Guide to Literary Terms

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Euphemism

A euphemism is a softer or less direct expression that has been substituted for an unpleasant, rude, or offensive term.

Correct examples:

  • “Passed away” or “in a better place” for “died”

    • Euphemisms almost always take the form of stock expressions or widely recognized phrases.

  • “Let go” for “fired” or “collateral damage” for civilian casualties

    • A true euphemism is recognizable without context; no matter what the surrounding words are, everyone will know what you mean.

Incorrect example:

  • “The discomfort of the three-hour dental procedure was difficult to forget.”

    • Be careful not to confuse all polite or gentle word choice with euphemisms. For example, while a construction like this is certainly a mild way of expressing the idea that you had a painful and protracted dental experience you can still vividly recall, it isn’t a euphemism—it’s simple understatement. In order for an understatement to be a euphemism, the substitution must be recognizable regardless of the context. Here, though you could make the case that “discomfort” is a substitution for “pain” and “difficult to forget” is standing in place of “traumatic,” it’s only the context of this sentence that helps you know what the speaker really means.