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A euphemism is a generally innocuous word or expression used in place of one that may be found offensive or suggest something unpleasant. Some euphemisms are intended to amuse; while others use bland, inoffensive, and often misleading terms for things the user wishes to dissimulate or downplay. Euphemisms are used for dissimulation, to refer to taboo topics (such as disability, sex, excretion, and death) in a polite way, and to mask profanity. The opposite of euphemism roughly equates to dysphemism.
Euphemisms may be used to avoid words considered rude, while still conveying their meaning; words may be replaced by similar-sounding words, gentler words, or placeholders. Some euphemisms have become accepted in certain societies for uncomfortable information; for example, in many English speaking countries, a doctor is likely to say "the patient passed away" rather than "the patient died". A second example relating uncomfortable information and concealing some degree of truth would be "we put the dog to sleep" rather than "we killed the dog". Euphemisms can be used to downplay or conceal unpalatable facts, such as "collateral damage" for "civilian casualties" in a military context, or "redacted" for "censored".
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The word euphemism comes from the Greek word εὐφημία (euphemia), meaning "the use of words of good omen", which in turn is derived from the Greek root-words eu (εὖ), "good, well" and pheme (φήμη) "glory, flattering speech, praise". Etymologically, the eupheme is the opposite of the blaspheme "evil-speaking." The term euphemism itself was used as a euphemism by the ancient Greeks, meaning "to keep a holy silence" (speaking well by not speaking at all).
Historical linguistics has revealed traces of taboo deformations in many languages. Several are known to have occurred in Indo-European languages, including the presumed original Proto-Indo-European words for bear (*rkso), wolf (*wlkwo), and deer (originally, hart—although the word hart remained commonplace in parts of England until the 20th century as is witnessed by the widespread use of the pub sign The White Hart). In different Indo-European languages, each of these words has a difficult etymology because of taboo deformations: a euphemism was substituted for the original, which no longer occurs in the language. An example is replacements of the word for "bear": the Slavic root for bear, *medu-ed-, means "honey eater"; names in Germanic languages—including English—are derived from the color brown. Another example in English is donkey replacing the old Indo-European-derived word ass, which coincides with some pronunciations of the word "arse". The word dandelion (literally, French for "tooth of lion", referring to the shape of the leaves) is another example, being a substitute for pissenlit, meaning "urinate in bed, wet the bed", a possible reference to dandelion being used as a diuretic. The Talmud describes the blind as having "much light" (Aramaic: סגי נהור) and this phrase—sagee nahor—is the Modern Hebrew for euphemism.
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Phonetic euphemism is used to replace profanities, giving them the intensity of a mere interjection.
Euphemism may be used as a rhetorical strategy, in which case its goal is to change the valence of a description from positive to negative. The ancient Greeks said that using euphemism was "to speak words that augur well." One modern example of this can be found in real estate. When a property is difficult to sell, the seller will use euphemism to attract interest from the potential buyer. The phrase "cozy house" is a euphemism for "claustrophobic." The phrase "this house needs some TLC" is a euphemism for "this place is a dump."
There is some disagreement over whether certain terms are or are not euphemisms. For example, sometimes the phrase visually impaired is labeled as a politically correct euphemism for blind. However, visual impairment can be a broader term, including, for example, people who have partial sight in one eye, those with uncorrectable mild to moderate poor vision, or even those who wear glasses, a group that would be excluded by the word blind.
There are three antonyms of euphemism: dysphemism, cacophemism, and power word. The first can be either offensive or merely humorously deprecating with the second one generally used more often in the sense of something deliberately offensive. The last is used mainly in arguments to make a point seem more correct.
Euphemisms may be formed in a number of ways. Periphrasis, or circumlocution, is one of the most common: to "speak around" a given word, implying it without saying it. Over time, circumlocutions become recognized as established euphemisms for particular words or ideas.
To alter the pronunciation or spelling of a taboo word (such as a swear word) to form a euphemism is known as taboo deformation, or "minced oath". In American English, words that are unacceptable on television, such as fuck, may be represented by deformations such as freak, even in children's cartoons. Some examples of rhyming slang may serve the same purpose: to call a person a berk sounds less offensive than to call a person a cunt, though berk is short for Berkeley Hunt, which rhymes with cunt.
