Historic car wreck on car cemetery in Kaufdorf...

A pre-owned car. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was assigned to committee number eight at 5:00 pm today, so I’m facing a bit of a challenge getting regular posts completed on time. I’ve also got the seven year program review, 4 classes and much more…

But, since I am working on a book on rhetoric, I can inflict some rough draft material on you until I either a) get more time or b) die.


When I was a kid, people bought used cars. These days, people buy fine pre-owned cars. There is no difference between the meaning of “used car” and “pre-owned car”—both refer to the same thing, namely a car someone else has owned and used. However, “used” sounds a bit nasty, perhaps suggesting that the car might be a bit sticky in places. In contrast, “pre-owned” sounds rather better. By substituting “pre-owned” for “used”, the car sounds somehow better, although it is the same car whether it is described as used or pre-owned.

If you need to make something that is negative sound positive without actually making it better, then a euphemism should be your tool of choice. A euphemism is a pleasant or at least inoffensive word or phrase that is substituted for a word or phrase that means the same thing but is unpleasant, offensive otherwise negative in terms of its connotation. To use an analogy, using a euphemism is like coating a bitter pill with sugar, making it easier to swallow.

The way to use a euphemism is to replace the key words or phrases that are negative in their connotation with those that are positive (or at least neutral). Naturally, it helps to know what the target audience regards as positive words, but generically positive words can do the trick quite well.

The defense against a euphemisms is to replace the positive term with a neutral term that has the same meaning. For example, if someone say “An American citizen was inadvertently neutralized during a drone strike”, the neutral presentation would be “An American citizen was killed during a drone strike.” While “killed” does have a negative connotation, it does describe the situation with more neutrality.

In some cases, euphemisms are used for commendable reasons, such as being polite in social situations or to avoid exposing children to “adult” concepts. For example, at a funeral it is considered polite to refer the dead person as “the departed” rather than “the corpse.”

Examples of Euphemisms

“Pre-owned” for “used.”

“Neutralization” for “killing.”

“Freedom fighter” for “terrrorist”

“Revenue enhancement” for “tax increase.”

“Down-sized” for “fired.”

“Between jobs” for “unemployed.”

“Passed” for “dead.”

“Office manager” for “secretary.”

“Custodian” for “janitor.”

“Detainee” for “prisoner.”

“Enhanced interrogation” for “torture.”

“Self-injurious behavior incidents” for “suicide attempts.”

“Democrat” for “Communist.”

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  1. “I am afraid we are going to have to, let you go”, “You are sacked”

    “Your name does not appear on the list of successful candidates “You have failed”

  2. Where I live (Chile), we have a legal Communist party, which obeys all the rules of democratic procedure and has three congresspeople in the lower house of congress and has elected several mayors.

    The Communist Party participated in the democratically elected Allende government (1970-73) and was a moderating force against more extreme leftists at that time. The Allende government was overthrown by a coup in September 1973 headed by General Augusto Pinochet and backed by the Nixon administration.

    The political coalition which will most probably back ex-president Michelle Bachelet, now director of the UN women’s program, for a second term in an election to be held later this year includes the Communist Party.

    So from where I’m sitting, to say that calling communists “democrats” is a euphemism seems like an unnecessary bit of cold war rhetoric.

  3. Yes, the last one seems puzzling. Isn’t it more likely/common that “communist” will be used as a dysphemism for someone who is merely a social democrat or a liberal of some kind?

  4. Mike, because the pre-owned car in your photo is a Volkswagen the proper euphemism is “classic”.

    There is a deeper point to euphemism that speaks to the nature of human intelligence and communication. We seek to hide information even as we seek to transmit information. This extends to the emotional effect of statements as well. In human intelligence there is a blended effect to the combination of emotional response and mere logical cognizance. Hence we have the notion of “full realization”: the knowledge and emotional response to a full suite of effects of a given situation.

    A dead human body, for example, will soon begin not merely to be an inert shell resembling someone we formerly interacted with, but to physically decay in a manner that would be psychologically very disturbing in the light of the prior mental models we carry of that person.

  5. at a funeral it is considered polite to refer the dead person as “the departed” rather than “the corpse.”

    ‘The departed’ is a euphemism but it’s not usually used to refer to the same thing as the corpse surely?

