Learning what a euphemism is and looking at some examples can help your filmmaking and character work in many different ways.
Language is art, and the way we use it can tell us the genre and the stakes and even build interest in what we have on the page.
Words matter. And the way we say things, or the way our characters say things, can let her audience and the people around us understand who we are and what we are about.
So what happens when you say one thing, but mean another?
Maybe you soften the language or use a common slang word to express something to cover for bodily functions or sexual intercourse...
Or maybe, you use a euphemism because you don't want to be explicit about what's happening in everyday conversations.
But what is a euphemism? And what are some examples of euphemistic language?
Today, we're going to look into the definition in literature, film, and television. We'll check out how they can be used in characterization or narration and also find synonyms and antonyms that might be useful as well. We will leave no word or phrase unturned.
Ready? Let's get into euphemistic language together.
What Is a Euphemism? (Definition and Examples)
The reason I love writing is that I think a great command of words can move mountains. When you can find the right words, it's best to be direct.
But there is a certain fanciful excitement when you say something without saying anything. Does that make sense? I think if we define euphemism, it will help.
A euphemism is a word or expression that is substituted for one considered too harsh or blunt for the situation, especially when dealing with something vulgar, disagreeable, or embarrassing.
Other ways of saying this include euphonious, euphemisms, and euphemistic.
How to pronounce "euphemism"
When you say the word, it should sound like "yoo·fuh·mi·zm."
- beating around the bush
What Is Euphemistic?
As we defined above, "euphemistic" is a derivative of euphemism. The word comes from the Greek word euphemia (εὐφημία) which refers to "words of good omen."
To be euphemistic is using or of the nature of a euphemism. That means you're using softer words to describe something else in everyday language.
Synonyms for Euphemistic
What's the Opposite of Euphemism?
If a euphemism is talking around something, its opposite would be talking in a straightforward manner, sometimes rudely.
- calling a spade a spade
- shooting from the hip
What Is Dysphemism?
Euphemistically speaking, a dysphemism is its direct opposite. To unpack one word, we should dig into another and make sure we get the meaning of dysphemism very clearly.
A dysphemism is a derogatory term or remark someone says instead of softening or using a neutral word.
As you can see, a euphemism is a nicer way to say something, whereas a dysphemism is a meaner, dirtier way to say something. Let's look at a list of examples of dysphemism to get a clearer view. All of these could be considered a bit rude.
- bit the dust
- bought the farm
- pushing daisies
- six feet under
- swimming with the fishes
- worm food
- dead as a doornail
- dumb as a rock
- not the sharpest knife in the drawer
- the elevator doesn't reach the top floor
- the lights are on but nobody's home
- teacher's pet
- puke hole
- snail mail
- cancer stick
Now that you understand the opposite, let's go back to the euphemistic expression at hand and learn what some of those look like.
Common Euphemism Examples
How do you say you're doing things without actually saying them? Hopefully, some of these common phrases and words help you understand what people say and why they say it. Got any to add to the list?
- "Powder your nose" instead of going to the bathroom.
- "Break wind" instead of fart.
- "Afternoon delight" for sex.
- "Water closet" for bathroom.
- "Hanky panky" for sex.
- The car isn’t used, it’s “pre-owned.”
- He’s not sick, she’s “under the weather.”
- "Thrifty" instead of cheap.
- "Negative cash flow" instead of in debt.
- "Creative with the truth" instead of a liar.
- "Friends with benefits" instead of sex buddies.
- Not prison, it’s a “correctional facility.”
- Not poor, but “economically disadvantaged.”
- They didn’t break up, they “needed some space.”
- "Big-boned" instead of fat.
- "Well-fed" instead of large.
- Not a lie, it was a “truth inexactitude.”
- She’s shaking her “money maker” not her butt.
- Saying "In a family way" instead of pregnant.
- "With child" instead of pregnant.
- "Au natural" instead of naked.
- It’s not sex, it’s “making whoopee.”
- “Wardrobe malfunction” instead of nip-slip.
- "Letting someone go" instead of firing them.
- Saying "between jobs" instead of unemployed.
- "Enhanced interrogation" instead of torture.
Euphemism Meaning Sexually
We have a lot of ways to beat around the bush when it comes to talking about sex. This might be a puritanically American thing. A lot of times, writers use euphemisms to protect the rating of their film or TV show.
There are even many menstruation euphemisms, like "getting a visit from Aunt Flo" and "riding the red wave."
People often are just shy to talk about real issues. Maybe they cannot come right out and say "sex" because it would stop something from being for a certain audience. Maybe the characters in the story are too naive even to know the appropriate terms.
