A euphemism is a word or phrase that is used in place of something that might be shocking, inappropriate, or unpleasant to say or hear.
You might use euphemism in creative writing when you want to be subtle or coy (or when your character wants to be subtle or coy). They are also used to avoid being crude or offensive.
A euphemism can convey your meaning just as clearly as a plain language explanation of the subject, but the delivery is softer. It says the same thing, but disguises the unpleasantness with semantics.
While that definition might make euphemisms seem like a positive literary device, there are a few other things to consider. In informative or academic writing, the use of euphemisms is scrutinized as dishonest or misleading. In creative writing, euphemisms could be seen as cliches, which might indicate lazy writing.
Let’s look at some examples of euphemisms and talk about if and when you should use them in your writing.
Euphemisms can take many different forms.
Here are three examples:
- Semantic alteration–using an entirely different phrase in place of the original
- Powder room (bathroom)
- Postconsumer secondary material (garbage)
- Do it (have sex)
- Phonetic alternation–mispronouncing words or using abbreviations
- Other languages–using a foreign word in place of a common tongue phrase
- Faux pas (tactless remark)
- Au naturale (naked)
- Ménage à trois (threesome)
- (if anyone can leave an example that isn’t French in a comment, I’ll eat my hat.)
We hear and use euphemisms every day, whether we realize or not. Here are examples in a few common categories.
Euphemisms for death-related content:
- Passed away (died)
- Passed on (died)
- Dearly departed (dead)
- Kicked the bucket (died)
- Croaked (died)
Euphemisms for sexual content:
- Turning tricks (prostitution)
- Go all the way (sex)
- Do the do (sex)
- Birds and bees (sex)
- Batting for the other team (homosexual)
- Self-service (masturbation)
- First base (kissing)
- Adult (instead of saying something is alcoholic or explicit)
Euphemisms for violence:
- Knock off (kill)
- Whack (kill)
- Collateral damage (accidental killings)
- Detention camp (concentration camp)
- Enhanced/advanced interrogation methods (torture)
- Ethnic cleansing (genocide)
Do you see how often we use euphemism day-to-day? But just because something is a frequent occurrence in reality, does that mean it’s good practice to use in writing?
How to Use Euphemisms in Writing
You’ll find many different opinions on if and how euphemisms should be used in writing. It basically depends on the context of the piece and author intent.
Euphemisms in creative writing
Euphemisms probably aren’t something you want to use frequently in creative writing. Most euphemisms are also cliches, which should be used in an original, intentional, and creative way or not used at all.
Just like using cliches, euphemisms should be used creatively and intentionally. If they’re thrown in for ease of writing or as a shortcut, it will read as amateur.
One good reason to use a euphemism is to characterize. Like cliches, using euphemisms in dialogue or as part of the narrator’s voice is characterizing. If your character is very squeamish, proper, or innocent (or concerned with keeping an appearance of innocence), they might be someone who uses euphemisms.
Euphemisms in creative writing is an “at your own discretion” deal.
Euphemisms in academic, technical, or journalistic writing
In academic or journalistic writing, euphemisms can shield or distort the truth. They tend to make things less accurate or more misleading. In journalism, using euphemistic language will lead to scrutinization of writer bias and misinformation. It could call the publication’s reliability into question. If you look at the examples above of euphemisms for violence, you can see how a reporter might skew how an audience perceives war crimes and cruelty. Historically, euphemisms in journalism are often a hop-skip-jump from propaganda pieces.
Euphemisms in creative writing can be done if we do it the same way we do everything in creative writing: intentionally.
In nonfiction and technical writing (especially in journalism), euphemisms will likely foster distrust in your readership.
Take this information and use your best judgment to decide if euphemisms have a place in your writing project!