Bureaucracies such as the military and large corporations frequently spawn euphemisms of a more deliberate nature. Organizations coin doublespeak expressions to describe objectionable actions in terms that seem neutral or inoffensive. For example, a term used in the past for contamination by radioactive isotopes was sunshine units.
Euphemisms often evolve over time into taboo words themselves, through a process described by W.V.O. Quine, and more recently dubbed the "euphemism treadmill" by Harvard professor Steven Pinker. This is the linguistic process known as pejoration or semantic change. For instance, Toilet is an 18th-century euphemism, replacing the older euphemism House-of-Office, which in turn replaced the even older euphemisms privy-house or bog-house. In the 20th century, where the words lavatory or toilet were deemed inappropriate, they were sometimes replaced with bathroom or water closet, which in turn became restroom, W.C., or washroom.
A euphemism can cause confusion when used with old literal meaning: for example the author James Herriot recorded that he ran into a difficulty when, talking to an animal's owner, he wanted to refer to "putting (the animal) to sleep" literally, i.e. anaesthetising it for a while. The opposite confusion would be an American in England who wants to use the toilet and asks for directions to the "bathroom", and finds there a bath and a wash basin but no toilet, or asks to "wash his hands" and in response an attendant calls for soap and a bowl of hot water and a towel.
Euphemisms are popular in military language to hide the unpleasant nature of the work. This is particularly the case when it comes to killing and torture. Armies talk of "neutralising" or "clearing" enemy combatants, which means to kill them. "Clearing" refers to a "Search and Clear" sweep—to kill enemy in order to reach objectives—and sounds rather more pleasant than the Vietnam War era term "Search and Destroy." Many countries call their military administration a Department or Ministry of 'Defence' instead of 'War'. "Special rendition" can be used to refer to kidnapping and "Refined interrogation techniques" to mean torture, in the case of the CIA. Disposition matrix is a military newspeak term for Kill list.
Idiot, imbecile, and moron were once neutral terms for a developmentally delayed adult with the mental age comparable to a toddler, preschooler, and primary school child, respectively. In time, negative connotations tend to crowd out neutral ones, so the phrase mentally retarded was pressed into service to replace them. This too was eventually considered pejorative and became commonly used as an insult. Today, terms such as mentally challenged, with an intellectual disability, learning difficulties and special needs are used to replace the term retarded.
A similar progression occurred with the following terms for persons with physical handicaps being adopted by some people:
Euphemisms can also serve to recirculate words that have passed out of use because of negative connotation. The word lame from above, having faded from the vernacular, was revitalized as a slang word generally meaning "not living up to expectations" or "boring." The connotation of a euphemism can also be subject-specific.
In the early 1960s, Major League Baseball franchise owner and promoter Bill Veeck, who was missing part of a leg, argued against the then-favoured euphemism handicapped, saying he preferred crippled because it was merely descriptive and did not carry connotations of limiting one's capability the way handicapped (and all of its subsequent euphemisms) seemed to do (Veeck as in Wreck, chapter "I'm Not Handicapped, I'm Crippled"). Later, comedian George Carlin gave a famous monologue of how he thought euphemisms can undermine appropriate attitudes towards serious issues such as the evolving terms describing the medical problem of the cumulative mental trauma of soldiers in high-stress situations:
He contended that, as the name of the condition became more complicated and seemingly arcane, sufferers of this condition have been taken less seriously and were given poorer treatment as a result. He also contended that Vietnam veterans would have received the proper care and attention they needed, if the condition were still called shell shock. In the same routine, he echoed Bill Veeck's opinion that crippled was a perfectly valid term, noting that early English translations of the Bible seemed to have no qualms about saying that Jesus "healed the cripples".
Similarly, spastic is a formal medical term to describe muscular hypertonicity due to upper motor neuron dysfunction; however, vernacular use of spastic (and variants such as spaz and spacker) as an insult in Britain and Australia led to the term being regarded by some as offensive. In the United States, spastic or spaz became a synonym for clumsiness, whether physical or mental, and nerdiness, and is very often used in a self-deprecating manner.
