Historical linguistics has revealed traces of taboo deformations in many languages. Several are known to have occurred in Indo-European languages, including the original Proto-Indo-European words for bear (*rtkos), wolf (*wlkwos), and deer (originally, hart; the deformation likely occurred to avoid confusion with heart). In different Indo-European languages, each of these words has a difficult etymology because of taboo deformations—a euphemism was substituted for the original, which no longer occurs in the language. An example is the Slavic root for bear—*medu-ed-, which means "honey eater". One example in English is "donkey" replacing the old Indo-European-derived word "ass". The word "dandelion" (lit., tooth of lion, referring to the shape of the leaves) is another example, being a substitute for pissenlit, meaning "wet the bed", a possible reference to the fact that dandelion was used as a diuretic.
In some languages of the Pacific, using the name of a deceased chief is taboo. Amongst indigenous Australians, it is forbidden to use the name, image, or audio-visual recording of the deceased, so that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation now publishes a warning to indigenous Australians when using names, images or audio-visual recordings of people who have died.
Since people are often named after everyday things, this leads to the swift development of euphemisms. These languages have a very high rate of vocabulary change. (Dyen, Isidore, A. T. James & J. W. L. Cole. 1967. Language divergence and estimated word retention rate. Language 43/1: 150-171.)
In a similar manner, classical Chinese texts were expected to avoid using characters contained within the name of the currently ruling emperor as a sign of respect. In these instances, the relevant ideographs were replaced by homophones. While this practice creates an additional wrinkle for anyone attempting to read or translate texts from the classical period, it does provide a fairly accurate means of dating the documents under consideration.
The common names of illicit drugs, and the plants used to obtain them, often undergo a process similar to taboo deformation, because new terms are devised in order to discuss them secretly in the presence of others. This process often occurs in English (e.g. speed or crank for meth). It occurs even more in Spanish, e.g. the deformation of names for cannabis: mota (lit., "something which moves" on the black market), replacing grifa (lit., "something coarse to the touch"), replacing marihuana (a female personal name, María Juana), replacing cañamo (the original Spanish name for the plant, derived from the Latin genus name Cannabis). All four of these names are still used in various parts of the Hispanophone world, although cañamo ironically has the least underworld connotation, and is often used to describe industrial hemp, or legitimate medically-prescribed cannabis.
Words originally intended as euphemisms may lose their euphemistic value, acquiring the negative connotations of their referents. In some cases, they may be used mockingly and become dysphemisms.
For example, the term "concentration camp," to describe camps used to house civilian prisoners in close (concentrated) quarters, was used by the British during the Second Boer War, primarily because it sounded bland and inoffensive. However, after the Third Reich used the expression to describe its death camps, the term gained enormous negative connotation.
Also, in some versions of English, "toilet room," itself a euphemism, was replaced with "bathroom" and "water closet", which were replaced with "restroom" and "W.C." These are also examples of euphemisms which are geographically concentrated: the term "restroom" is rarely used outside of the United States and "W.C.", where before it was quite popular in Britain, is passing out of favour and becoming more popular in France.
Connotations easily change over time. "Idiot," "imbecile," and "moron" were once neutral terms for an adult of toddler, preschool, and primary school mental ages, respectively. As with Gresham's law, negative connotations tend to crowd out neutral ones, so the phrase mentally retarded was pressed into service to replace them. Now that, too, is considered rude, used commonly as an insult of a person, thing, or idea. As a result, new terms like "mentally challenged," "with an intellectual disability" and "special needs" have replaced "retarded". A similar progression occurred with
although in the case of "crippled" the meaning has also broadened (and hence has been narrowed with adjectives, which themselves have been euphemised); a dyslexic or colorblind person, for example, would not be termed "crippled". Even more recent is the use of person-centric phrases, such as "person(s) with disability, dyslexia, colorblindness, etc.", which ascribe a particular condition to those previously qualified with the aforementioned adjectives.
Euphemisms can also serve to recirculate words that have passed out of use because of negative connotation. The word "lame" from above, having faded from the vernacular, was revitalized as a slang word generally meaning "not living up to expectations". Connotation of a euphemism can also be subject-specific. The term "handicap" was in common use to describe a physical disability; it gained common use in sports and games to describe a scoring advantage given to a player who has a disadvantageous standing in ability, and this definition has remained common, even though the term as describing physical disability has mostly faded from common use. One exception to this is in the United States when designating "handicapped" parking spaces for such individuals.
