Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

June 11, 2009


A Euphemism is a way of expressing concepts that we are uncomfortable with, such as death (He passed away), or afraid to express directly, for example weight (He’s a little overweight). Use of these phrases softens the idea and makes it more palatable.

Euphemism comes from Greek and means: – good or auspicious speech. We can find such phrases being used in many different situations. One interesting collection of euphemisms is that used as a substitute for the word ‘toilet’. The word originally  came from French and may have been itself a euphemism as it referred to a whole process of hairdressing and body care and not the one meaning we understand today.  In American English, in particular, the preference is for words such as bathroom (often an interesting one in the UK where toilets and bathrooms can be separate) or rest room (which sounds a bit like a station waiting room) is common and it is important for learners of English to be aware of the use of these words and phrases so as not to misunderstand or cause offense by using more direct language.

Areas where euphemisms are being invented everyday (and it’s quite hard to keep up) are: education, war and business. There is a lot of criticism for this and organisations such as the Plain Speaking Campaign  is busy highlighting some of the more ridiculous examples.

Here are some common euphemisms that might be useful for understanding and usage;

Useful Euphemisms

  • senior citizen old person
  • bit of a handful (of a child) – naughty
  • hard of hearing – deaf
  • getting on a bit – old
  • behind the times – old fashioned
  • under the weather – ill
  • a bit heavy/overweight/chubby/plump – fat
  • resting (of actors etc..) – out of work
  • capital punishment – death penalty
  • illegal substances – drugs
  • secure facility – jail/gaol
  • studio apartment – bedsit
  • vintage – second hand

Understand (use too if appropriate)


  • conflict/engagement – war
  • collateral damage – innocent deaths
  • air support – bombing
  • friendly fire – shooting your allies


  • unmotivated – lazy
  • underachiever – a bad student
  • challenging behaviour – naughty/badly behaved


  • downsize – get rid of staff
  • outplacement counselling – redundancy counselling
  • exit bonuses – redundancy
  • sub-prime – less good/dodgy
  • negative cash flow – losing money
  • remuneration – pay
  • a challenge – a problem
  • off-message – disagreeing with the organisation
  • headcount management – getting rid of staff

Although many would like to ‘call a spade a spade’ and get rid of these, many are here to stay and you need to ‘get to grips’ with them!



  1. Thanks for the interesting article!

    By the way – business ads are full of euphemisms – We`re looking for someone to complete our young creative team beating every challenge… (etc)

    Comment by iyonius — June 11, 2009 @ 8:21 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for your comment iyonius. Euphemisms are everywhere for better or worse! They are particularly used by advertisers especially for jobs and also selling houses, some great ones from estate agents!

      Comment by rliberni — June 11, 2009 @ 10:20 pm | Reply

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