The difference between the British and American connotations of spastic was starkly shown in 2006 when golfer Tiger Woods used spaz to describe his putting in that year's Masters. The remark went completely unnoticed in America, but caused a major uproar in the UK.
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Words considered rude may be used in two contexts: as simple profanity, swearing, where their actual meaning is irrelevant; and with a clear meaning. The same words can often be used in both senses: "Shit, I've stepped in dog-shit".
Profane words and expressions in the English language are commonly taken from three areas: religion, excretion, and sex. Racism and sexism are a growing influence on profanities. While profanities themselves have been around for centuries, their limited use in public and by the media has only slowly become socially acceptable, and there are still many expressions that are out of place in polite conversation. One influence on the current tolerance of such language may be the frequency of its use on prime-time television. The word damn (and most other religious profanity in the English language) has long lost its shock value, and as a consequence, bowdlerizations of the term (e.g., dang, darn-it) have taken on a very stodgy feeling. Euphemisms for male masturbation such as "spanking the monkey" or "choke the chicken" are used often among some people to avoid embarrassment in public. Excretory profanity such as piss and shit in some cases may be acceptable among informal friends (while they had been unacceptable in formal relationships or public use, the public is growing more accepting of such uses). Most sexual terms and expressions, even technical ones, either remain unacceptable for general use or have undergone radical rehabilitation.
Euphemisms for deities as well as for religious practices and artifacts have been recorded since the earliest writings. Protection of sacred names, rituals, and concepts from the uninitiated has always given rise to euphemisms, whether it be for exclusion of outsiders or the retention of power among the select. Examples from the Egyptians and every other Western religion abound.
Jews consider the tetragrammaton (YHWH, the four-letter name of God as written in the Torah) to be of such great holiness that it was never to be pronounced except in the Temple (which no longer exists) by the High Priest on Yom Kippur. When praying or reading from scripture, Jews use the word Adonai ("my Lords") in place of YHWH. Traditional Jews will not pronounce Adonai in non-religious contexts, but use a euphemism such as HaShem, (literally "The Name"). The other name of God frequently used in the bible, Elohim (אלוהים) is also used only in religious contexts; otherwise, devout Jews typically change it to Elokim (אלוקים). Other names of God such as HaMakom (המקום)—"The Place"—or 'HaKadosh Baruch Hu' (הקדוש ברוך הוא) "The Holy One, Blessed is he" can be pronounced in any context.
The Biblical injunction not to misuse the name of God leads strictly observant Jews also to use written euphemisms, e.g. the word "God" is replaced by "G-d."
Euphemisms for hell, damnation, and the devil originally avoided naming the Devil, which according to folk belief, would summon him. The expression what the dickens was originally a euphemistic reference to the devil. "Hell" could be replaced with "heck".
Historically, profane expressions such as "God's Wounds!" were sometimes used, but by the time of Chaucer, this was reduced to "'swounds", and later to the also-obsolete "zounds". The same medieval notions continue in other languages; for example rany boskie (literally "God's wounds"), is a common mild curse in modern Polish.
The abbreviation B.S., or the words bull, crap, or bullcrap often replace the word bullshit in polite society. (The term bullshit itself generally means lies or nonsense, and not the literal "shit of a bull", making it a dysphemism.)
What is currently known as a toilet (itself a euphemism) was known by a number of previous euphemisms "..The Honest Jakes or Privy has graduated via Offices to the final horror of Toilet..." There are any number of lengthier periphrases for excretion used to excuse oneself from company, such as to powder one's nose, to see a man about a dog (or horse).
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The Latin term pudendum and the Greek term αιδοίον (aidoion) for the genitals literally mean "shameful thing". Groin, crotch, and loins refer to a larger region of the body, but are euphemistic when used to refer to the genitals. The word masturbate is derived from Latin, the word manus meaning hand and the word sturbare meaning to defile. In pornographic stories, the words rosebud and starfish are often used as euphemisms for anus, generally in the context of anal sex.
Sexual intercourse was once a euphemism derived from the more general term intercourse by itself, which simply meant "meeting" but now is normally used as a synonym for the longer phrase, thus making the town of Intercourse, Pennsylvania, a subject of jokes in modern usage.
