Tony Leighton is a Canadian writer happily retired and attempting to help others feel the same.

Vocabuteria: euphemism


The mind is often lazy. Mine is. And it can be embarrassingly lazy for years on end when it encounters certain words. I’m supposedly a writer, but if you asked me this morning — before I saw “euphemism” for the umpteenth time — what “euphemism” means, I’d stammer, pause, blush, and admit that I’d forgotten, which is true, because its meaning slides in and out of my leaky head like a visiting rodent. Of course it means “a mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing.” I know that. And I forget it with regularity. My excuse is that when you don’t use something, it rusts or fades or atrophies. It could also be a mental block. I need some sort of excuse, because I’m sure that if I admitted this in public I’d feel humiliated.

Here’s a neat use of “euphemism” that adds the flourish of an anthropomorphism just before it is used. The article is a reminder that words mislead at least as much as they get at the truth. And politics is drenched in euphemism.

You could always slight the very rich by calling them moneybags, robber barons, fat cats or plutocrats. Billionaire was a neutral word, grounded in math: Such a person could spend $10 million a year, for 100 years, before the pile was gone.

Then came Howard Schultz, a billionaire times two, insisting that people not use the B-word in describing him. Better to refer to the 540 Americans in his sensitive class as “people of means.” For this he was roundly mocked, and rightly so.

The pushback to the pusher of our favorite South American drug is a fair start. But there is much more to clean up. For we live in a time when language has been weaponized for high crimes and petty cruelties, while neutralized when it should state the obvious. Democracy may die in darkness, as the slogan of a rival newspaper has it, but it also slips away under cover of euphemism.

Democracy Ends in Euphemism
Language has been neutralized when it should state the obvious.
By Timothy Egan
New York Times
Feb. 15, 2019


The Compass Needle of Affection

To what end?