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What is a euphemism?

A euphemism is a word or phrase substituting a mild, indirect, or vague term for one considered harsh, blunt, or offensive. The term comes from Greek euphemia 'use of auspicious words'. The word's first record in print (1656-81) is in a glossary with the definition, 'a good or favourable interpretation of a bad word'. Oftentimes, a euphemism has something to do with taboo or sensitive subjects such as bodily functions, sex, or death. Examples include: "collateral damage" instead of civilian casualties, "secondhand" instead of used, "budget" for cheap, "inebriated" instead of drunk, and "pass away" instead of die. Euphemisms once meant, or may still mean, something else - but many euphemisms have become such a part of standard English that we think only of the current usage. Dictionaries sometimes indicate euphemisms with a label (euphem.), but often this usage is not indicated in dictionaries. There are specialized dictionaries of euphemisms, like How Not To Say What You Mean: A Dictionary of Euphemisms (Holder, R.W., New York: Oxford University Press, [3rd ed.], 2002) and The Wordsworth Book of Euphemism (Neaman, Judith, Ware, UK: Wordsworth Editions, 1995). In such a specialized dictionary, the reader is often given what the word means or meant literally, as well as the euphemistic definition(s).

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