more “pleasant” than another word. What matters is the intent behind it. To me, for example, “restroom” is just one of the most common words used to describe a certain facility—my associations are the same, or only marginally altered, if e.g. “toilet” or “crapper” is used. (Note that “certain facility” in this context is also not a euphemism, but used for abstraction to preserve neutrality towards the other three expressions.)

Other examples:

  1. “Concentration camp” started as a euphemism; however, today hardly anyone would consider it such (outside of a historical or etymological context), and it may even be used as an exaggerated insult (disgruntled child: “School is like a concentration camp!”).

  2. “Bear” was originally used to avoid the “true” name of bears, for fear of the principle “When one speaks of the devil...”—yet, ages later many people are entirely unaware of this. The same applies to the names of a number of other dangerous animals in various languages.

  3. The Salvation Army’s “called to higher service” (for “died”) may simply indicate the view that its members take on life, death, and after-life.

  4. “Correctional facility” should be seen in the light of a paradigm shift from punishment of criminals and protection of the public towards healing and re-integrating of the criminals. (Albeit, arguably, largely lip service—which is another way that a word can be a euphemism.)

The same applies in reverse: An insulting term is insulting because of the (possibly just perceived) intent behind it. Contrast the word “nigger” used by one African-American to address another with the same word used by a Ku Klux Klan member.

When is a euphemism not a euphemism? When it should be taken at par.


I was reading up on Wikipediaw for good examples of euphemisms. I was amused to run across the following (formatting altered):

“a love of musical theater” or “confirmed bachelor” for male homosexuality

I am a confirmed bachelor, and I have about a dozen musicals on DVD.

“women in sensible shoes” for lesbianism

I have found that women in sensible shoes tend to be less annoying and empty-headed than those in four-inch heels; and, in my rare romantic excursions, I deliberately stay clear of women in too insensible shoes.

This raises the question of whether I have occasionally, innocently and inadvertently, told others that I am gay—these issues have occasionally cropped up. (I am not; although I sometimes wish I were.)


Similar issues can occur with weasel wordsw and other often criticized formulations. A good example is the word “obviously”: I have repeatedly seen (and partially agree with) the claim that if something is obvious, then there is no need to mention that it is obvious—possibly, not even to mention it at all. “Obviously” is also often used in an attempt to trick the reader into believing that something non-obvious (or even incorrect) is obvious.

This does not mean, however, that its use is always wrong—in fact, I make ample use of it myself. This is partially from bad habit; but, significantly, it also helps me in solving the problem of whether to say or not say something: I tend to over-estimate the intelligence of others, and spell out too little. To avoid this, I deliberately include some statements that might be superfluous with the right reader—but often mark them as “obvious” (or similar) to avoid patronizing the readers that do think for themselves.