  6. “certified pre-owned” cars are given check-ups and long-term guarantees by the dealerships, and have usually only been driven for a couple years previously. I think that term came into use to make a distinction that was actually desired, and then spread to more general use.

    Words in general can be difficult to agree on, though, and whether one is choosing language that is too soft or too hard, so to speak, is difficult to determine. An example would be the list of words that become politically offensive over time – things like “eskimo” or “retarded” are no longer acceptable in many contexts, but the replacements wouldn’t be called euphemisms. Similarly I think changing terms like “janitor” or “secretary” may just reflect changing times and an interest in respect (though I think for the latter it would more likely be “administrative assistant”).

    Basically, language is all cultural agreement – you can’t just say “well he is a janitor” because it’s just as true to say “well he is a custodian” if that’s what people have decided to call the job. In the end, what matters is why one word is winning over another, and what attitudes or contextual information are brought along with it. Some agendas are trying to hide things, some are trying to change things, some are trying to correct things, some are trying to soften an emotional blow.

    Usually I think of euphemisms in that last category – in the list, neutralization for killing, or passed for dead, or self-injurious behavior incidents for suicide attempts (if those are the same – the first seems broader). Interestingly, those all address death. Makes sense – death is the ultimate topic to euphemize…

  7. I think “Communist” is much more emotionally charged in the USA than in other countries of the world. It refers to one who gives priority to the community over the individual, and has (reasonably) been given a bad name by the Soviet Union and others. [Just as practical realisations of capitalism have disappointed.] But I don’t see that a communist is a democrat, or vice versa. I can’t think of a euphemism for “communist”.

  8. Another aspect of euphemism is that the process seeks to take advantage of a form of prejudicial thinking in which we accept the mere connotation of a word in an effort to steer the public’s perceptions of an issue the word is used to describe. “Retarded” was originally used as a euphemism, for example, because it was considered to be a way to connote mere slowness to develop, rather than a socially unacceptable damaged-ness.

    The prevalence of the use of euphemism in public discourse also reveals an incentive on the part of political leadership to prepare a population to be susceptible to this sort of prejudicial/uncritical thinking. That would make the population easier to steer en-mass by the use of terminology they have been prepared not to find objectionable.

  9. Remember to consider all of the past euphemisms which have eventually shifted into non-euphemistic words (often requiring further euphemisms themselves — a process often referred to as the “euphemism treadmill”):

    execution (i.e. executing — carrying out — a judge’s order. What exactly are we carrying out?)

    abortion (i.e. aborting a process, Of what?)

    (menstrual) period (i.e. a span of time)

    …and, as Lee Jamison mentioned, retarded, which literally means exactly the same thing as the modern euphemism “developmentally delayed”, but has evolved into a slur.

  10. jim p houston

    ‘Execution’ wasn’t a euphemism, merely a shortening of Middle English legal phrasings and the literal use of the term in general speech didn’t predate the ‘put to death’ sense (though the same isn’t true of ‘execute’). Neither is ‘abortion’ – or ‘abort’ and ‘abortive’ – these have related to miscarriage for as long as they have been used in English – other usages came later. Euphemisms for ‘abortion’ became common in the 20th Century though when the term became taboo.

  11. Attempts to manipulate language through euphemism are not new, but we do seem to have been exposed to a great deal of it in the post-war generations. For example “negoes”, a common and uncritical usage in my youth (and a word that literally meant “black”) was replaced by “black” and “African-American”, the latter a term I have always refused to use because I sided with Theodore Roosevelt’s strident objection to efforts to hyphenate American citizenship. (Read “Fear God and Take Your Own Part” by Theodore Roosevelt 1915)

    Interesting in this process is the deep desire of power groups to manage the development of language for their own purposes. This begs the question, is it really beneficial to all of society to manhandle processes that are actually emergent-order processes?

  12. jim p houston

    “The hyphen is incompatible with patriotism” said Roosevelt objecting to self-identifications such as “German-American” and “Austro-American” at a time when he felt Germany was effectively waging war against the US. The general point seemed to be that US citizens should, regardless of their place of birth or ancestry, adopt full loyalty to the US instead of holding onto loyalties to foreign nation states with which the US might come into conflict – it is in this context that he thought the hyphenated American was a bad American.

    Whatever the demerits of the phrase ‘African-American’, opposition to it doesn’t seem to reflect Roosevelt’s concerns.

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