Examples Of Euphemism In Literature & Its Functions

Definition of Euphemism

A euphemism is a mild, indirect word or expression used to replace one that is considered harsh, blunt, or offensive. Euphemisms act as a polite way to refer to something that people may find uncomfortable or distressing. They allow difficult or sensitive topics to be addressed indirectly. Effective euphemisms communicate meaning clearly without unnecessary details or complexity.

Common Examples of Euphemism

  1. The “physical education” teacher was truly just a gym coach.
  2. Her “pre-loved” purse still showed signs of heavy use.
  3. The car salesman assured it was a “mature” vehicle, despite its age.
  4. The euphemism of “letting someone go” eased the sting of firing loyal employees.
  5. Rather than saying “he lies”, she insisted he “revises the facts”.
  6. The long illness left him “departed”.
  7. She didn’t feel “slender” no matter how politely they termed her size.
  8. In saying Aunt Ethel had “expired”, mortality felt like a trivial thing misplaced.
  9. He hoped the “correctional facility” might still correct after all.
  10. The wealthy businessman was described as “ethically challenged” rather than called corrupt outright.
  11. Her little “white lie” about her age did seem harmless overall.
  12. His drinking was called “social” though the alcoholism destroyed family ties.
  13. The mansion was referred to as “cozy” despite having twenty cavernous rooms.
  14. Saying Grandma was “a little off” these days gently hinted at her advanced dementia.
  15. Referring to questionable tactics as “strategic maneuvering” often makes the medicine go down easier.

Function of Euphemism in literature

  • They allow authors to delicately address sensitive topics like death, sex, or bodily functions. Harsher words might alienate readers or seem vulgar. Euphemisms can render challenging material palatable.
  • Euphemism reveals character perspective. A euphemism’s mildness or creativity offers insight into how a character views something. Their word choices betray their values, tastes, and temperament.
  • Enable irony and satire. Writers can say one thing while meaning another by mocking cliched euphemisms. This highlights disconnects between language and reality.
  • They shape tone and atmosphere. The emotions evoked by blunt versus genteel language differ greatly. Euphemisms smooth over passages that might otherwise seem cold or crude.
  • When used judiciously, euphemisms grant authors precise control in conveying meaning, developing voice and cueing reader responses. Masterful writers utilize the suggestive power in what remains unspoken.

Examples of Euphemism in literature

Example #1

“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

“He’s one of the Ewells, ma’am,” I said. “I know who he is, he’s a Ewell. Burris Ewell. I’ve had about enough of the Ewells this morning. Why couldn’t they send somebody like Walter Cunningham?”

The speaker, Scout, is complaining about Burris Ewell to her teacher Miss Caroline. The Ewells are a poor family that the town looks down on, while Walter Cunningham comes from a more respected family. Scout’s use of the name “Ewell” expresses her disdain and judgment of Burris based on his family alone. Her wish that the school had sent “somebody like Walter Cunningham” instead is a euphemistic way of saying the Ewells are inferior and undesirable compared to the Cunninghams. She implies the teacher should recognize Burris as an Ewell and therefore an unacceptable student.

Scout softens her offensive opinion about the Ewells’ worthiness by hoping for a Cunningham rather than directly critiquing an Ewell’s presence. Her use of euphemism allows her to politely express prejudiced views held by Maycomb society. The euphemism suggests shared assumptions about certain families without needing to directly make demeaning statements.


“The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde

“I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose.”

The character Algernon explains that he has lied about having an invalid friend named Bunbury who lives in the country. Whenever Algernon wants to get out of an unpleasant social obligation or “go down into the country,” he excuses himself by saying he must attend to his ill friend Bunbury. However, Bunbury does not actually exist. Algernon has invented an imaginary sick friend as a euphemism or polite way to be able to leave town without offending anyone or admitting the real reason. The euphemism of the fictional invalid Bunbury allows Algernon to exit unwanted situations without being impolite or telling an outright lie. Instead, he indirectly hints at another pressing reason through the excuse of visiting his “permanent invalid.” This tongue-in-cheek euphemism pokes fun at polite euphemisms of the upper class.


“1984” by George Orwell

“His mother’s last farewell to him came back into his mind, her advice concerning the best way to avoid the Ministry of Love’s attention. Don’t attract notice, she had said. Don’t stand out at games. Don’t excel in anything. Try and pass unseen through life. Unhappiness lay that way; happiness lay in the other. She must have known that she herself was already under suspicion, because she said goodbye to him in the busiest part of the day, almost in public.”

