Euphemisms and Jargon in American English
All languages employ euphemisms (alternative expressions used to make
something sound 'better', or 'more acceptable'). Across the variants of
English, some euphemisms are similar. But often those things which have
been euphemized, and in turn how they have been euphemized, are
Our focus in US-1 is how euphemisms may be encountered in American
'Euphemism' vs 'Dysphemism'
In Keith Allan and Kate Burridge's 1991 book Euphemism and Dysphemism:
Language Used as Shield and Weapon (Oxford UP), "euphemisms" are
defined as "... alternatives to a dispreferred expression, in order to
avoid possible loss of face: either one's own face or, through giving
offence, that of the audience, or of some third party."
Euphemisms are the opposite of "dysphemisms" (alternative expressions
used to make something sound worse). As Allan and Burridge explain,
dysphemisms arise through the same processes as euphemisms; they are in
a sense "euphemisms" themselves. Dysphemisms often reflect a process
called "pejorization," in which a neutral or even euphemistic word for a
"bad" thing may eventually come to be seen as a "bad" word itself, which
then needs to be replaced with another euphemism (e.g. the
historic progression from "nigger" [the "N-word"] to "colored" to "black"
and "African-American," and then "people of color" [which is quite
different from "colored people"]).
Examples of euphemisms cited previously in US-1
- "sauerkraut" to "liberty cabbage" (historical, political conformity)
- "rapeseed" oil to "canola" oil (present, 'political correctness')
- "poor" to "needy", then "deprived", then "underprivileged" or
"disadvantaged", then "economically challenged" . . . now 'members of a
differentiated income group'" cf. 'Lost in
Examples of dysphemisms include:
- "a rebel" to "a terrorist" (cf. "freedom fighter")
- "Mexican immigrant workers" to "aliens," "wetbacks," etc. (cf. "guest
- "homosexual" to "fairy," "fruitcake," "fag" (U.S.), etc. (cf. "gay"?)
NB: Both euphemisms and dysphemisms are highly changeable,
particularly as 'relationships' shift in consequence of current events
(cf. the relatively short-lived 'freedom fries' of 2003). One must keep
a close eye on current news and cultural reporting for insights as to what
phenomena are currently undergoing euphemization/dysphemization, how this
is happening, and when/if their new connotations start disappearing from
The presumption of both euphemisms and dysphemisms is that there is
also a 'neutral' term, cf.
(neutral -> dysphemism -> euphemism)
- "stubborn" vs "pigheaded" vs "firm in his/her views"
- "penis" vs "prick" vs "genitals"
(cf. Yiddish 'schlong', juvenile 'willie', Southern 'pecker', etc.)
The "neutral term" may not be universally agreed. Discussion over
politically-charged issues will involve a confusing variety of highly
marked (loaded) terms, used by each side against the views of the others,
in attempts to manipulate opinion (cf. "pro life" vs "anti-abortion",
Common Reasons Why Euphemisms are Used
- To make difficult or emotional situations more tolerable:
("the loved one" vs "body," "cadaver," "corpse," etc.)
- To deceive (conceal the truth); ("culturally-deprived area"
"air support missions" vs "aerial bombardment")
- To lend "status": ("sanitary engineer" vs "janitor,
"senior citizen" vs "retiree")
- To lend "social acceptability": ("motion discomfort bag" vs "vomit
"recycling center" or "waste management center" vs "dump")
- Advertising; appeals to vanity: ("husky" or "pretty-plus" sizes vs
"overly large" [plump, fat] sizes), etc.
- Political 'Propaganda': "the evil empire", "axis of evil", etc.
(language intended to 'demonize' a perceived opponent)
- Inadvertent "technicalization" of language by engineers,
sociologists, administrators, etc.
(cf. "receiving waters" or
"effluent" [of a sewage treatment plant])
- Or, avoidance (cf. Finnish kontio, otso, vs. karhu),
political correctness, etc.
Euphemisms 'follow the times'; they are often (historically)
time-specific: (technical/scientific, executive/management, caregiver,
creative ...) This 'time-specificity' is often important when translating.
- gravedigger, undertaker, mortician, funeral director (Deathcare
Industry), grief counselor
- graveyard, church yard, cemetery, memorial park
- hairdresser, beauty parlor, beauty shop/shoppe/salon,
Colloquial Euphemisms: Problematics of Understanding and
Euphemisms are often bound in colloquial expressions which may be familiar
to native speakers of a particular culture, but are not easily
understandable by those outside the culture. Even if understood, they may
be difficult to translate, either in an appropriate equivalent register or
at all. Consider the following examples:
Death and Dying note the differing associations
- to pass away, pass on, go to meet their maker, go to sleep,
go to the other side, go to rest, go to their final reward, go West,
croak, kick the bucket, buy the farm, buy it
- to lose them (I recently lost my favorite aunt...)
- (pets) put to sleep, put away, put down
- (gangsters) deep-six, rub out, erase, waste, sleeping with the
- A nuclear explosion "may cause" heavy casualties among your
(Use of auxiliary "may" to put distance...)
