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Related: linguistics - soft


A euphemism is a word (or phrase) which people use in place of terms which are more disagreeable or offensive to themselves and/or to their audience. When a phrase becomes a euphemism, its literal meaning is often pushed aside. Euphemisms are used to hide unpleasant ideas, even when the term for them is not necessarily offensive. This latter kind of euphemism is used in the fields of public relations and politics; where it is known as doublespeak.

In linguistics, the process of coining euphemisms is known as taboo deformation.

The methods of historical linguistics can reveal traces of taboo deformations. Several are known to have occurred in Indo-European. Examples include the original Indo-European words for bear (*rktos), wolf (*wlkwos), and deer (originally, hart). In different Indo-European languages, each of these words have difficult etymologies because of taboo deformations—a euphemism was substituted for the original, and the form of the original word no longer occurs in the language. The Germanic word "bear" means "brown guy"; the Slavic root (*medu-ed-) means "honey eater".

Euphemisms can eventually become taboo words themselves through a process for which the linguist Steven Pinker has coined the term euphemism treadmill, which is comparable to Gresham's Law in economics. In this process, over the course of time, a word that was originally adopted as a euphemism acquires all the negative connotations of its referent, and has to be replaced by a substitute. In extreme cases, the process can happen many times, and indeed may still be happening. For example, "Toilet room", itself a euphemism, was replaced with "bathroom" and "water closet", which were replaced (respectively) with "rest room" and "W.C.". "Funeral director" replaced "mortician", which replaced "undertaker", which replaced "gravedigger". "Shell shock" was later replaced by "combat fatigue" and then "Post-traumatic stress disorder". --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euphemism [Jun 2004]

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