This excerpt describes a mother’s euphemistic warning to her son to avoid standing out in order to steer clear of the ruling Party’s notice. Rather than directly stating that he should hide his intelligence and talents to escape the brutal Ministry of Love, she advises him indirectly to “pass unseen through life” and not “attract notice.” This euphemistic language hints at the danger of excelling while allowing her to avoid openly criticizing the totalitarian government which she knows is already watching her. The euphemism provides a coded, cautious way to urge her son towards mediocrity and safety without voicing seditious ideas outright. Its protective indirectness touching conveys her love for him in the face of their oppressed society. The euphemism is a tragic necessity, allowing both of them to “happily” survive through intentionally diminished lives.


“A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner

“We did not even know she was sick; we had long since given up trying to get any information from the Negro.” That was when we first began to pity Miss Emily. “We had long since given up trying to get any information from the Negro”: a euphemistic way of indicating that the old man had forbidden his daughter to marry. And that was when people had begun to feel really sorry for her.

The writer uses euphemism to politely refer to a sensitive topic in the socially conservative setting of the American South. The narrator notes that the townspeople “had long since given up trying to get any information from the Negro,” which is a coded and indirect way of saying that Emily’s father had forbidden her from marrying and having a normal life.

Specifically, the euphemism centers around the unnamed “Negro” who works for Emily’s father. By saying they cannot get “any information” from him, the narrator is subtly implying that the father has used the servant to impose his strict control over Emily and her marital prospects. The opaque, vague language allows the narrator to avoid stating this oppressive situation outright.

The euphemism stands in for the explicit statement that Emily’s father directly thwarted her ability to marry or pursue relationships. This helps explain why the community began to pity Emily after her father died. The euphemism conveys the severity of the father’s interference in an appropriately subtle, polite way given the story’s setting. Its indirectness hints at hardship without stating it directly.

“The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison

“I do remember hearing her caution us to be quiet so we wouldn’t wake the lady upstairs. She said the lady upstairs was sick and needed her rest. Sick! The laziness (my mother’s favorite word) of her tone told me that “sick” meant something else. I had heard the contempt in her voice too often not to recognize it. The glances between my mother and sister spoke to me of secrets I would be privy to when I was older.”

In the above passage, the author uses euphemism to refer discreetly to a sensitive situation. When Angelou’s mother warns her children to stay quiet so as not to disturb the supposedly sick “lady upstairs,” her tone makes clear she means something else by “sick.”

The euphemism of calling the woman “sick” is Angelou’s mother’s indirect way of referring to a condition she considers shameful or taboo. Based on her mother’s “contempt” and the “glances between my mother and sister,” Angelou senses the word carries unspoken negative judgments. Using the euphemism “sick,” Angelou’s mother can obliquely discuss the woman without naming the exact circumstance she sees as distasteful. Her tone however makes clear her disapproval, underscoring the way euphemisms can still convey prejudice through indirect language.

“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“I found out what your ‘drug stores’ were.” He turned to us and spoke rapidly. “He and this Wolfsheim bought up a lot of side-street drug stores here and in Chicago and sold grain alcohol over the counter. That’s one of his little stunts. I picked him for a bootlegger the first time I saw him and I wasn’t far wrong.”

In this passage, Tom Buchanan uses the euphemism “drug stores” when referring to the illicit liquor distribution network run by Gatsby and Meyer Wolfsheim during Prohibition. At the time, the sale and consumption of alcohol was illegal in America so people obtained liquor covertly through underground channels.

Here, “drug stores” is a coded euphemism for the places where Gatsby and Wolfsheim sold bootlegged alcohol “over the counter.” The term subtly refers to the front businesses—fake pharmacies and shops—that gangsters like Gatsby used to disguise their illegal alcohol sales. Tom prefers the genteel euphemism “drug stores” over overtly calling Gatsby a “bootlegger” outright. His indirect language conceals the magnitude of the criminal underground activity behind a commonplace term.

Through this euphemism, Tom and the narrator can discuss Gatsby’s major source of income without graphically naming his role in illegal liquor distribution. It adds a veneer of discretion over a topic that politer company would prefer not to address directly. The innocuous phrase hides the ugly truth beneath genteel language.

Examples Of Euphemism In Literature
Examples Of Euphemism In Literature

Related Terms with Euphemism


Understatement downplays the significance of something, minimizing the intensity of a situation. Calling a serious injury a “scratch” belittles the gravity of the wound. Describing a destructive storm as “not ideal weather” likewise lessens the severity of the event. Understatement often relies on irony or humor to subtly communicate more than what is literally stated.


Litotes emphasizes a point by denying its opposite. For example, saying “not a bad singer” actually suggests the person has substantial talent. Litotes allows writers to highlight a truth by negating a negative construction. The understated phrase compels readers to infer the intended, positive meaning.

Both understatement and litotes utilize indirect phrasing rather than blunt language. Understatement diminishes reality for ironic effect while litotes intensifies it through a double negative. But both devices depend on readers looking beyond surface meanings to understand the actual implications. Like euphemisms, these rhetorical techniques permit communicators to reference sensitive subjects tactfully.

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