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 euphemist (audio) \ noun
euphemistic \ ˌyü-​fə-​ˈmi-​stik How to pronounce euphemistic (audio) \ adjective
euphemistically \ ˌyü-​fə-​ˈmi-​sti-​k(ə-​)lē How to pronounce euphemistically (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 The sorrow and anguish and death could not be hidden from the world — even as ideology tries to cloak them with euphemisms. Kathryn Jean Lopez, National Review, "Sister Calling My Name May Just Restore Your Hope for Humanity," 3 Feb. 2020 The storytelling is crisp and perceptive, unclogged by politics or euphemism. Meghan Cox Gurdon, WSJ, "A Walk With Homer Is an Earbud Odyssey," 3 Feb. 2020 As with the freeze-out of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the owners rely on inaction, a mostly pliant sports media, and euphemisms to maintain reasonable doubt. Samer Kalaf, The New Republic, "The NFL Owners’ Unyielding Commitment to White Coaches," 13 Jan. 2020 Increasingly, there are options to choose from beyond the euphemism and tragedy in classics by, say, Britten or Berg. Joshua Barone, New York Times, "Review: A ‘Stonewall’ Opera Reflects the Diversity of Queer History," 23 June 2019 That’s a Hollywood euphemism, of course, for: The women were fired. Michelle Ruiz, Vogue, "What, Exactly, Is Going on With Gabrielle Union and America’s Got Talent?," 3 Dec. 2019 Yet council members worry about changing the town’s demographics—is that a euphemism for fear of minorities? Joe Morgenstern, WSJ, "‘Monrovia, Indiana’ Review: Palpitations in the Heartland," 25 Oct. 2018 These are all mere euphemisms for test scores, scores that have little validity or reliability. Dp Opinion, The Denver Post, "Letters: Don’t destroy Social Security (11/23/19)," 24 Nov. 2019 Send the euphemisms and equivocations to the dustbin along with manager Alex Cora’s spring training pitching plan., "The Sox currently have more hedges than the garden at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The more they elaborate, the harder it is to pin down the team’s stance for next season.," 3 Oct. 2019

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

11 Feb 2020

Cite this Entry

“Euphemism.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 29 Mar. 2020.

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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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