- The unit took "heavy casualties" vs killed, dead, burned,
- RIF (reduction in force); a "force reduction"
- fire for effect, engage the enemy, soften up their defenses
Systematic euphemisms comprise a type of jargon ....
Traditional, 'Rural-register' Male Urination Euphemisms (Good old
- I have to go feed the goldfish.
- I have to go look at the crops.
- I have to go see a man about a dog.
- I have to pay a visit to the old soldiers' home.
- I have to retreat to the holy of holies.
- I have to go sharpen the skates.
- I have to go visit the chamber of commerce.
Vomiting Euphemisms note the 'age' specificity
- Praying to the porcelain god...
- Talking with Ralph and Earl...
- Barfing, upchucking, blowing lunch, technicolor lunch pavement
pizza (US or GB?) . . .
(cf. register and propriety: can "barfing", etc., be used in serious
or 'adult' situations?)
From Euphemism to Jargon, and Their Intermixture
Euphemism is often connected with 'jargon' the specialized or
technical language of a trade, profession, group or 'community' (cf. library jargon, weather jargon and
the jargon of
caregiving and eldercare [cf. also FAST Glossary
Military euphemisms, in other words, comprise a jargon a common
system of 'professional reference'; military jargon may also be used
euphemistically. Traditional rural euphemisms comprise a type of jargon
for those who are part of the particular 'rural community' (presumably
specific to rural 'regionality'). The vomiting euphemisms above may be
considered highly age-specific; they represent younger people (students
especially?) much more than they would older people.
Jargon may be 'educated' and largely standardized between different
English variants, or a highly colloquial 'street variety' which changes
from one neighborhood to another. Jargons may also be largely isolated to
a certain profession, or certain terms or concepts may enter 'mainstream'
usage. With the latter, the changeover from isolation to mainstream would
usually be time-datable, as with the computer and printing examples below,
and may be associated with particular genders, races, or ethnic groups.
Jargon Examples and Registers
Psychological Jargon ('educated', fixed)
- complexes (inferiority, Oedipus, megalomania...)
- id, ego, superego
- introvert, extrovert
- inhibitions, fixations
- psychopathic, schizophrenic personalities
Drug language (colloquial;
- "narc," [addict] "junkie," "pusher"
- strung out, flying high, zonked, wired
- high and low drugs, hard and soft drugs
- speed, acid, dope, snow, leaf, coke, crack
- mainlining, snorting
- uppers, downers, 'ludes, bennies, Mary Jane
TV and Film Terminology
- broadcast, narrowcast, cablecast, simulcast, multicast
- docudrama, edutainment, infotainment, advertainment,
obitutainment, dramedy, eduware
- 'prime time' (cf. nickname for high-profile athletes)
- tune in, lead in, cut out, break out, fade out
- a "take", "take five", a "wrap"
- "call letters", a "set-top box", 'Tivoworthy'
- a "cameo role", a "leading lady", the 'talent', a sports
announcer and his "color man"
- "spot" advertising, product placement, Nielsen "ratings", the
network "sweep" season
- gaffers, "best boys", etc.
(Computer) Printing & Typesetting
- font, serif, sans serif, 10-point Arial
- kerning, ligatures, justified margins
- ASCII text, a 'mouse'
- semesters, 3-hour courses, "blue books"
cf. pro gradu, proseminar, ECTS credit
- a term paper, Master's thesis, PhD dissertation, etc.
- The SAT and GRE exams, a GPA (grade point average); "Greek" life, the
'Homecoming' weekend (and its game, queen, dance, etc.)
Specific U.S. Jargons (which may also be euphemistic)
Mainstream American Sports Baseball . . .
- A ball-park figure,
- The big leagues (the "show") (cf. "bush" leagues)
- That's out of our league...
- He can't get to first base with her...
- He started with two strikes against him...
- So far, he's batting 1000
- It was a political doubleheader...
- She threw him a curve with that one
- He "hit it out of the park"
- "Three strikes and you're out"
. . . and American Football
- Monday-morning quarterbacking...
- It's up to you to take the ball and run with it.
- A "Hail Mary" attempt.
- He's going for the bomb...
- They tried an end run around the defense.
- It's time to drop back and punt.
- A 'prevent defense'; a 'goal-line stand'
- They're 'huddling up' to review their strategy
- They're bringing in the 'special teams'
- That boy's going to be 'playing on Sunday'
Folk Proverbs and Language Jokes
1980s-era 'Yuppie' Spinoffs
- Yuppies Young Urban Professionals
- Puppies Poor Urban Professionals
- Buppies Black Urban Professionals
- Dinks Double-income, No Kids
- Woofs Well-off Older Folks
- Unfriended/defriended (OED)
- Sexting, intexticated, flightmare, lexadaisical
- Wikipedia 'deletionists' & 'inclusionists'
- 'cloud computing,' (cf. Google Chrome OS, etc.), 'cloudsourcing' [vs.
- a Twitter
hashtag & 'twelpforce'
- 'tramp-stamp', 'whale-tail', 'chop-top', etc.
- 'Locavores' 'sustainable connections,' city chickens, etc.
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Last Updated 03 April 2013