Monday Metaphor: Euphemism, Coming in the Back Door

It’s a good thing we know how to use euphemisms otherwise we might embarrass ourselves or offend somebody. A euphemism is a delicate way of getting around saying outright the very thing we want to say yet conveying the essential idea by using a substitute word or expression. In other words, we come in the back door, but we are in.

Euphemisms are not generally used in stories for very young children because young children are literally minded, and need to call a spade a spade. As boys and girls get into the tens, they enjoy a play of words and like to be in on the joke.

Bruce Coville’s books are filled with wry humor. In My Teacher Flunked the Planet, the alien is talking to the narrator about the possibility of activating the button that would destroy the Earth. He says,

            “It takes a complex series of secret command to activate it.”

“And if that series of commands is used?” asked Susan Simmons, who was standing beside me.

            Broxholm turned and gazed at the image of Earth. “Stardust,” he whispered. (1)

Under what circumstances have people found it necessary to use euphemisms? The most common example that comes to mind is the use of the expression “passed away” to mean “died.”

For some people it is emotionally painful to say that “a person died.” So the expression is useful both for the teller and the listener. “Terminal illness” is a less upsetting way of saying someone is dying.  But saying someone “kicked the bucket” is hardly more delicate than “died.”

“I gotta see a man about a dog,” means “Excuse, me; I’m outta here, but I’m not going to tell you my business.” It can be said with a real or implied “wink” giving the impression that the listener know what the business is.

In Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms, Ralph Keyes traces euphemisms back to the church’s attempt “to avoid blasphemy, honor taboos, and make nice.” (2) Ostensibly, it means that the culture is becoming more civilized and polished.

Euphemisms are useful not only in everyday speech, but they are used to advantage by businesses in advertizing (as in referring to a grave marker as a “monument” and a used car as being “pre-owned”) and by the military to soften harsh reality, as in “friendly fire” when we accidentally fire on our allies.

There are bodily function euphemisms, such as, “to relieve oneself,” and the expression my mother-in-law used, “to shed a tear.” In many movies, the ladies excused themselves to “powder their noses.” Parents usually teach such acceptable turns of phrase to children in order to communicate in public without being crude or coarse. It’s one way of teaching children to be polite, so it has an important function.

In his The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald names the community of old money East Egg and the community of the newly rich West Egg—West Egg being the “less fashionable” of the two. (3)

In The Giver, Lois Lowry uses the term “Birthmother” not to mean the loving caregiver, but simply someone who produces children. (4)

In my “Do You Have a Funny Bone?” I used “funny bone” as a euphemism for “sense of humor.” (5)

Here’s more from “Food Fight,” the story that takes place in an academy for all kinds of ghoulish characters. The vampire, Bram, is speaking. “The lunchroom ladies were lined up ready to serve us. A zombie loaded my plate with Mystery Meal # 64.” “Mystery Meal” is a term that students love to use when referring to cafeteria food. Like “passed on,” its hidden meaning is commonly accepted. (6)

The Greek root of euphemism means “to use auspicious words.” But the listener should beware of “doublespeak,” lest he fail to discern the difference between the spoken auspicious word and the hidden meaning.


(1)   Coville, Bruce. My Teacher Flunked the Planet.

(2)   Keyes, Ralph. Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms.

(3)   Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby.

(4)   Lowry, Lois. The Giver.

(5)   Bockman, Barbara. “Do You Have a Funny Bone?” STORIES FOR CHILDREN.

(6)   Bockman, Barbara. “Food Fight.” LONG STORY SHORT.


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Nancy Stewart
    May 02, 2011 @ 08:08:53

    This is a really interesting post, Barbara. I enjoyed it on a rainy Monday morning! Keep on with this blog…


  2. colleen rand
    May 02, 2011 @ 08:09:01



  3. Janet Ann Collins
    May 02, 2011 @ 12:37:47

    If I remember correctly, “mystery meal” isn’t just cafeteria food, but strange, unidentifiable food like that served in some cafeterias.


  4. Karen Cioffi
    May 09, 2011 @ 11:41:56

    Another good one! I’ll be sharing the link to these posts.


  5. Barbara Bockman
    May 11, 2011 @ 17:17:55

    Janet Ann,
    And I’ll bet some kids even use the expression on their mothers.

    Thanks for sharing.


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