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Last updated: Oct 30th, 2011


A euphemism is a phrase or word with a positive, neutral, or more mild connotation, used as a substitute for a more direct word or phrase with a stronger or more negative connotation.

I do not like euphemisms and I am cautious of using them. Euphemisms can be disrespectful, especially in politics, but also in other contexts, and even when they are not overtly disrespectful, they can hinder clear communication. Euphemisms have a few benefits or legitimate uses, but these are sparse. These include the use of euphemisms to avoid language that is too explicit or graphic, and their use as humor, when the euphemism is so extreme that it constitutes a form of mild sarcasm.

Euphemisms in Politics

Euphemisms are used heavily in politics and can be a source of escalation of conflict. A classic example of a context in which euphemisms are mainstream is the abortion debate. People who support legal abortions describe themselves as "pro-choice" and people who want to make abortion illegal describe themselves as "pro-life". Both life and choice are words with positive connotations, and are chosen to make each camp appeal to a broader audience. The use of both of these terms is thus, in a sense, dishonest. Pro-choice activists do not universally support the idea of choice in all aspects of life, nor do pro-life activists universally support the idea of protecting life.

Euphemisms in Legislation

The political environment in the U.S. has become such that euphemisms are even written into our legislation, most particularly, into the names of bills and legislation packages. As examples, the USA Patriot Act was a bill passed during the George W. Bush administration that gave law-enforcement agencies greater power for gathering information and diminished citizens' rights to privacy, and the No Child Left Behind Act was an education reform package. Both of these packages have names that are euphemisms...they are simply large packages of legislation, with no clear consensus on whether they achieve the goals or fit with the spirit of their names. It would thus be more honest to use a more dry, descriptive name.

I support naming legislation in a way that is as neutral as possible, even when I fully or strongly support the legislation itself. The reason is that using a euphemism to name legislation that may be controversial to others is disrespectful to people who have opposing political viewpoints. Since I believe that the ends do not justify the means, and I believe in being respectful of those with differing viewpoints, I think that using euphemisms in political speech is never justified.

Euphemisms in Corporate Culture

Corporate culture in the U.S. is a source of some of the most extreme, comical, and sometimes completely opaque euphemisms. As an example, when I was pretty fresh out of college, I interviewed for a position at the now merged bank MBNA, for a position called customer assistance account manager. I learned during the interview process that this title was really a euphemism for a collector.

When an employer or business makes heavy use of euphemisms in their internal communications, it tends to send up a red flag for me. Usually, it means that the corporation and the corporate culture has something to hide. In the case of MBNA, which I later researched, it was a company that has an outright exploitative or predatory relationship with its customers, which it tries to whitewash by its use of sterile, detached language. I recommend avoiding working for companies which make more than sparse use of euphemisms in their dialogue and communications, both internal and public.

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