Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Euphemistic Enhancement

Euphemistic Enhancement

As noted in last week’s post, we employ euphemisms for myriad reasons, usually to make the topic of conversation less offensive to delicate ears. Though we tend to think of euphemisms as tools of the squeamish Victorians, modern. euphemisms abound.

During the Vietnam War, reporters discussed loss of life in terms of soldiers or men. Today, the less-human term troop is in usage.

What my grandmother called rubbish, my generation called trash or garbage. Today it has become waste. We hauled that historic rubbish & trash off to the dump. Today’s waste ends up in the landfill (& in some communities, the transfer station). How very sanitary.

Yesterday’s tombstone is today’s grave marker.

Yesterday’s life jacket has become a personal flotation device.

Yesterday’s looting & stealing is now known as self-provisioning.

But euphemisms started long before the modern day, or even the Victorian era. The word cemetery (which came to English from Greek in the late 1300s) is actually a euphemism for the more honest word graveyard. Cemetery means sleeping place – a Greek term first applied to graveyards sometime in the first century.

Euphemisms can also be tools for the advancement of capitalism.

Sales of what was once called Patagonian toothfish skyrocketed when it became Chilean sea bass. The same thing happened when muttonfish was re-named snapper and when the dolphin fish took on the moniker mahi mahi. And imagine the complete surprise of fish salespeople all over the world when the newly named orange roughy sold like crazy. Whyever were sales so low with its old name, slime head?

Good readers, go forth and euphemize (and if you have anything to say about all this, please leave a comment or two).

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: OED, Etymonline, English Word Information, Ralph Keyes’ Euphemania, & Wordnik


  1. You're so right: we probably use more euphemisms today than the Victorians did in the name of political correctness. But the Victorian terms were more fun. I love the term "unmentionables" for underwear. In Northern England they still call undergarments one's "smalls."

    Fascinating the way names control what we like to eat. I had no idea "orange roughy" was called "slimehead". Yuck. In Italy, we ate a lot of a delicious fish called "palumbo". When we got home, we found out the English name is "dogfish". No wonder it's not on many menus here.

  2. "Yesterday’s looting & stealing is now known as self-provisioning." That on'e just dreadful.

  3. I'm trying to remember where I first heard the word, "euphemism," and I think it was in the play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I don't think I'd even heard the word before and I was a junior in college then. My education was sorely lacking. Now I'm going to go look it up in my copy of the play and see if I'm right .Love your blog, Charlie. Hugs, P.

  4. Hi Anne, Rachel6 & Paul,
    Great to hear from all three of you. Rachel6, I'm with you, & can't you just hear some news anchor using that term & not batting an eye? And yes, Anne -- slimehead sounds more like what a ten year old calls his little sister than something on one's dinner plate. And Paul, there is something magically urbane to the word euphemism. What better place to first hear it than in association with Virginia Woolf?

  5. Thanks for the sharing the interesting origin of "cemetery." "Self-provisioning" is a new one for me. I hope to never come across it again. As for orange roughy, I don't think I'll ever be able to eat it again now that I know it's original name. Yuk! Words are so influential!