In the US the "baseball metaphors for sex" are perhaps the most famous and widely used set of polite euphemisms for sex and relationship behaviour. The metaphors encompass terms like "striking out" for being unlucky with a love interest, and "running the bases" for progressing sexually in a relationship. The "bases" themselves, from first to third, stand for various levels of sexual activity from French kissing to "petting", itself a euphemism for manual genital stimulation, all of which is short of "scoring" or "coming home", sexual intercourse. "Hitting a home run" describes sex during the first date, "batting both ways" (also "switch-hitting") or "batting for the other team" describes bisexuality or homosexuality respectively ("Batting for the other side" also exists in British English, as a cricket euphemism for homosexuality), and "stealing bases" refers to initiating new levels of sexual contact without invitation. Baseball-related euphemisms also abound for the "equipment"; "Bat and balls" are a common reference to the male genitalia, while "glove" or "mitt" can refer to the female anatomy. Among homosexual men, "pitcher" is sometimes used to mean a "top", while "catcher" means a "bottom".
There are many euphemisms for birth control devices, sometimes even propagated by the manufacturers: Condoms are known as "rubbers", "sheaths", "love gloves", "diving suits", "raincoats", "French letters", "Jimmy Caps", "Johnnies" (in Ireland and to a lesser degree Britain) etc.
Euphemisms are also common in reference to sexual orientations and lifestyles. For example in the movie Closer, the character played by Jude Law uses the euphemism "He valued his privacy" for being homosexual. Other examples are being a 'lover of musical theatre' or a 'confirmed bachelor'. The term 'confirmed bachelor' originally referred to a man who had "sworn off" traditional relationships for reasons unrelated to sexual orientation; such a person may today be known as a 'serial bachelor' if they remain sexually active, or a 'sexual hermit' if they abstain from romantic or sexual contact entirely.
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In the Spanish language curse words receive the name "palabrotas", and the word maldición, literally meaning "a curse" or an evil spell, is occasionally used as an interjection of lament or anger, but not necessarily to replace any of several Spanish profanities that would otherwise be used in that same context. The same is true in Italian with the word maledizione and in Portuguese with the word maldição.
In Greek, the word κατάρα "curse" is found, although βρισιά, from ύβρις (hubris) is more commonly used, and in English, an exclamation that is used in a similar style is curses, although it is these days less common. The stereotyped "Perils of Pauline" silent film might have the villain tying his victim to a railroad track. When the hero rescues the heroine, the card might say, "Curses! Foiled again!" in place of whatever cursing the character presumably uttered.
The English language phrase "Pardon my French" is also sometimes used as a euphemism for profanity.
In Ernest Hemingway's novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, swear words are replaced by the words "unprintable" and "obscenity", even though the characters are actually speaking Spanish that has been translated into English for the reader (in Spanish, foul language is used freely even when its equivalent is censored in English[according to whom?]). These replacements were not performed at the publisher's behest, but instead by Hemingway's choice.
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The English language contains numerous euphemisms related to dying, death, burial, and the people and places that deal with death. It may be said that one is not dying, but fading quickly because the end is near. People who have died are referred to as having passed away or passed or departed. Kick the bucket seems innocuous until one considers an explanation that has been proposed for the idiom: that a suicidal hanging victim must kick the bucket out from under his own feet during his suicide. Deceased is a euphemism for "dead", and sometimes the deceased is said to have gone to a better place, but this is used primarily among the religious with a concept of Heaven. Was taken to Jesus implies salvation specifically for Christians, but met his Maker may imply some judgment, content implied or unknown, by God. In the Bible, especially in the books of Kings and Chronicles, a deceased king is said to have "slept [or rested] with his fathers" if he received a proper burial.
Some Christians often use phrases such as gone to be with the Lord, called to higher service or promoted to glory (the latter expression being particularly prevalent in the Salvation Army) or "graduated" to express their belief that physical death is not the end, but the beginning of the fuller realization of redemption. "Earned his/her angel wings", is commonly used for the death of a child, particularly after a long illness. Orthodox Christians often use the euphemism fallen asleep (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:6) or fallen asleep in the Lord, which reflects Orthodox beliefs concerning death and resurrection. Greeks in particular are apt to refer to the deceased as "the blessed", "the forgiven", or "the absolved" ones, in the belief that the dead person will be counted among the faithful at the Last Judgement.
