Introducing Euphemisms to Language LearnersScott Alkire
s_alkire [at] hotmail.com
San Jose City College (San Jose, California, USA)
I. IntroductionThere has been little EFL research on euphemisms, despite two facts: fluency in English cannot be achieved without a reasonable command of them, and a great number are semantically opaque. For learners, euphemisms represent a part of English largely untaught. This is rather incongruous, for as speakers of English we use euphemisms to express any number of everyday realities, and as passive listeners and readers we decode them daily to properly understand discourse in the workplace, the business world, the mass media, etc.
This paper presents a brief background of euphemism use in English along
with a short glossary of common words and some of their current, popular
euphemisms. Following the glossary is a lesson that introduces learners
to euphemisms and explores the question of why, in Garner's (1998) words,
they "thrive as much today as ever." (p. 266).
II. The Purpose of EuphemismsEuphemisms are words we use to soften the reality of what we are communicating to a given listener or reader. They are a universal feature of language usage; all cultures typically use them to talk about things they find terrifying (e.g., war, sickness, death) because, anthropologically, "to speak a name was to evoke the divinity whose power then had to be confronted" (Neaman & Silver, 1983, pp. 1-2). Similarly, we use euphemisms to express taboos, as we feel, on some instinctual level, that the euphemism keeps us at safe distance from the taboo itself. Another use of euphemisms is to elevate the status of something (e.g., using educator for teacher, attorney for lawyer); but in general, we use euphemisms to express what is socially difficult to express in direct terms.
III. Latinate Roots of EuphemismsA great number of euphemisms in English come from words with Latinate roots. Farb (1974) writes that after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066,
"…the community began to make a distinction between a genteel and an obscene vocabulary, between the Latinate words of the upper class and the lusty Anglo-Saxon of the lower. That is why a duchess perspired and expectorated and menstruated--while a kitchen maid sweated and spat and bled." (p. 80)
The linguistic differences between earthy, direct Anglo-Saxon words and elegant, often euphemistic Latinate words have been largely ignored in language learning, despite the fact that knowledge of these differences is essential to natural, native like use of English. Similarly, euphemisms themselves--Latinate or otherwise--have been ignored in language learning, even though they are usually semantically opaque to learners and continue to be invented and employed.
Below is a short glossary of common words with some of their current, popular euphemisms. (Some euphemisms, it will be seen, have become euphemized themselves.) Following the glossary is a lesson for learners at the intermediate level.
IV. Short Glossary of Words and Their Euphemisms
|accident, crisis, disaster||incident|
|addict; addiction||substance abuser; substance abuse, chemical dependency|
|beggar||panhandler, homeless person|
|cheap||frugal, thrifty, economical|
|complaint form||response form|
|criminal (young)||juvenile delinquent|
|crippled||disabled, physically challenged|
|custodian||building maintenance staff|
|dead||departed, deceased, late, lost, gone, passed|
|death insurance||life insurance|
|death penalty||capital punishment|
|death||demise, end, destination, better world, afterlife|
|die||pass away, pass on, expire, go to heaven|
|drug addict||substance abuser|
|drunk (adj)||intoxicated, inebriated, tipsy|
|fail||fizzle out, fall short, go out of business|
|fat||overweight, chubby, portly, stout, plump|
|fire (v)||lay off, release, downsize, let go, streamline, rightsize|
|garbage collector||sanitation person|
|hyperactive||Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)|
|illegal worker||undocumented worker|
|juvenile delinquent||problem child, at-risk child|
|kill||put down/away/out/to sleep|
|kill on a mass basis||liquidate|
|killing of innocents||collateral damage|
|lie (n)||fib, fabrication, cover story, story, untruth, inaccuracy|
|make love||sleep with|
|murder||hit, kill, do someone in, finish off someone|
|office equipment||productivity products|
|old||mature, distinguished, senior, traditional, seasoned, new (e.g., "The house is two years new")|
|old age||golden age, golden years|
|old person||senior citizen, pensioner|
|old persons' home||convalescent hospital, retirement home, rest home, nursing home|
|one-room apartment||studio apartment, efficiency|
|pay (n)||remuneration, salary|
|police officer||peace officer|
|poor children||at-risk children|
|poor nation||emerging nation, developing nation, third-world nation|
|poor student||underachiever, underperformer|
|poor||low-income, working class, modest, underprivileged|
|power failure||service interruption|
|prisoner||inmate, convict, detainee|
|problem||issue, challenge, complication|
|rain, snow, hail||precipitation|
|remedial education||special education|
|removed from duty||put on administrative leave|
|repression (social, political)||law and order|
|retarded||special, slow, mentally challenged|
|salesman, -woman||sales associate|
|say||indicate, disclose, mention|
|sexual intercourse||sleep with, make love|
|sexual relations (illicit)||liaison|
|sexual relationship||involvement, intimate relationship, affair|
|sick||indisposed, ill, under the weather|
|small||quaint, cozy, petite|
|spy (n)||source of information, agent|
|steal||appropriate, salvage, lift, borrow|
|suicide (to commit)||to end it all, take the easy way out, do oneself in|
|surprise attack||preemptive strike|
|talk (v, n)||converse (v), conversation (n)|
|toilet||john, WC, men's room, restroom, bathroom, washroom, lavatory|
|ugly||unattractive, modest, plain|
|unemployed||between jobs, taking time off|
|unreserved seating||general admission, festival seating|
|used||previously owned, pre-owned, refurbished, second-hand|
|venereal disease||social disease|
|wrong||improper, questionable, impropriety (n)|
V. Lesson: Understanding Euphemisms (Intermediate level)
ObjectivesThe student will:
Learn the word euphemism. Learn the taboo and uncomfortable subjects in English that give rise to most of our euphemisms. Appreciate euphemisms' semantic opaqueness. Identify euphemisms in newspaper articles, features, editorials, advertising, etc. Surmise, to a reasonable degree, why a euphemism is used, and what it connotes as compared to the original (often Anglo-Saxon) word it stands for.
