Commentary: Euphemisms Make Language Softer and Sweeter

By Louis A. Zona

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – I learned from my sports talk show that two of my favorite baseball players were “designated for assignment.” What that means is that those two players had just been fired and removed from their team’s 40-man roster. They are kaput!

And they just may be free to return to their former jobs in the produce department of their neighborhood grocery store. Or they may never again be seen with ball gloves on their hands. You see, the phrase “designated for assignment” is but a euphemism meant to soften the team’s harsh action that was to fire these players. It’s bad PR, for sure, and just may be bad karma as well.

But we often use euphemisms in everyday conversations. Death is an unpleasant word. So it is that we soften it to “passed away” or “passed.”

We often hear that someone is “in a better place.” That sounds a whole lot better than saying that someone has died. For sure you would never want to say that someone has “kicked the bucket” or that he has “bought the farm.” Don’t you wonder where those phrases came from?

Those of us who are pet lovers would never say that someone has killed their animal to keep it from further pain. Instead, a more pleasant description of this sad but necessary act is to say we had to “put her down.” In recent times a pet’s death can be made less disturbing by saying that it has “crossed over the Rainbow Bridge.”

A friend of our family has lost his job and is looking for another. He tells everyone who asks that he is “considering options” instead of looking for a job.

Those of us old enough to remember the comedic actor Jack Benny know that he played a cheapskate on his radio and television programs. Occasionally he’d call himself a “tightwad” or at best he described his persona as “economical.”

But people who knew him said that in real life, Benny was generous and in no way the cheap character that he portrayed on stage and screen. Describing himself as the cheapest man alive was a perfect foil for his comedy.

Some children sadly experience difficulty learning and may even find themselves behind their grade levels. “Sticking,” as we used to say, can be traumatic. So we apply the euphemism that the youngster is a “late bloomer” instead of “flunking.”

A cousin of mine who has bad luck seems to be perennially in debt. He tells people that he has a “negative cash flow.” I am sure that if he were a rich man, he would refer to himself as a “man of means” instead of wealthy.

I know for sure that when a lady is in a fancy restaurant and needs to use the women’s room, she instead says that she is going to “powder my nose.”

I have not heard this euphemism in some time. Probably if I were a woman, you’d never hear me talking about powdering my nose although I guess that it’s better than “going to the toilet.”

And speaking of “using the facilities,” we learned in first grade to use numbers to describe bathroom activities (another euphemism) as being  “No 1”, or God forbid, “No 2”!

When I’m sick, I really don’t mind being described as “under the weather.” I once knew a woman, Mrs. Reed, whom you would never ask, “How are you today, Mrs. Reed?” If you did, she would describe her many ailments in great detail, every pain in every joint in her body. You would also hear about her husband’s afflictions including Mr. Reed’s open-heart surgery from 10 years before. If only Mrs. Reed would have been satisfied with being “under the weather.”

My mother used to describe a family member not as being pregnant but “in a family way.” For some reason, Mom never was comfortable with the word pregnant. Being “with child” was far more acceptable to Mom.

I once visited a friend whose 5-year-old son was active, to say the least. After he jumped on me for the second time, his parents excused his behavior by describing it as “high strung.” I would have to agree with that assessment.

In that same household, everyone appeared to be somewhat overweight. I feel comfortable with this description since I, too, could lose a pound or two. But so often people in my weight bracket refer to themselves as “big boned,” which sure sounds a whole lot better than weighing too much and a whole lot better than my neighbor who went through life called  “Chubby.”

So hooray for euphemisms. Whoever coined those words and phrases makes our language softer and sweeter.  He needs a slap on the back – let’s make that a pat on the back.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.