The dead body entices many euphemisms, some polite and some profane, as well as dysphemisms such as worm food, dead meat, or simply a stiff. Modern rhyming slang contains the expression brown bread. The corpse was once referred to as the shroud (or house or tenement) of clay, and modern funerary workers use terms such as the loved one (title of a novel about Hollywood undertakers by Evelyn Waugh) or the dear departed. Among themselves, mortuary technicians often refer to the corpse as the client. A recently dead person may be referred to as "the late John Doe". The term cemetery for "graveyard" is a borrowing from Greek, where it was a euphemism, literally meaning 'sleeping place'. The term undertaker (for the person responsible for the preparation of a body for burial) is so well-established that some people do not recognize it as a euphemism, since giving way to the more scientific-sounding euphemism mortician and yet further euphemisms.
Someone who has died is said to have passed on, checked out, cashed in their chips, bit the big one, kicked the bucket, keeled over, bit the dust, popped their clogs, pegged it, carked it, was snuffed out, turned their toes up, hopped the twig, bought the farm, got zapped, written their epitaph, fell off their perch, croaked, gave up the ghost (originally a more respectful term, cf. the death of Jesus as translated in the King James Version of the Bible Mark 15:37), gone south, gone west, gone to California, shuffled off this mortal coil (from William Shakespeare's Hamlet), run down the curtain and joined the Choir Invisible, or assumed room temperature (actually a dysphemism in use among mortuary technicians). When buried, they may be said to be pushing up daisies, sleeping the big sleep, taking a dirt nap, gone into the fertilizing business, checking out the grass from underneath or six feet under.
Euthanasia also attracts euphemisms. One may put one out of one's misery, put one to sleep, or have one put down, the latter two phrases being used primarily with dogs, cats, and horses who are being or have been euthanized by a veterinarian. (These terms are not usually applied to humans, because both medical ethics and law deprecate euthanasia.)
Some euphemisms for killing are neither respectful nor playful, but instead clinical and detached, including terminate, wet work, to take care of one, to do them in, to off, or to take them out. To cut loose or open up on someone or something means "to shoot at with every available weapon". Gangland euphemisms for murder include ventilate, whack, rub out, liquidate, cut down, hit, take him for a ride, string him up, cut down to size; or "put him in cement boots", "sleep with the fishes" and "put him in a concrete overcoat", the latter three implying disposal in deep water, if then alive by drowning; the arrangement for a killing may be a simple "contract" with the victim referred to as the "client", which suggests a normal transaction of business.
One of the most infamous euphemisms in history was the German term Endlösung der Judenfrage, frequently translated in English as "the Final Solution of the Jewish Question", a systematic plan for genocide of the Jews. Rather than willingly admit the truth of his plans for genocide, Adolph Hitler frequently used the phrase "ethnic cleansing" to describe what was happening across Europe during his reign. Even if not associated with the Holocaust, the Nazis used such terms as Schutzhaft, best translated as "protective custody" for persons seeking shelter from street violence by Nazi militias, but such shelter leading quickly to long-term incarceration in a Nazi prison for political offenders who often got murdered, and Sonderbehandlung, whose translation "special treatment" implies privileged protection but in practice meant summary execution. Nazi officials authorized the disappearance of hostages into 'night and fog' (Nacht und Nebel) whence few returned. "Charitable Ambulances" for the buses which took mental patients away to killing centers, and "Lazarett" (a quarantine clinic for ill travelers) for the shooting-pits where severely ill death camp arrivals would be executed.