In the early 1960s, Major League Baseball franchise owner and promoter Bill Veeck, who was missing part of a leg, argued against the then-favored euphemism "handicapped," saying he preferred "crippled" because it was merely descriptive and did not carry connotations of limiting one's capability the way "handicapped" (and all of its subsequent euphemisms) seemed to do (Veeck as in Wreck, chapter "I'm Not Handicapped, I'm Crippled"). Later, comedian George Carlin gave a famous monologue of how he thought euphemisms can undermine appropriate attitudes towards serious issues such as the evolving terms describing the medical problem of the cumulative mental trauma of soldiers in high stress situations:
He contended that, as the name of the condition became more complicated and seemingly arcane, sufferers of this condition have been taken less seriously as people with a serious illness, and were given poorer treatment as a result. He also contended that Vietnam veterans would have received the proper care and attention they needed were the condition still called "shell shock". In the same routine, he echoed Bill Veeck's opinion that "crippled" was a perfectly valid term (and noted that early English translations of the Bible seemed to have no qualms about saying that Jesus "healed the cripples").
A complementary "dysphemism treadmill" exists, but is more rarely observed. One modern example is the word "suck#Verb". "That sucks" began as American shorthand for "that sucks cock," referring to fellatio, but quickly evolved into slang for "that is very unpleasant" ; along with the exactly synonymous phrase "that blows", it developed over the late-20th century from being an extremely vulgar phrase to near-acceptability. Likewise, scumbag, which was originally a reference to a used condom, now is a fairly mild epithet. This is in stark contrast to the related term douchebag, which is still semi-common but has a much more negative connotation.
In his remarks on the ever-changing London slang, made in Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell mentioned both the "euphemism treadmill" and the "dysphemism treadmill". He did not use the now-established terms, but observed and commented on the respective processes as early as in 1933.
There is some disagreement over whether certain terms are or are not euphemisms. For example, sometimes the phrase visually impaired is labeled as a politically correct euphemism for blind. However, visual impairment can be a broader term, including, for example, people who have partial sight in one eye, or even those with uncorrected poor vision, a group that would be excluded by the word blind.
There are three antonyms of euphemism: dysphemism, cacophemism, and power word. The first can be either offensive or merely humorously deprecating with the second one generally used more often in the sense of something deliberately offensive. The last is used mainly in arguments to make a point seem more correct.
To alter the pronunciation or spelling of a taboo word (such as a swear word) to form a euphemism is known as taboo deformation. There is an astonishing number of taboo deformations in English, of which many refer to the infamous four-letter words. In American English, words which are unacceptable on television, such as fuck, may be represented by deformations such as freak—even in children's cartoons. Some examples of Cockney rhyming slang may serve the same purpose—to call a person a berk sounds less offensive than to call him a cunt, though berk is short for Berkeley Hunt which rhymes with cunt.
Bureaucracies such as the military and large corporations frequently spawn euphemisms of a more deliberate (and to some, more sinister) nature. Organizations coin doublespeak expressions to describe objectionable actions in terms that seem neutral or inoffensive. For example, a term used in the past for contamination by radioactive isotopes is Sunshine units.
Military organizations kill people, sometimes deliberately and sometimes by mistake; in doublespeak, the first may be called neutralizing the target and the second collateral damage. Violent destruction of non-state enemies may be referred to as pacification. Two common terms when a soldier is accidentally killed (buys the farm) by their own side are friendly fire or blue on blue (BOBbing)—"buy the farm" has its own interesting history.
Execution is an established euphemism referring to the act of putting a person to death, with or without judicial process. It originally referred to the execution, i.e., the carrying out, of a death warrant, which is an authorization to a sheriff, prison warden, or other official to put a named person to death. In legal usage, execution can still refer to the carrying out of other types of orders; for example, in U.S. legal usage, a writ of execution is a direction to enforce a civil money judgment by seizing property. Likewise, lethal injection itself may be considered a euphemism for putting the convict to death by poisoning.
Abortion originally meant premature birth, and came to mean birth before viability. The term "abort" was extended to mean any kind of premature ending, such as aborting the launch of a rocket. Euphemisms have developed around the original meaning. Abortion, by itself, came to mean induced abortion or elective abortion exclusively. Hence the parallel term spontaneous abortion, an "act of nature", was dropped in favor of the more neutral-sound miscarriage. The politically-charged subject of elective abortion also led to parallel euphemisms: "pro-life" being characterized as another way of saying "anti-abortion" and "pro-choice" similarly coming to mean "pro-abortion".
