Dictionary of Euphemisms

how not to say what you mean

R.W. Holder

Reviewed by:
On 29 July 2009
Last modified:31 December 2015


Commonly used expressions of evasion and concealment

Don’t be fooled by the title. The Dictionary of Euphemisms is much more than a collection of polite expressions. It’s also a detailed inventory of slang, sexual code terms, metaphors, evasiveness, underworld argot, and indecent language. The terms are explained, discussed, illustrated, and commented upon in a witty and it has to be said rather dryly satirical manner. The compiler is a business man who has no truck with fashionable political correctness or weak-kneed liberalism, and he takes a particular interest in the way ‘professions’ avoid speaking plainly of their doings. The obvious topics which invoke euphemism are sex, lavatories, drinking, drugs, crime, and death.

Dictionary of EuphemismsBut the not-so-obvious are commerce, politics, warfare, illness, and ideological belief. He gives an explanation of each term, a note on its origin where appropriate, and an example of its use in print. So much one might expect in a serious work of reference, but it is the additional notes which give the book its zest and resonance.

language swear words
A shortened form of bad language:

I’ll have no man usin’ language i’ my house. (D.Murray, 1886—he was not a Trappist abbot)

In America language arts is educational and sociological jargon for the ability to speak coherently.

He has no hesitation in exposing the evasions in current political correctness: African-descended = black (never used for Egyptians, Moroccans, or Boers). And he’s particularly good at reminding us of the euphemisms of everyday life:

after-shave = perfume for men;
haute cuisine = small portions of expensive food;
family = not pornographic.

He’s not without a witty turn of phrase:

bestseller a book of which the first impression is not remaindered
consultant a senior employee who has been dismissed

and he’s also good at uncovering military euphemism:

deliver to drop an explosive on an enemy
air support a military attack

Linguistically, it’s amazing how one word can be used for completely opposite meanings, and how many different meanings can be squeezed out of a single word – such as do and go.

There are lots of expressions so common you will hardly think of them as euphemisms – such as happen to in the expression ‘if anything should happen to me’ – meaning ‘to die’.

The latest fourth edition has been revised and updated to include recent coinages, there is a thematic index, and quite an interesting bibliography. This is a browser’s treasure trove. I took it on holiday and after a week’s bad weather had only got as far as letter D. It’s a must-have for anyone interested in language and the way it is used in everyday life.

© Roy Johnson 2008

Dictionary of Euphemisms   Buy the book at Amazon UK
Dictionary of Euphemisms   Buy the book at Amazon US

R.W.Holder, The Oxford Dictionary of Euphemisms, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 4th edition 2008, pp.432, ISBN: 0199235171

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