what is a euphemism?

A euphemism is a sneaky way to talk about something you don’t like thinking about.

Maybe you don’t like thinking about death, so you say your aunt passed away. Pass away is a euphemism for die. Or maybe you don’t like it when you’re a military commander and you find out your soldiers killed some innocent people, so you call the dead people “collateral damage.” Collateral damage is a euphemism for “innocent people we killed.”

We all avoid talking about things that scare, offend, disgust, or upset us. We’ve all said “let’s agree to disagree” when we meant “I hope something you love catches on fire.” Sometimes we need a euphemism or two just to get through the day. I know.

But be careful, okay?

An effective euphemism slips a warm, comforting layer of bullshit between the speaker (and the uncritical listener) and the scary/offensive/icky subject at hand. That’s not so bad if the subject is Lord Voldemort or a large, suspicious mole you found in a place you’d rather not disclose, but we run into trouble if we’re trying to have a conversation about, say, whether it is okay to kill innocent people in pursuit of a military goal.

Euphemisms don’t just distance us from what we’re talking about: They make it easy for us to forget it altogether. Notice it’s not just the words “kill,” “innocent,” and “people” that are absent from “collateral damage” — it’s the ideas, too. You can see the problem. Now don’t look away.