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The Disingenuous Use of Euphemism

As a Professional Chaplain working with patients in hospice, I’m often curious about the ubiquitous use of euphemisms. What is the impetus of this literary device? When did their common use emerge and are these expressions helpful, or do they conceal and deny in harmful ways? Finally, what are the lasting implications of a delusional language?

Euphemisms are used repeatedly in conversations and are almost always used to cloak reality. They are commonly used as substitutes for unpleasantries concerning personal characteristics, death and dying, employment, and even war.

Here are a few examples:

Personal: vertically challenged, big boned, not playing with a full deck

Employment: between jobs, let go, you’ve been made redundant

Aging/Death: getting on, been around, passed away/passed on, met their maker

War: collateral damage, friendly fire, armed intervention

Perhaps a good place to start is to define the term euphemism. Euphemism finds its origin in the Greek euphemismos – “use of a favorable word in place of an inauspicious one, superstitious avoidance of words of ill-omen during religious ceremonies.”[1] In English, a rhetorical

term at first; a broader sense of “choosing a less distasteful word or phrase than the one meant” is first emonstrated in 1793.[2]

Euphemisms are a literary device; a figure of speech. They are a substitute for words or expressions that are considered too harsh, hurtful or otherwise offensive. The English language is full of these long-established expressions that renders discretion, politeness, and often, other means of obscuring meaning.

The list above is evidence that euphemism masquerades meaning. R.W. Holder describes euphemism in his book, How Not to Say What You Mean: A Dictionary of Euphemisms, as “the language of evasion, hypocrisy, prudery, and deceit.”[3] Of course, not all euphemisms are intrinsically deceptive. A case can also be made, that euphemism is used to safeguard another protect from valid harm. At this juncture, it would be beneficial to examine how euphemisms are used as a protective device.

Imagine you run into an old friend from church. She’s alone and seems withdrawn. During your conversation, she once never mentions her husband. Curiously, you ask, “so how is Steve doing?” Your friend casts her gaze downward, sighs, and softly responds, “he passed away last month.” We have all had those moments of awkward silence. In this instance, your friend is using an expression to protect herself, and to soften the news to you. The euphemism, passed away, may temper her inner pain and/or, indicate where she is in her grief process. At a minimum, she is trying to diminish the awkwardness in that moment. This is a good illustration of a literary device being used to soften and uncomfortable topic. Depending on the context, euphemism can be an instrument to express tetchy subjects without having to clarify what is being discussed. Civilized discourse would be impossible without recourse to indirection.[4]

In hospice work, too often I encounter euphemisms around death and dying to shield fear, anxiety and unpleasantries. These attempts to palliate a situation, at best, elude bitter truths and offer genteel connotations – “she got her angel wings today.” Unfortunately, pleasantries can be life-limiting for individuals and harmful for entire communities.

“As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too. Words

are used to disguise, not to illuminate, action: you liberate a city by destroying

it. Words are to confuse, so that at election time people will solemnly vote

against their own interest.”[5]

A disguise is used by some to mask the truth called “unpleasant truths wearing diplomatic cologne.”[6] Masks are used in complicated ways, to confuse, distort and deceive. Of course, delusion may be intentional or it may be exercised at subconscious level. Let’s use the example of the word poor. Poor is not inherently a bad word. However, when poor is substituted with euphemisms, such as underprivileged and under-served, it conceals and denies in harmful ways. Jesus proclaimed, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In this scripture, poor does not denote a person to be looked down upon, but one to aspire to. There are millions of poor people in America and their voices are largely silenced.

Another fraudulent way euphemism is used is to spin. The spin is most notably used by politicians, bureaucrats and advertisers to present an idea, policy or product through disingenuous means. However, trickery can work both ways.

“When I am food for the worms, the vast infrastructure designed to make

sure people remain oppressed will still stand,” says Professor Miguel

De La Torre, “this hopelessness compels me to practice an ‘ethic of joder.’”[7]

The ethic De La Torre speaks of, using a Spanish term for a common Anglo-Saxon expletive, means playing the trickster. The poor have been doing it for centuries; screwing with the structure in order to survive. De La Torre offers a modern-day example:

“I have to go to the police to get a permit to have a demonstration to protest

police brutality. Then we drive to the march. We have domesticated protest.

The only option is to screw with the system in the ‘hope’ that new opportunities

will emerge.”[8]

The old adage, ‘there are two sides to every coin,’ explains the purpose of this literary device - to spin or disguise is contrived, but to shield and comfort, is rooted in genuine concern. With a better understanding of the mechanisms of euphemism, let me bring the discourse back to euphemism in relation to death and dying. Perhaps this example will prompt you to reflect critically on the embedded convictions you hold on to and consider new perspectives.

Over the past few years, I have spoken with a number of Funeral Directors about the evolution of euphemism in the world of death and dying, specifically, the term passed away. As I studied dozens of funeral notices, obituaries and news stories, I found the expression, passed away, evolved in the 1970’s. Furthermore, my research revealed a few intriguing facts. The word died used only four-letter spaces, where passed away used eleven. In essence, it was more cost effective to print died. Apparently, the cost of printing may very well have been a factor in this paradigm shift. To increase costs, particularly in the business of death and dying, might have seemed deplorable, but to shift the paradigm toward something more comforting and shielding, while making a profit, appeared endurable. As most people might agree, the expression passed away is much gentler and less offensive. Other expressions commonly reported were: deceased, expired, departed, slipped away, resting in peace, and for children, went to live with God or earned their angel wings.

On a larger scale, euphemisms can be morally problematic. Recall former Vice President Dick Cheney, in May 2009, referring to torture as “enhanced interrogation” – a means by which those who know they are exercising wrong-doing, rephrase the act to avoid acknowledgment. But here’s the crux of euphemism; no matter what name we want to give something, we know what it really means. There is a recognizable mismatch between the euphemism and its referent. Therefore, euphemism is an instrument of avoidance, not of unconsciousness.[9]

We don’t hear Christian clergy say, “Jesus passed away on the cross.” No! In fact, it is said, “Jesus died on the cross” or “Jesus died for our sins.” Death and resurrection are foundational to the Christian faith. The Gospel of John, Chapter 11, verses 25-26, speaks of death and dying. “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” In fact, the New Testament itself teaches that one must give up this life to achieve eternal life. Passed away imbues an idea that one has moved along or drifted away; it does not imply absolute finality. But death is in fact, the final act of humanity.

As a curator of sacred spaces, one who relies on her gift of vulnerability to connect, I find the use of euphemisms life-limiting and disingenuous. Euphemisms do an injustice to authentic human connectedness. To cope with, and heal from trauma, it is imperative that we lean into our own pain, not ignore it. We must examine our truths and uncover the source of our pain in order to use it for our good. We must embrace the unknown, sit in it, be still and find hope where hope may exist. As Miguel De La Torre suggests, hope can be found in our ideals of something better, but only after we’ve experienced hopelessness.


[1] Berkeley, George. “Alciphron or the Minute Philosopher,” 1732. [2] Ibid. [3] Holder, R. W. How Not to Say What You Mean: a Dictionary of Euphemisms. Oxford University, 2008. [4] Keyes, Ralph. Euphemania: Our Love Affair With Euphemisms. Little, Brown and Company, 2010. [5] Gore, Vidal. The Decline and Fall of the American Empire, 1992. [6] Crisp, Quentin. Manners From Heaven. HarperCollins, 1985. [7] De La Torre, Miguel. Lecture: Fanon, Foucault and Friends, 2018.. [8] Ibid. [9] Gopnik, Adam. "Word Magic." The New Yorker, May 26, 2014.

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