In any regard, we have many ways to say "sex" with euphemistic language, and they make euphemisms funny.
Euphemisms Meaning "Sex" List:
- Hide the salami
- Making bacon
- Testing the mattress
- The no-pants dance
- A trip to pound town
- Rumpy pumpy
- Carnal embrace
- Give the dog a bone
- To know someone in the biblical sense
- Making a hole in the welcome mat
- Getting laid
- Making love
- Funny business
- Afternoon delight
- Knocking boots
- Doing it
- Getting down
- Jumping bones
- Getting lucky
- Tap that
Innuendo vs. Euphemism
The difference between innuendo and euphemism has to do with tone and direct speech.
"Innuendo" is when you give a degrading reference to a person or thing, like when you say, "They've been spending a lot of time together... if you know what I mean."
A euphemism tries to soften the blow of what's being said, while still saying something. So you would say something like, "They're spending a lot of time together bumping uglies."
Idiom vs. Euphemism
The difference between an idiom and a euphemism is that an idiom is a manner of speaking that describes a condition. Like if you said, "Spill the beans," I would know you're asking me to tell you something.
A euphemistic phrase is replacing another word or idea with one that is considered less offensive. So you would not call someone a liar, you'd call them a "truth bender."
The Purpose of Euphemisms for Writers
So why are people using this kind of language? There are lots of reasons in day-to-day life. But what about writers?
Well, we have characters we need to craft. And sometimes, you want to incorporate these literary devices into their dialogue to tell us a lot about them.
Before he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, writer George Orwell published an essay called “Politics and the English Language,” where he said euphemistic writing serves the purposes of totalitarianism. So sometimes governments or corporations use this language to disguise consequences.
The great comedian George Carlin also talked about how these kinds of words and phrases dull down the population, how they're used to pacify us and desensitize us to what's really going on in the world.
But how are filmmakers using this language?
Euphemistic Language for Filmmakers
Despite how funny it would be to compile, this is not a list of what we call writers and filmmakers. These are people who are working to build character and story.
And the words they put on screen in dialogue and narration matter a lot to the message they want to get across.
Say you have a parent who is trying to tell a child about a death in the family, or a conservative church lady trying to describe a romantic encounter. Euphemisms are a gateway into these kinds of characters without having to write a ton of exposition. People inherently understand why others would speak this way. You can tell someone is caring for a child or maybe is prude without giving away too much or overexplaining.
They also work well in comedic dialogue.
What Is a Euphemism Example in Literature?
A great example of words used euphemistically comes from William Shakespeare's Macbeth. It happens when Lady Macbeth is telling her husband to kill Duncan and take what is rightfully his. In the scene, she says:
"To beguile the time,
Look like the time. Bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue. Look like th’ innocent flower,
But be the serpent under ’t. He that’s coming
Must be provided for; and you shall put
This night’s great business into my dispatch,
Which shall to all our nights and days to come
Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom."
When she says Duncan "must be provided for," what she's really saying is that they have to murder him!
There's also a great poem by Bob Hicok called Dropping the Euphemism, which doesn't beat around the bush when it comes to using this literary term:
When I said
I have to lay you off
a parallel universe was born
in his face, one where flesh
is a loose shirt
taken to the river and beaten
against the rocks. Just
by opening my mouth I destroyed
Euphemism Examples in Film and TV
To start, I'd like to take a scene with euphemistic phrasing from Legally Blonde.
In one scene, Elle Woods talks about how other people see her and how she wants to spend her life with a new sense of worth. Elle says:
"They wanted me to grow up and become a Victoria’s Secret model who marries a rock star. Now, for the first time, it seemed like someone expected me to do something better with my life than wear underwear for a living. But I was kidding myself—Donovan didn’t see me as a lawyer. He saw me as a piece of ass."
Another use of euphemism that I think shows the gentleness of a character is from Forrest Gump. It's when he's talking about Jenny and describing her life. See which euphemism he uses to talk about Jenny's mother.
"Now remember how I told you that Jenny never seemed to want to go home? Well, she lived in a house that was as old as Alabama. Her Momma had gone up to heaven when she was five and her daddy was some kind of a farmer."
As you can see, "gone to heaven" is a very simple and gentle way of talking about death. You can see how his personality shines with the words he uses.
Summing Up "What is a Euphemism? Definition and Examples for Writers"
Now that you've got the euphemism definition, it's time to test it out in the real world. Get them into your writing and see what they can do.
Read some articles and see who's using them and why. The more you can pick them out, the more you can understand who controls what narrative and the reasoning behind it.
Hopefully, with this understanding of euphemism, you're ready to take your writing and reading to the next level.
Let us know what you think in the comments.