The English language is full of common euphemisms, phrases which we use every day to avoid saying something directly, often without even realizing we are using a euphemism. But what are some of the most common euphemisms used today, and what do they actually mean?
1. Passed Away
This one is one of the most common euphemisms, so much so that you probably didn’t even realize it was a euphemism. This one is used to avoid mentioning death, and with euphemisms being used to avoid discussing unpleasant topics, it is unsurprising that so many common ones relate to death.
2. Up the Duff
This phrase that we use to say that somebody is pregnant is supposed to be a euphemism, when really it’s far more unpleasant than just saying that someone is pregnant. Strange really.
3. A Few Sandwiches Short of a Picnic
This is one of the fairly amusing everyday euphemisms and is used to suggest that somebody is a little bit intellectually challenged (oh no, not another euphemism!). It may not be a nice way to describe somebody, but it’s considered nicer than saying somebody is stupid.
4. Put to Sleep
It’s quite a common death euphemism, but it’s specific to animals, usually pets, as in being put down by a vet. You can see where the phrase comes from, because the animals just die as peacefully as if they were drifting off to sleep.
5. Lady of the Night
The only euphemism making the list that describes a prostitute, ‘lady of the night’ is unusual in that it’s a term to describe a normally vilified somebody in as pleasant a way as possible, but not to avoid offending them, but because it’s a bit of a taboo to discuss prostitution. Let’s face it, most people don’t really consider prostitutes to be ‘ladies,’ do they?
6. Couch Potato
This is one of many common euphemisms that can mean slightly different things depending on where you’re from. A lot of people use it to describe somebody who is overweight, while others understand it to really describe somebody who is just lazy, whatever size they are.
7. Kick the Bucket
This is another of the euphemisms in common use about death, but it’s an odd phrase and there is debate about where it comes from. One theory is that it comes from the use of hanging as a method of execution, where the victim was stood on an upturned bucket until it was kicked out from under them, and they died.
8. Knocked up
This is another everyday euphemism about pregnancy, and yet again, it’s more unpleasant than just saying that somebody is pregnant. Bearing in mind that it usually describes accidental or irresponsible pregnancy, it’s possible that it came into use because it seems to remove the blame from the woman.
9. Sleep with
Another of the most common euphemisms, ‘sleeping with’ someone really means having sex with them. It’s really nothing to do with sleeping, although it probably came about because of the usual use of a bed, and with the sleeping that often follows.
10. Exotic Dancer
It’s unusual, this one, because it’s a euphemism that is mostly used by people to describe themselves, or someone they care about. Strippers don’t like to be called strippers, and strippers’ friends and boyfriends don’t tend to want them to be called strippers either, so instead they are exotic dancers.
11. Offed Himself
This is another one about death, although it’s the only one on the list that relates directly to suicide. Suicide is still quite a taboo subject, so it’s unsurprising that people don’t want to say it directly, although it is a somewhat derogatory, and certainly insensitive, phrase.
12. Ethnic Cleansing
This is one of the most euphemistic phrases in the English language, literally suggesting that people of a certain ethnicity are being washed, when really it’s used to describe genocide.
13. Differently Abled
One of the nicest common euphemisms we have, we can describe someone as differently abled to avoid saying they are disabled. It’s nice because it suggests that they are not less able than us, but that they are in fact just able in a different way.
14. Visually Challenged
This is another euphemism about people having disabilities, although this one is specifically about being blind or partially sighted. It has become the basis of other euphemisms, with some short people referring to themselves as ‘vertically challenged,’ and many other similar phrases.
15. Didn’t Make It
This is yet another one meaning that someone has died, although we tend to say that someone didn’t make it if they were in an accident or fighting an illness, as it suggests that somebody didn’t make it through something.
We certainly don’t like to call people fat, which is why we have everyday euphemisms like ‘frumpy,’ although when the meaning is so well known, it can be just as offensive. It’s more that people don’t feel as bad about insulting another person if they are less direct about it, even if what they say means the same thing.
17. Leg over
Getting your leg over is essentially having sex with someone, but again, it’s more unpleasant than just saying so. It implies a sense of achievement, and sexual conquest, which is perhaps why it is more commonly used by men.
18. Doing It
This is the last of the sex euphemisms, and is a very popular one, particularly because it’s fairly inconspicuous and can be used in front of children because it will pass entirely over their heads. ‘It’ is often used on its own to mean sexual intercourse, too. We seem to love avoiding talking about it directly.
19. A Few Extra Pounds
When you find yourself discussing someone that you recently saw and want to express your opinion about your observations, it is much more polite to say that they have gained a few extra pounds than bluntly calling them fat. Weight is a sensitive subject especially for women, which is why we all avoid blurting out words like obese, fat, and overweight.
20. Visit the Ladies Room
This euphemism in common use is not used for politeness in the same way as many of the others, but more because we tend to be embarrassed of our natural bodily functions, particularly with people we don’t really know. All it really means is that we need to use the toilet.
21. Letting Someone Go
When it comes to firing someone, you rarely hear the exact words of 'You are fired' unless of course your boss doesn't care about your feelings. However instead most people word it differently in order to appear polite and less harsh. What they usually say is 'I am sorry but we have to let you go.' Sounds a lot nicer, but the meaning is unfortunately the same.
22. On the Streets
When you are describing someone with an unfortunate lifestyle or history, you try to refrain from describing them as homeless or as a bum. One of the common ways to express the same idea is to say that the person spend a big chunk of his or her life on the streets.
23. Full Figured
This is the final ‘fat’ euphemism to make the list, and is probably the kindest of all of them. Perhaps that’s because we often don’t actually want to be offensive or negative about somebody when we call them full figured. The same cannot be said of the other fat euphemisms, which, let’s face it, are hardly real euphemisms at all.
24. Categorical Inaccuracy
When ordinary people conceal the truth and say something that is not consistent with the facts, that is considered lying. However when it comes to politics it is all different. If somebody in power is not saying the truth, it is incompetent to call them liars instead we say that there were categorical inaccuracies in what they said.
25. Lost His/her Marbles
Mental health professionals usually don't call people with mental problems crazy because that word has negative connotations and instead they often refer to those mental issues as a disease. However ordinary people like us, usually say that the person lost his or her marbles instead of stating that they are nuts, mad, or kooky. Although these euphemisms are vague, sometimes they can still sound hurtful to the people with the mental problems.
26. Over the Hill
We all know that age is a sensitive subject to all women, after all who is looking forward to getting grey hair, wrinkles and sagging skin. However sooner or later, we will all have to face this problem but that doesn't mean that we have to say that we are old or ancient. There are better words to refer to people who have reached the climax of their life time by saying that they are over the hill.
27. Between Jobs
Unemployment rates are high, especially in the current state of the economy and some people are suffering financially. Many have been cut and now are having a hard time finding a permanent job but instead of referring to themselves as unemployed these people say that they are between jobs. Although it sounds a lot better, it doesn't change their situation.
When you sit down and think about it, common euphemisms are often very interesting, but given that they are supposed to help us avoid saying something unpleasant, they often aren’t very nice at all. It’s no wonder that English can be so perplexing for people learning it as a second language. What's the strangest euphemism you've ever heard?
This article was written in collaboration with editor Vladlena Lee