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A euphemism is a word or phrase that is used in place of a disagreeable or offensive term. When a phrase becomes a euphemism, its literal meaning is often pushed aside. The process of coining euphemisms is called taboo deformation.

Taboo deformations leave traces in historical linguistics. Several are known to have occurred in Indo-European. Examples include the original Indo-European words for bear (*rktos) and wolf (*wlkwos), or deer (originally, hart). All of these words have difficult etymologies because of taboo deformations; or have had euphemisms substituted for the original word some time in the past; for "deer" within historical times. The Germanic word "bear" means "brown guy;" the Slavic root (*medu-ed-) means "honey eater."

Euphemisms can eventually become taboo words themselves through a process for which the linguist Steven Pinker has coined the term euphemism treadmill. This process, by which, over the course of time, a word that was originally adopted as a euphemism acquires all the negative connotations of its referent, has to be replaced by a substitute. In extreme cases, it can result in a cycle.

Many euphemisms fall into one or more of these categories:

  • Foreign terms (derriere, copulation)
  • Abbreviations (SOB for "son of a bitch")
  • Abstractions (it, the situation, go)
  • Indirections (behind, unmentionables)
  • Longer words (perspire, urinate)
  • Mispronunciation (goldarnit, freakin)

There is some confusion over whether certain terms are or are not euphemisms. For example, the phrase visually impaired is popularly perceived as a politically correct euphemism for blind. However, visual impairment is a broader term, and it includes people who have partial sight in one eye, for example.

There are two rough opposites of euphemism, dysphemism and cacophemism. The latter is generally used more often in the sense of something deliberately offensive, while the former can be either offensive or merely humorously deprecating.

There is necessarily a lot of subjectivity involved, because connotations easily change over time. Idiot was once a neutral term, and moron a euphemism for it. As is usually the case with evolving languages, negative usages win over neutral ones, so we had to come up with retarded. Now that too is considered rude, so we have challenged, and so on. A similar progression occurred with reek/stink/smell/odor/fragrance. Perhaps 40 years from now fragrant will be the vilest insult.

Euphemisms are also used to hide unpleasant ideas, even when the term for them is not offensive. This kind of euphemism is used extensively in the fields of public relations and politics.

Examples include:

See also politeness, doublespeak.

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