In ClassBegin the lesson by explaining that English, like all languages, has subjects that can be difficult to talk about, because the original words for these subjects can offend, disturb, or embarrass the person one is addressing. State that for these subjects we use words called euphemisms, which are "softer" words than the original words. For example, mention that death is often talked about with euphemisms such as pass away, pass on, go to heaven, etc.
Write on the board poor, fat, and old and state that these words are often euphemized in English. Ask students if they know any euphemisms for them. (Possible answers might be, respectively, low-income, working class, modest; overweight, stout, portly, husky; senior, mature, traditional.) As students offer euphemisms, write them on the board.
Continue by pointing out that euphemisms are often difficult to understand on purely linguistic terms. To illustrate this, write the following sentences (or similar ones) on the board (this may be done in advance). Tell students to "translate" each sentence into clear, straightforward English. Provide photocopies of the glossary in this article for reference. (Note: as the glossary is organized by original word, not by euphemism, students will need to guess the meaning of the euphemisms by context.)
- His grandfather passed away.
- My father is between jobs but has two interviews today.
- The peace officer apprehended the sanitation man for speeding.
- The sales associate answered in the affirmative when the judge asked
him if he had ever been incarcerated.
- The manager complained to his administrative assistant of inventory
- Our son is a special child.
- Dan's supervisor laid him off because he was unmotivated.
- American football is a physical game, and has disabled many players.
- The individual was accused of appropriating funds.
- The correctional facility has 220 inmates, five of whom are facing capital punishment.
DiscussionWhen the students are finished, call on some to read their "translations." The idea is for them to understand the softening and/or misleading nature of euphemisms. If you wish to expand the lesson, ask: When is the use of euphemisms "good" and when is it "bad"? Do news reporters--whose mission it is to report the news--ever use euphemisms? When? Should they use them?
HomeworkEach student finds a newspaper article that uses at least five euphemisms and replaces them with more direct English words. The students bring in the original article (perhaps taped or pasted to a sheet of paper) with the euphemisms underlined and their "translations" written on the paper. (To complete the assignment the students will need to refer to the glossary in this article and/or a good dictionary.)
Follow-up to HomeworkHave different students come to the board and write a sentence with a euphemism from their articles. Then have each student write his or her "translation" below it. After a few sentences have been written on the board, ask the class to speculate on why the euphemisms were used in each instance.
For Further Discussion
- Political leaders are notorious for their use of euphemisms.
- "A language without euphemisms would be a defective instrument of
communication." (Robert Burchfield, former editor, The Oxford English Dictionary)
(Eschholz et al., 2000, p. 512). How would the language be defective?
- Bryan A. Garner (1998) writes that euphemisms "thrive as much today
as ever." (p. 266). Surmise why this may be so.
- Ask students to volunteer euphemisms from their own languages. Are certain subjects euphemized more (or less) in other languages? Speculate on reasons why this might be so.
- Burchfield, R. (2000). In P. Eschholz, A. Rosa, V. Clark (Eds.), Language awareness: Readings for college writers (p. 512). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's.
- Farb, P. (1974). Word play: What happens when people talk. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
- Garner, B. A. (1998). A dictionary of modern American usage. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.
- Neaman, J. S., & Silver, C. G. (1983). Kind words: A thesaurus of euphemisms. New York: Facts on File, Inc.
- Rawson, H. (1981). A dictionary of euphemisms and other doubletalk. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc.
The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VIII, No. 5, May 2002