The Internet TESL Journal

Introducing Euphemisms to Language Learners

Scott Alkire
s_alkire [at]
San Jose City College (San Jose, California, USA)

I. Introduction

There 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 Euphemisms

Euphemisms 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 Euphemisms

A 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, disasterincident
addict; addictionsubstance abuser; substance abuse, chemical dependency
arrest (v)apprehend
beggarpanhandler, homeless person
bombingair support
break-insecurity breach
brothelmassage parlor
cheapfrugal, thrifty, economical
complaint formresponse form
criminal (adj)illegal
criminal (young)juvenile delinquent
crippleddisabled, physically challenged
custodianbuilding maintenance staff
deaddeparted, deceased, late, lost, gone, passed
death insurancelife insurance
death penaltycapital punishment
deathdemise, end, destination, better world, afterlife
deathsbody count
diepass away, pass on, expire, go to heaven
drug addictsubstance abuser
drugsillegal substances
drunk (adj)intoxicated, inebriated, tipsy
exploit (land)develop
failfizzle out, fall short, go out of business
false (adj)prosthesis
false teethdentures
fatoverweight, chubby, portly, stout, plump
fire (v)lay off, release, downsize, let go, streamline, rightsize
garbage collectorsanitation person
garbage dumplandfill
genocideethnic cleansing
hyperactiveAttention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
illegal workerundocumented worker
informerconfidential source
jailsecure facility
junglerain forest
juvenile delinquentproblem child, at-risk child
killput down/away/out/to sleep
kill on a mass basisliquidate
killing of innocentscollateral damage
lie (n)fib, fabrication, cover story, story, untruth, inaccuracy
make lovesleep with
mortuaryfuneral home/parlor
murderhit, kill, do someone in, finish off someone
office equipmentproductivity products
oldmature, distinguished, senior, traditional, seasoned, new (e.g., "The house is two years new")
old agegolden age, golden years
old personsenior citizen, pensioner
old persons' homeconvalescent hospital, retirement home, rest home, nursing home
one-room apartmentstudio apartment, efficiency
pay (n)remuneration, salary
personrepresentative, individual
perspire, perspirationsweat
police officerpeace officer
poor childrenat-risk children
poor nationemerging nation, developing nation, third-world nation
poor studentunderachiever, underperformer
poorlow-income, working class, modest, underprivileged
power failureservice interruption
prisoncorrectional facility
prisonerinmate, convict, detainee
problemissue, challenge, complication
rain, snow, hailprecipitation
remedial educationspecial education
removed from dutyput on administrative leave
repression (social, political)law and order
retardedspecial, slow, mentally challenged
salesman, -womansales associate
sayindicate, disclose, mention
secretaryadministrative assistant
sexual intercoursesleep with, make love
sexual relations (illicit)liaison
sexual relationshipinvolvement, intimate relationship, affair
sickindisposed, ill, under the weather
smallquaint, cozy, petite
software productsolution
spy (n)source of information, agent
stealappropriate, salvage, lift, borrow
suicide (to commit)to end it all, take the easy way out, do oneself in
surprise attackpreemptive strike
sweat (v)perspire
talk (v, n)converse (v), conversation (n)
theftinventory shrinkage
tip (n)gratuity
toiletjohn, WC, men's room, restroom, bathroom, washroom, lavatory
tramphomeless person
uglyunattractive, modest, plain
underwear (women's)lingerie
unemployedbetween jobs, taking time off
unreserved seatinggeneral admission, festival seating
usedpreviously owned, pre-owned, refurbished, second-hand
vagranthomeless person
venereal diseasesocial disease
wrongimproper, questionable, impropriety (n)

V. Lesson: Understanding Euphemisms (Intermediate level)


The 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 Class

    Begin 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.)


    When 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?


    Each 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 Homework

    Have 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

    VI. References

    The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VIII, No. 5, May 2002