Industrial unpleasantness such as pollution may be toned down to outgassing or runoff—descriptions of physical processes rather than their damaging consequences. Some of this may simply be the application of precise technical terminology in the place of popular usage, but beyond precision, the advantage of technical terminology may be its lack of emotional undertones and the likelihood the general public (at least initially) will not recognize it for what it really is; the disadvantage being the lack of real-life context. Terms like "waste" and "wastewater" are also avoided in favor of terms such as byproduct, recycling, reclaimed water and effluent. In the oil industry, oil-based drilling muds were simply renamed organic phase drilling muds, where organic phase is a euphemism for "oil".
When praying, Jews will typically use the word "Adonai" ('the Lord'). However, when in a colloquial setting, this is deemed inappropriate, and so typically one replaces the word "Adonai" with the word "HaShem", which literally means, "The Name". It is notable that "Adonai" is itself a word that refers to the Jewish God's name, the original pronunciation of which is unknown due to a lack of vowels, though translated as Jehovah in English, but is not the name itself. Traditionally, Jews have seen the name of God as ineffable and thus one that must not be spoken. According to the Torah, when Moses saw the burning bush, he asked God, "who are you?" The answer he heard was, "I am that I am". Thus, the Jews have for centuries recognized the name of the Almighty as ineffable, because pronouncing it is equivalent to calling oneself God.
Euphemisms for hell, damnation, and the devil, on the other hand, are often used to avoid invoking the power of the adversary. The most famous in the latter category is the expression what the dickens and its variants, which does not refer to the famed British writer but instead was a popular euphemism for Satan in its time. In the Harry Potter books, the evil wizard Lord Voldemort is usually referred to as "He Who Must Not Be Named" or "You-Know-Who". However, the character Professor Dumbledore is quoted as saying in the first book of the series that "Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself".
The word manure, referring to animal feces used as fertilizer for plants, literally means "worked with the hands" (from the Latin: manus, manūs – "hand"), alluding to the mixing of manure with earth. Several zoos market the byproduct of elephants and other large herbivores as Zoo Doo or Zoopoop, and there is a brand of chicken manure available in garden stores under the name Cock-a-Doodle Doo. Also, a brand of sheep manure is called "Baa Baa Doo." Similarly, the abbreviation BS, or the word bull, often replaces the word bullshit in polite society. (The term bullshit itself generally means lies or nonsense, and not the literal "shit of a bull", making it a dysphemism.)
There are any number of lengthier periphrases for excretion used to excuse oneself from company, such as to powder one’s nose, to see a man about a dog (or horse) or to drop the kids off at the pool (these expressions could actually be regarded as dysphemisms). Slang expressions which are neither particularly euphemistic nor dysphemistic, such as take a leak, form a separate category.
In some languages, various other sensitive subjects give rise to euphemisms and dysphemisms. In Spanish, one such subject is class and status. The word señorito is an example, although the euphemism treadmill has turned it to a disparagement, at least in Mexico.
Sexual intercourse was once a euphemism derived from the more general term intercourse by itself, which simply meant "meeting" but now is normally used as a synonym for the longer phrase, thus making the town of Intercourse, Pennsylvania, a subject of jokes in modern usage.
The "baseball metaphors for sex" are perhaps the most famous and widely-used set of polite euphemisms for sex and relationship behavior in the U.S. The metaphors encompass terms like "hitting it off" for a good start to relationship, "Striking out" for being unlucky with a love interest, and "running the bases" for progressing sexually in a relationship. The "bases" themselves, from first to third, stand for various levels of sexual activity from French kissing to "petting", itself a euphemism for manual genital stimulation, all of which is short of "scoring" or "coming home", sexual intercourse. "Hitting a home run" describes sex during the first date, "batting both ways" or "batting for the other team" describes bisexuality or homosexuality respectively, and "stealing bases" refers to initiating new levels of sexual contact without invitation. Baseball-related euphemisms also abound for the "equipment"; "Bat and balls" are a common reference to the male genitalia, while "glove" or "mitt" can refer to the female anatomy.
