eu·​phe·​mism | \ ˈyü-fə-ˌmi-zəm How to pronounce euphemism (audio) \

Definition of euphemism

: the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant also : the expression so substituted

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Other Words from euphemism

euphemist \ ˈyü-​fə-​mist How to pronounce euphemism (audio) \ noun
euphemistic \ ˌyü-​fə-​ˈmi-​stik How to pronounce euphemism (audio) \ adjective
euphemistically \ ˌyü-​fə-​ˈmi-​sti-​k(ə-​)lē How to pronounce euphemism (audio) \ adverb

How and Why We Use Euphemisms

Euphemisms can take different forms, but they all involve substituting a word or phrase considered to be less offensive than another. The substituted word might, for example, be viewed as a less coarse choice, as when dang or darn is used instead of damn or damned. Or it might replace a word viewed as insulting to a religious figure, such as the various euphemisms for God (gad, gadzooks, gosh) or Jesus (gee, jeepers, jeez). A euphemism may also consist of an indirect softening phrase that is substituted for the straightforward naming of something unpalatable. Thus, we hear of people being “let go” rather than “fired”; civilians killed in war described as “collateral damage”; or someone who has died having “kicked the bucket,” “passed away, “given up the ghost,” or “joined one’s ancestors.”

Did You Know?

Euphemism derives from the Greek word euphēmos, which means "auspicious" or "sounding good." The first part of "euphēmos" is the Greek prefix eu-, meaning "well." The second part is "phēmē," a Greek word for "speech" that is itself a derivative of the verb phanai, meaning "to speak." Among the numerous linguistic cousins of "euphemism" on the "eu-" side of the family are "eulogy," "euphoria," and "euthanasia"; on the "phanai" side, its kin include "prophet" and "aphasia" ("loss of the power to understand words").

Examples of euphemism in a Sentence

Cougar is the euphemism for a woman who has reached mid-life, who is single, financially secure and on the lookout for relationships with younger men—as in "prey." — Kerry Gold, Vancouver Sun, 17 Feb. 2001 Spin is sometimes dismissed as a simple euphemism for lying. But it's actually something more insidious: indifference to the truth. — Michael Kinsley, Time, 25 Dec. 2000–1 Jan. 2001 "Invigorating" is the euphemism we use most often to describe the chilly waters off the coast, but knowledgeable Maine boaters know where to find the warmer, tidal waters just right for a midsummer dip. — Ken Textor, Down East, August 2001 If you are "let go," "separated," "terminated" or whatever euphemism the company uses for "clean-out-your-desk-and-be-gone," remember that you do have rights. — Elsie Maclay, First for Women, July 1989 using “eliminate” as a euphemism for “kill”
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Recent Examples on the Web South Africa gave the world a universally recognisable euphemism for white supremacy. The Economist, "Bloodsuckers How malaria has shaped humanity," 16 Dec. 2020 The Netflix and chill euphemism was replaced with quarantine and chill. Manavi Kapur, Quartz India, "“Let’s be like Covid and catch each other”: How Indians romanced on Tinder this year," 8 Dec. 2020 Black Friday is now more of a euphemism for weeks of pre-Thanksgiving sales than a reference to a fixed moment in time. Amanda Mull, The Atlantic, "Christmas Must Go On," 23 Nov. 2020 America, but his one attempt to say something intelligible about the contemporaneous struggle for Black freedom, Noon on Doomsday, had been a travesty of euphemism and evasion. Andrew Delbanco, The New York Review of Books, "Night Terrors," 3 Nov. 2020 Influential writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram X. Kendi, a Boston University professor, have embraced it, seeing in white supremacy an explanatory power that cuts through layers of euphemism to the core of U.S. history and culture. Michael Powell, Star Tribune, "'White supremacy,' a term that grows in use and power," 17 Oct. 2020 Influential writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram X. Kendi, a Boston University professor, have embraced it, seeing in white supremacy an explanatory power that cuts through layers of euphemism to the core of American history and culture. Michael Powell, New York Times, "‘White Supremacy’ Once Meant David Duke and the Klan. Now It Refers to Much More.," 17 Oct. 2020 The thing is, euphemism season is back, and in rare form. The Washington Post, "Chatological Humor with Gene Weingarten," 8 Sep. 2020 Which is a euphemism, because those bad apples are murderers, thugs, criminals. Wayne Coffey, USA TODAY, "Former tennis star James Blake encouraged by social activism, five years after police tackled him," 3 Sep. 2020

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'euphemism.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of euphemism

circa 1681, in the meaning defined above

History and Etymology for euphemism

Greek euphēmismos, from euphēmos auspicious, sounding good, from eu- + phēmē speech, from phanai to speak — more at ban entry 1

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Time Traveler for euphemism

Time Traveler

The first known use of euphemism was circa 1681

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Last Updated

29 Dec 2020

Cite this Entry

“Euphemism.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 17 Jan. 2021.

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More Definitions for euphemism


How to pronounce euphemism (audio)

English Language Learners Definition of euphemism

: a mild or pleasant word or phrase that is used instead of one that is unpleasant or offensive

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