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In our society, some acts are taboos, because they’re unacceptable. To avoid unpleasantness, embarrassment or horror, people will find a new way to talk about them by selecting or coining new words to replace existing ones which are thought to have picked up the unpleasant or undesirable associations—then there appears euphemism.
My essay will mainly introduce euphemism from the following perspectives:
According to the Oxford English Dictionary Online⑴, euphemism is a mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing. While the Merriam- Webster Dictionary Online⑵ defines euphemism as follows：①the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant; ②the expression so substituted. According to Leech(1981), euphemism is t
he practice of referring to something offensive or indelicate in terms that make it sound more pleasant or becoming than it really is⑷.
Euphemism is a noun, pronounced as
. and its antonym is: dysphemism.
Euphemism boasts a long history. Many euphemism come from The Bible. Also, in The Canterbury Tales written by Chaucer and Shakespeare’s numerous plays and poems, a variety of euphemisms were applied. When offering sacrifice to their Gods or ancestors, the ancient Greek people used to say some propitious words, which were considered to be euphemisms. In Britain, the usage of euphemism could be traced back to the 11th century when genteel vocabulary and obscene vocabulary were distinguished obviously. Of course, this difference resulted from the economic, social and cultural differences at that time in Britain. And the former, genteel vocabulary, was actually the precursor of euphemism. The record use of euphemism is found until the 11th century B.C.. In the early 1580s George Blountto first pointed out the term “euphemism” refers to “a good or favorable interpretation of a bad word”(George Blountto，1580: 243)⑶. In Greek, “eu-” means “good” or “well”，the root “-phem-” means “speech”，and “-ism” is a noun suffix. It means literally “to speak with good words or in a pleasant manner”(Neaman, 1983: 1)⑶. Since the 1970s, one of the most largest change in linguistic is that euphemism has become extremely popular again. And euphemism is applied very frequently and widely as a language phenomenon now. As the American scholar Hugh Rawson once said, euphemism pervades our language so amazingly that none of us can get down without using it, even the same for those who brag themselves as the most straightforward people⑶.
There're various features of euphemism. I'll just further explain those that are most distinguished to draw you readers a big picture.
Generally speaking, euphemism exists in almost every country all over the world, be it civilized or savage. It also exists in every natural language, whether it be international language or minor language. Since almost every culture has its own certain notion or concept that is hard to mention and people tend to avoid addressing it directly, euphemism comes into being. And it’s just like preening on the exterior coat of one’s speech, people are more inclined to backup for euphemism. Thus, euphemism, as time goes by, has become a universal language phenomenon for people worldwide.
Though euphemism is quite common all over the world, on the other hand, it’s local. In other words, different regions and countries have their own unique euphemisms. It’s due to the different development of economy, policy, culture and social conventions in these countries that euphemisms in these areas distinguish. These euphemisms are usually full of local colors, so whenever you encounter them, do as Romans do.
Many euphemisms are related to the folklore, and its localization is quite clear. For example, in Britain, condom is called “French letter”, meaning “a thing of French”; while Frenchmen call it “capote angise”, meaning “a thing of English”. Judging from the history between Britain and France, we’ll know the reason why they kind of use euphemisms to attack each other.
Besides, the same expression of euphemism may have different meanings in different regions. For instance, “ be in the bathroom” means “be in the toilet” for Americans, however, British may consider it as “be taking a bath or shower”.
Thus, from the two examples mentioned above, we can see the localization of euphemism clearly and vividly.
In the process of communication between human beings, language emerged and developed continuously. In this procedure, people coin abundant euphemisms suited to the time, circumstances and speaker and listener. Indeed, language changes over time, thus new words appear while old ones disappear. So it is with euphemism. Take “to be pregnant” for example, it appears in different ways of saying:
Cancel all her social engagements(1856);
Be an interesting condition (1890);
Be in a delicate condition (1895);
Be knitting little booties (1910);
Be in a family way (1920);
Be expecting (1935);
Since euphemism bears so many features, we should be careful when using it.
So how is euphemism formed? And what are the main fields that euphemism is applied to?
: part of the word is replaced ("shoot", "darn", "heck" etc.)
Clippings and abbreviations
: part of the word is removed ("jeeze", "bra", "SOB", "pee").
2. Semantic (meaning):
"The cavalry's come" (Redcoats, menstruation), "pass on".
an associated concept stands in for the one being referred to. "Ladies room", "feminine moisture", "go to bed with", "do it".
a roundabout way of talking (often included with metaphor/metonymy). "Terminological inaccuracy" for "lie", "little girls' room" for "toilet".
overstatement, exaggeration. "Home" for "house", "flight to glory" for "death".
"Sleep" for "die", "anatomically correct" (dolls), "this guy I'm seeing".
Euphemism is widely used for disability and handicap, religion, sex, disease, death, and occupations etc.⑸. There’re some euphemisms commonly used in daily life and I believe we’re all very familiar with them:
the visually impaired
holiday tree/ winter tree
to make love to/ cheeky time
to have sex with
the old man’s friend
to pass away/to go west/to run down the curtain/to pay one’s last debt
a love of musical theater/ confirmed bachelor
In a sense, euphemism is all around. Everyone can try to dig out more about it and even coin some euphemisms in everyday life.
Now it’s quiz time！
Where can I wash my hands?
Where’s the toilet?
To draw a conclusion, I think euphemism feasts our nerves, enriches our life and enhances our communication with people. And the way we use euphemism actually shows the way we perceive the world. I still remember what Romain Rolland wrote: see the world as it is and love it then. And I’d like to quote him in another way for euphemism: see the euphemism as it is and love it then.
⑶Neaman. J & Silver. C. 1983.
A Dictionary of Euphemisms
. London: Hamsish Hamilton Limited.
⑷Leech, G. 1981.
Semantics: The Study of Meaning
. Second Edition. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
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