There are many euphemisms for birth control devices, sometimes even propagated by the manufacturers: Condoms are known as "rubbers", "sheaths", "love gloves", "diving suits", "raincoats", "Johnnies"(in Ireland and to a lesser degree Britain) etc. The birth control pill is known simply as "The Pill", and other methods of birth control are also given generalized euphemisms like "The Patch", "The Sponge", "Shots", etc. There are also many euphemisms for menstruation, such as "having the painters in", being "on the rag", "flying the flag" (originally a euphemism for hanging out the bedsheet after a wedding night as a testament to the woman's virginity), or it simply being "that time of the month".
Euphemisms are also common in reference to sexual orientations and lifestyles. For example in the movie "Closer" the character played by Jude Law uses the euphemism "He valued his privacy" for homosexual and "He enjoyed his privacy" for a flamboyant homosexual. Among common euphemisms for homosexuals, "gay" (the arcane meaning of the word 'gay' meant dissolute, hedonistic and a lover of pleasure but is now taken to mean the stereotypical flamboyant personality of homosexual men) and "lesbian" (in reference to the poet Sappho of Lesbos) are the only two that are generally acceptable in society. Other euphemisms for a homosexual, such as homo, queer, fag (originally a verb meaning "work", later applied to a first-year university student who performed chores for an older student - by extension, someone who is subservient, weak, or unmanly), bulldyke or simply dyke, butch (referring to a lesbian assuming the "male" role of a relationship) etc. have relatively quickly acquired a vulgar connotation, and even "gay" and "lesbian" have negative connotations in mainstream society depending on the tone of the conversation. The expression "that's so gay" has come into frequent pejorative usage in the U.S.
As an aside, the use of euphemisms for sexual activity has grown under the pressure of recent rulings by the Federal Communications Commission regarding what constitutes "decent" on-air broadcast speech. The FCC included many well known euphemisms in its lists of banned terms but indicated that even new and unknown coinages might be considered indecent once it became clear what they referenced. George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can't Say On TV" evolved into the "Incomplete List of Impolite Words", available in text and audio form, and contains hundreds of euphemisms and dysphemisms to genitalia, the act of having sex, various forms of sex, sexual orientations, etc. that have all become to pejorative for polite conversation, including such notables as "getting your pole varnished" and "eating the tuna taco". Carlin also does a bit on the uses of the word "fuck", originally only a dysphemism for the sex act but becoming an adverb, adjective, noun, etc. This "diversity" is also mentioned on in the movie The Boondock Saints after the main characters commit a mass murder of Russian mob bosses followed by a violent joke on a friend who is in the Mafia.
In Greek, the word κατάρα "curse" is found, and in English (especially British usage), an exclamation that is used in a similar style is curses. The stereotyped "Perils of Pauline" silent film might have the villain tying his victim to a railroad track. When the hero rescues the heroine, the card might say, "Curses! Foiled again!" in place of whatever cursing the character presumably uttered.
Some Christians often use phrases such as gone to be with the Lord or called to higher service (this latter expression being particularly prevalent in the Salvation Army) to express their belief that physical death is not the end.
There are many euphemisms for the dead body, some polite and some profane, as well as dysphemisms such as worm food, or dead meat. Modern rhyming slang contains the expression brown bread. The corpse was once referred to as the shroud (or house or tenement) of clay, and modern funerary workers use terms such as the loved one (title of a novel about Hollywood undertakers by Evelyn Waugh) or the dear departed. (They themselves have given up the euphemism funeral director for grief therapist, and hold arrangement conferences with relatives.) Among themselves, mortuary technicians often refer to the corpse as the client. A recently dead person may be referred to as "the late John Doe". The terms cemetery for "graveyard" and undertaking for "burial" are so well-established that most people do not even recognize them as euphemisms. In fact, undertaking has taken on a negative connotation, as undertakers have a devious reputation.
Contemporary euphemisms and dysphemisms for death tend to be quite colorful, and someone who has died is said to have passed away, passed on, checked out, bit the big one, kicked the bucket, bitten the dust, popped their clogs, pegged it, carked it, turned their toes up, bought the farm (comes from the G.I. Insurance Policy as the amount of money the next of kin would receive was enough to buy a farm)., cashed in their chips, croaked, given up the ghost (originally a more respectful term, cf. the death of Jesus as translated in the King James Version of the Bible Mark 15:37), gone south, gone west, shuffled off this mortal coil (from William Shakespeare's Hamlet), Run down the curtain and joined the Choir Invisible, or assumed room temperature (actually a dysphemism in use among mortuary technicians). When buried, they may be said to be pushing up daisies, sleeping the big sleep, taking a dirt nap, checking out the grass from underneath or six feet under. There are hundreds of such expressions in use. (Old Burma-Shave jingle: "If daisies are your favorite flower, keep pushin’ up those miles per hour!") In Edwin Muir's 'The Horses' a euphemism is used to show the elimination of the human race 'The seven days war that put the world to sleep.'
