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A euphemism (from the Greek words eu - well and pheme - speak) is a word or expression that is used when people want to find a polite or less direct way of talking about difficult or embarrassing topics like death or the bodily functions. Most people, for example, would find it very difficult to say in plain language that they have arranged for their sick old dog to be killed. They would soften the pain by saying: We had Fido put down or We had Fido put to sleep. Many people prefer to call someone plain than ugly, or cuddly rather than fat. As such, euphemisms are an important part of every language, but it seems that English has an ever-growing number of them. The non-native speaker not only has to make sense of the euphemisms he hears, he also has to learn which euphemisms are appropriate in any particular situation. He might be aware that his American friend needs to use the toilet when she asks where the bathroom (or restroom, or comfort station) is, but he is less likely to guess that his English friend has the same need when he says he has to see a man about a dog. He might have learned, for example, that in the family way is a euphemism for pregnant. If he says to his boss, however: Congratulations! I hear your wife is in the family way., he would be using an expression that is too familiar for the circumstances.

Schools are full of euphemisms. At Frankfurt International School, for example, the special lessons given to students who are having difficulties in their school subjects are called Study Center (in the middle school) and Academic Workshop (in the high school). Teachers rightly do not want to offend students or parents by being too blunt or direct, and usually choose a softer word or expression to convey the same message. For this reason, school reports often contain euphemisms such as: He is not working to his full potential or He has a rather relaxed attitude to his work (= he is lazy), She is unable to concentrate in class (= she is disruptive), He has strong opinions about everything and is not afraid to voice them (= he is loud and arrogant).

Typical of many recently-coined euphemisms are the words and expressions that try to avoid giving offence to various minority groups or unfortunate individuals. People who have severe learning difficulties are sometimes called intellectually-challenged, and those with a physical handicap are referred to as differently-abled. Poor people are called needy, under-privileged; disadvantaged or economically deprived. Poor countries have in turn been called underdeveloped, developing, emergent, Third World - all in an effort to retain the meaning without causing offence or being patronising. The struggle over the past 10-20 years to find an acceptable way to refer to black Americans is further evidence of the increased sensitivity that we now have to the power of language. This sensitivity is often referred to as political correctness.

The field of English language teaching is experiencing a similar struggle over terminology; we have not yet reached a consensus on what we should call our learners of English. Some people are unhappy with the term ESL (English as a second language) students because this implies that English is the first foreign language that non-native speakers should learn. And in any case, they say, English might be the learner's third or fourth language. These people prefer to use the term EAL learners - i.e. English as an additional language learners. In America over the past few years the term LEP (limited English proficient) students has become popular. However there is now a backlash from people who feel that this term is too negative, and they suggest calling such students PEPs (potentially English proficient). The latest acronym, however, seems to be ELL (English language learner). No doubt this will remain popular until someone points out that all native English speakers are ELLs too, and yet another new term will need to be found!


To test your knowledge of the English language, have a look at the following euphemisms and see if you can explain them!


* Unfortunately, some of the new euphemisms (particularly those emanating from the USA) have been rather silly or unnecessary. And this has given right-wing commentators the chance to attack the whole notion of political correctness. (Two of the sillier euphemisms, in my opinion, are vertically challenged - to describe a short person; and sanitary engineer - for a janitor or Hausmeister (German))

Frankfurt International School: Art and artists. (Click to see at full size.)