Other common euphemisms include:
|adult entertainment, adult material, gentlemen's special interest literature||pornography|
|affirmative action||race-based preference, usually in employment or academic admissions, also called reverse discrimination, or in the U.K. positive discrimination.|
|bathroom, powder room, restroom, washroom||toilet room, especially one in the house (US)|
|been around the block||having had much sexual experience|
|friend of Dorothy, light in the loafers||male homosexual|
|custodian, caretaker||janitor (Also originally a euphemism: in Latin, it means doorman.)|
|escort, hooker, call girl, lady of the evening, streetwalker||prostitute|
|exotic dancer, peeler||stripper|
|gentlemen's club||strip club, go-go bar|
|in the family way, bun in the oven||pregnant|
|a little thin on top, chrome dome, cue ball||bald|
|making love, sleeping with, getting it on, having it off (U.K.), hooking up, doing it, making the beast with two backs||having sex|
|mentally challenged, intellectually challenged||stupid, dim, dull, slow; of subnormal intelligence|
|pacification||Coercive force, including warfare. Examples: Pacification of Algeria, Pacification of the Araucanía, Pacification operations in German-occupied Poland, and the Pacification of Tonkin.|
|presence||"'[P]resence' had been used as a euphemism for 'occupation' during the Cold War."|
|police action||Undeclared war. The Dutch called two major military offensives against the Republic of Indonesia police actions. President Harry S. Truman called the Korean War a police action. Similarly, the Vietnam War is also referred to as a "police action" or "security action".|
|a little persuasion||enormous physical force, as with a blow from a sledgehammer|
|sanitation worker (or, sarcastically, sanitation officer or sanitation engineer)||bin man, garbage man|
|she's in the club||she's pregnant (chiefly British)|
|special, unique||intellectually disabled or disabled (from 'special needs')|
|uncertain period or transition to democracy; setback for democracy, democracy reset, corrective movement or transition||military coup d'état|
|visit from the stork||give birth|
|power projection||Gunboat Diplomacy|
|appeared tired and emotional||drunk (chiefly British)|
These lists might suggest that most euphemisms are well-known expressions. Often euphemisms can be somewhat situational; what might be used as a euphemism in a conversation between two friends might make no sense to a third person. In this case, the euphemism is being used as a type of innuendo. At other times, the euphemism is common in some circles (such as the medical field) but not others, becoming a type of jargon or, in underworld situations especially, argot. One such example is the line "put him in bed with the captain's daughter" from the popular sea shanty Drunken Sailor, which means to give a whipping with the cat o' nine tails—euphemistically referred to by sailors as the "captain's daughter".
Euphemisms can also be used by governments to rename statutes to use a less offensive expression. For example, in Ontario, Canada, the "Disabled Person Parking Permit" was renamed to the "Accessible Parking Permit" in 2007.
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Doublespeak, often incorrectly assumed to originate from George Orwell's novel 1984 (erroneously combining Orwell's "newspeak" and "doublethink"), is a term sometimes used for deliberate euphemistic misuse of incorrect words to disguise unacceptable meaning, as in a "Ministry of Peace" which wages war, a "Ministry of Love" which imprisons and tortures.
The "Dead Parrot" sketch from Monty Python's Flying Circus contains an extensive list of euphemisms for death, including many cited above, referring to the deceased parrot that the character played by John Cleese had purchased. The popularity of the sketch has itself increased the popularity of some of these euphemisms—indeed, it has introduced another euphemism for death, "pining for the fjords" (since it was a Norwegian parrot)—although in the sketch that phrase was used by the shop owner to assert that the parrot was not dead, but was merely quiet and contemplative. Other phrases included "passed on", "no more", "ceased to be", "expired and gone to meet its maker", "this is a late parrot!", "it's a stiff" and "bereft of life, it rests in peace".
The word euphemism itself can be used as a euphemism. In the animated short It's Grinch Night (See Dr. Seuss), a child asks to go to the euphemism, where euphemism is being used as a euphemism for outhouse. This euphemistic use of "euphemism" also occurred in the play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where a character requests, "Martha, will you show her where we keep the, uh, euphemism?"
In Wes Anderson's film Fantastic Mr. Fox, the replacement of swear words by the word "cuss" became a humorous motif throughout the film.
In Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, the curses of the scientist Ebling Mis have all been replaced with the word "unprintable". In fact, there is only one case of his curses being referred to as such, leading some readers to mistakenly assume that the euphemism is Ebling's, rather than Asimov's. The same word has also been used in his short story "Flies".
|For a list of words relating to euphemisms, see the English euphemisms category of words in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
|Look up euphemism in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Euphemism.|
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