"Euthanasia" also attracts euphemisms. One may put one out of one’s misery, put one to sleep, or have one put down, the latter two phrases being used primarily with dogs and cats who have made their final visit to the veterinarian. (These terms are not usually applied to humans, because both medical ethics and civil law deprecate euthanasia.) In fact, Dr. Bernard Nathanson has pointed out that the word "euthanasia" itself is a euphemism, being Greek for "good death".
There are a few euphemisms for killing which are neither respectful nor playful, but rather clinical and detached. Some examples of this type are terminate, wet work, to take care of one or to take them for a ride, to do them in, to off, to take them out, to snuff them out, frag, smoke, lace, whack or waste someone. To cut loose or open up on someone or something means "to shoot at with every available weapon".
There are also many dysphemisms, especially for death, which are euphemisms or dysphemisms for other unpleasant events and thus are unpleasant in their literal meaning, used to generalize a bad event. "Having your ass handed to you", "left for the rats", "toasted", "roasted", "burned", "pounded", "bent over the barrel", "screwed over" or other terms commonly describe death or the state of imminent death, but also are common in describing defeat of any kind such as a humiliating loss in a sport or video game, being unfairly treated or cast aside in business affairs, being badly beaten in a fight, and similar.
To terminate with prejudice generally means to end one's employment without possibility of rehire (as opposed to lay off, where the person can expect rehire if business picks up), but the related term to terminate with extreme prejudice now usually means to kill. The adjective extreme may occasionally be omitted. In a famous line from the movie Apocalypse Now, Captain Willard is told to terminate Colonel Kurtz’s commission "with extreme prejudice". An acronym, TWEP has been coined from this phrase, which can be used as a verb: "He was TWEPed/TWEPped."
The Dead Parrot Sketch from Monty Python's Flying Circus contains an extensive list of euphemisms for death, referring to the deceased parrot that the character played by John Cleese had purchased. The popularity of the sketch has itself increased the popularity of some of these euphemisms — indeed, it has introduced another euphemism for death — "pining for the fjords" — although in the sketch that phrase was used by the shop owner to assert that the parrot was not dead, but was merely quiet and contemplative.
A similar passage occurs near the beginning of The Twelve Chairs, where Bezenchuk, the undertaker, astonishes Vorobyaninov with his classification of people by the euphemisms used to speak of their deaths. The game Dungeon Siege contains many euphemisms for death as well.
Also, a scene in the film Patch Adams features Patch (Robin Williams) dressed in an angel costume, reading out various synonyms and euphemisms for the phrase "to die" to a man dying of cancer. This evolves into a contest between the two men to see who can come up with more, and better, euphemisms, ending when Patch comes up with "and if we bury you ass up, we'll have a place to park my bike."
The name of the village of Ban Grong Greng in Thailand is a euphemism for Death Village. It literally means the Village of the Dreaded Gong. It is so named because it is the home to Wat Grong Greng (temple of the dreaded gong) at which the burning of bodies at funerals is preceded by the beating of a gong.
These lists might suggest that most euphemisms are well-known expressions. Often euphemisms can be somewhat situational; what might be used as a euphemism in a conversation between two friends might make no sense to a third person. In this case, the euphemism is being used as a type of innuendo. At other times, the euphemism is common in some circles (such as the medical field) but not others, becoming a type of jargon. One such example is the line "put him in bed with the captain's daughter" from the popular sea shanty Drunken Sailor. Although this line may sound more like a reward for getting drunk to non-seamen, the phrase "captain's daughter" was actually a euphemism used among sailors for the cat o' nine tails (itself a euphemism for a kind of whip).
Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, in his controversial speech that triggered the 2006 anti-government protests, used a number of vulgar phrases that were translated euphemistically by the media as "screwed up" and "did not bother."
The word euphemism itself can be used as a euphemism. In the animated short It's Grinch Night (See Dr. Seuss), a child asks to go to the euphemism, where euphemism is being used as a euphemism for outhouse. This euphemistic use of "euphemism" also occurred in the play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where a character requests, "Martha, will you show her where we keep the, uh, euphemism?" It is analogous to the 19th-century use of unmentionables for underpants.