Living in an age of euphemisms | Sunday Observer

Living in an age of euphemisms

Human behaviour has a close connection with the language. When civilization advanced from its primitive state to the present era language also underwent subtle changes. Gradually, we learnt how to express some of our sad or embarrassing feelings. The process took a long time to develop and it is still developing. In fact, when we learn a foreign language, we also have to learn some expressions in order to hide our real feelings.

On most occasions we refrain from using the real words to name certain human activities and body parts. For instance, we do not use the real words for the excretion of waste matter from the body. Although the real word is “faeces”, we use different terms in diverse contexts. A doctor would ask you to bring a “stool” report, avoiding the word “excreta”. Similarly, when we wish to excrete waste matter from the body, we go to the toilet or washroom. We do not use the word lavatory because it seems to be an impolite word. When children want to urinate or defecate, they go to the loo. They would not say they are going to urinate or defecate.

We have coined similar words even for sexual activity. In civilized society we hardly use the four-letter word f… . Instead you sleep with a woman. In literature we find more refined words for sexual activity. Some of them are “cohabitation, congress” or “coitus”. Even the word “prostitute” is no longer used. Professional prostitutes are known as sex workers. In some European countries prostitution is legalized. In those countries there are red light streets where sex workers ply their trade. In Sri Lanka sex workers carry on their business secretly as prostitution has not been legalized here.

Unusually embarrassed

The British are unusually embarrassed by sex. As a result, we find more euphemisms for sexual activity in English. English speaking people hardly talk about sex openly. They think it is obscene to do so. They are even squeamish about using the word “sex” when it refers to males or females. Therefore, “gender” is often resorted to as a lexical escape route. The term “make love” is actually a translation of French faire l’amour. It denotes an attempt to initiate a sexual relationship. In the past, “embrace” was used to mean sexual intercourse. However, today it is used to denote an innocently friendly clasping one with the arms. In the mid-19th century “hanky panky” meant improper sexual activity.

Today, we find even legal terminology to denote sexual intercourse. One such is the notion of having to consummate a marriage. The vague term “relations” used to denote sexual intercourse. Former US President Clinton relied on the ambiguity of the term by denying sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. At the colloquial end of the spectrum, there are a large number of copulation euphemisms. Of course, some of them are taboo. The colloquial term “frig” is a substitute for f…. .

Nobody wishes to grow old and die. To conceal the ugliness of old age and death we have coined many euphemisms. Today, most commercial banks invite senior citizens to open accounts with them. Everybody knows that senior citizens are old people. Another term we use is “elderly people” or “elders” to denote old people. These words help us to avoid the frankness and directness of the word “old”. In politics we hear of “elder statesman” to indicate a senior politician. Somebody who is of advanced years is definitely old.


Human life on this planet comes to an end with death. However, nobody wishes to use the word “death” for obvious reasons. As a result, a crop of euphemistic expressions has come to stay. Today, when a person dies we say he is “alive with Jesus” or “lives in the bosom of the Lord”. Then we use terms such as, “afterlife, eternal life” or “higher life” to hide the gravity of death. Even the term “life insurance” is a euphemism for insurance against death. When a person dies we say he has “passed away” or “passed on” which have an element of sentimental pretense. Sometimes, we refer to a dead person as “the departed” or “the dear departed”. Even the concept of a dead person’s absence is expressed by “he is no longer with us”.

Even in the corporate world we find many euphemisms. For instance, the high-sounding “rodent operative” is a “rat-catcher”. In American English an operative is either a detective or a secret agent and a rat-catcher is an “exterminating engineer”. Similarly, a lowly public lavatory attendant is a sanitary warden.

In Sri Lanka an office peon is a Karyala Karya Sahayaka (KKS). Most Sri Lankan women going to Middle Eastern countries as housemaids are actually domestic servants. If you are a company director, you can have a secretary, but you call her your “Personal Assistant”. In the US she is known as an “Administrative Assistant”. A person who seeks the services of a lawyer, accountant or engineer is in fact a customer, but we call him a client. Big shops call their customers “patrons”. When you work for a company, you get wages. But it is too simple a term. So we call it salary, emolument or remuneration.

We are living in an age of euphemisms. Offering and accepting bribes are so rampant that the government has appointed a Bribery Commissioner to nab bribe-takers. Giving a bribe is known as “greasing someone’s palm”. Sometimes a person can offer you an “inducement” to do something underhand. An inducement is a bribe. “Hush money” is paid to silence someone about a secret deal.

It is well known that politicians accept “kickbacks” which are a percentage paid to them to allow an illegal appropriation of government funds. In general, bribery is known as “graft”. Very few people can resist the temptation to accept a bribe.

Shame of poverty

In every country we have rich and poor people. The shame of poverty makes it a target for euphemisms. In the affluent West, the poor are known as “economically exploited” or “economically marginalized”. In the East we have “economically disadvantaged” people. Former US President Truman referred to “underdeveloped countries”. But the word “under” had a negative tone. Then they found a new euphemism. It is “less developed countries”. Even this term did not last long. Now we say “developing countries” to hide our poverty. “Third World” is another euphemism to denote the countries between the two blocs of the US-dominated West and the Soviet-controlled East. In today’s context developing countries belong to the Third World.

It is a fascinating hobby to collect euphemisms which have become part of our life. They serve a certain psychological need to make people happy.

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