Euphemism and language change

Language is a very powerful tool in human life. It allows people to express themselves in many different ways of using it, such as spoken, written, and even gesture. One important aspect of language which is also important to be considered is words and its use. This is because a word has distinct meaning to other words, and even a single word may have multiple meanings in variety of different languages. Euphemism for example, is the use of language particularly words to express what is thought to be taboo in a more acceptable way or less offensive. Euphemism is believed to be very important for the study of language because it may lead to the word addition, loss of words, phonological change and semantic shift (Burridge, 2012, p. 65). This essay will explore the notion of euphemism and its use in language. This paper will firstly give a brief explanation and definition of euphemism, and then this will also explore how euphemism serves its roles in particular given language context. Its link to taboo things will also be discussed. This will also explain how the use of euphemism may soften the meaning of offensive words in language context. This paper also gives account to another language which has a lot of euphemistic words such as Indonesian. The concept of dysphemism as its counterpart will also be examined.

According to Oxford English Dictionary (8th edition, p. 519), euphemism is the use of indirect words or phrase to refer to something embarrassed, more offensive or unpleasant to make it sound more acceptable, less offensive and “less distasteful” According to Burchfield (1985, cited in Jamet 2012, p. 3), the word “euphemism” originally referred to a book written by Thomas Blount in 1656 called “glossographia”. This word comes from Greek “euphèmismos”, which is derived from the adjective “euphèmos”, “of good omen” (from “eu”, “good”, and “phèmi”, “I say”). He believed that euphemism contains the replacement of original words which are thought to be “offensive” by words or phrase which are less impolite. By definition, euphemism is an alternative “choice of expression” or “straight talking” (Allan and Burridge, 2006, cited in Smith, 2012, p. 122).

The use of euphemism is very contextual dependent and culturally specific, in which it is determined specifically by the context in which they are used (Burridge, 2012, p. 66). What this basically means is that euphemism is used in oral and written communications to soften the deliverance of the intended meaning in a particular communication context. The author believed that euphemism is evident when speakers are encountered with tricky situations in which they have to think about choosing the right way of saying what they intend to say.

In addition to this, Burridge (2010, p. 4) stated that euphemism is found natural in western countries. Saying dysphemistic words in modern English language is always avoided, not because it may harm the speaker and the audience, but due to the fact that the speaker may lose their face by offending the sensibilities of the hearers. This is because saying inappropriate words in any given context may eventually lead to an offensive behaviour towards both the speaker and the hearer. Therefore, in this case people prefer not to speak if they do not know exactly the cultural and social contexts of the utterance.
Furthermore, the use of euphemism is often related to the issue of avoiding bad or taboo behaviour. The word taboo originated from Tongan “tabu” which entered the English language in the late 18th century (Burridge, 2010, p. 3; Burridge, 2012, p. 67). This word was believed to associate with bad and threatening situation for individuals and the society as a whole. Social sanctions would be given for distasteful and impolite behaviour in a given social context.

Euphemism can also be found in some particular language. One practical example of this would be the use of euphemism in Indonesian language. Indonesian has many taboo words that are used in daily basis conversation, particularly amongst teenagers. Word like “berak” meaning “to poo” is very often used, even though this word is not often realised as taboo. The optional word or phrase would be “buang air besar” meaning “to throw small water”. Another example word would considerably be “pelacur” meaning “prostitute”. This word has an extremely bad meaning and is considered offensive in Indonesian language. The euphemistic way of saying this word would then be “pekerja seks komersial – commercial sex worker”, often abbreviated “PSK”.

One important key idea in relation to euphemism is its counterpart “dysphemism”. Allan and Burridge (1991, p. 26, cited in Jamet, 2012, p. 3) stated that a dysphemism is a connotative expression which are offensive, whether it is about the actual object or the hearers or both, and this is replaced by neutral or euphemistic expression. People often use “offensive” words to make a point in their statement in a given context (Seizer, 2012, p. 209). In a stand up comedy for example, words such as “shit” and “f***” word are often used as these are very powerful words comedian used to make their points as well as making their jokes more alive and less “black and white” and monotone (Kristin Key, comedian cited in Seizer, 2012, p. 209). Another example would be the use of words such as “community charges” which politicians often use to refer to “tax” (Burridge, 2012, p. 66).

However, Allan (2012, p. 6) argue that dysphemism “may be used nondysphemistically to display intimacy”, whereby it can trigger the mutual benefits. This is referring to the idea that the use of dysphemistic expression and “swear words” in comedy and in more general experience may give a sense of common interests and enjoyable experience for both the
speaker and the audience (Seizer, 2011, p. 209), as well as the sense of belonging to particular group and having the feeling of “distinctiveness” (Burridge, 2010, p. 4).

Euphemism and dysphemism are part of what is said as “X-phemism. These two often trigger the change in linguistics expression and change in meaning of words (Allan, 2012, p. 5). Similarly, Allan (2006, cited in Smith, 2012, p. 122) believed that euphemism is created through circumlocution, phonological change and the shift in meaning, borrowing from other language and even proposing a completely new word. What this basically means is that x-phemism leads to the change in language expression including the semantic shift from old meanings to the new ones, even the loss of some particular vocabularies. One example of this would be the word “gymnastic”, which is derived from Greek word “gymnos” meaning “naked”. The meaning of the word in modern English is now shifted semantically to “pertaining to or connected with athletic exercise of the body” (

In conclusion, euphemism plays very critical roles in linguistics expression. It helps speakers of a language to be selective and mindful in expressing their interests. Processes such as circumlocution, borrowing, phonological modification and semantic shift are said to trigger euphemism. Euphemism is said to be the alternative way of saying the original offensive words, so that the intended meaning is clear while the way of expressing it becomes less offensive and more acceptable. However, being euphemistic does not only mean that the speakers may cause harm to both themselves and the audiences because of uttering offensive words, but also the fact that they may lose the sensibilities of the audience. Dysphemism is also an integral part in linguistics expression. It is said to be the counterpart of euphemism. However, it is seen that dysphemism allows speaker to make and strengthen their position, particularly in the given context of stand up comedy. It also helps to establish mutual agreement and sense of belonging to a particular social group.

Reference list
Allan, K. (2012). X-phemis and creativity. Euphemism as a Word-Formation Process, 7: 5-42.

Burridge, K. (2010). Linguistic cleanliness is next to godliness: Taboo and purism. English Today. 26,2:3-13.

Burridge, K. (2012). Euphemism and language change: The sixth and seventh age. Euphemism as a Word-Formation Process, 7: 65-92.

Jamet, D. (2012). Introduction. Euphemism as a Word-Formation Process, 7:3-4.

Oxford English Dictionary (8th ed): Oxford University Press.

Smith, C. (2012). Double whammy! The dysphemistic euphemism implied in unVables such as unmentionables, unprintables,  undesirables. Euphemism as a Word-Formation Process, 7: 121-143.

Seizer, S. (2011). On the use of obscenity in live stand-up comedy. Anthropological Quarterly, 84,1:209 (from

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