We often use euphemisms to talk about subjects that are unpleasant or uncomfortable to broach.
Well, actually, we use them to avoid talking about unpleasant and uncomfortable subjects.
In my career, I’ve written about death, money, sex and all kinds of personal development. I’ve become comfortable speaking plainly.
To do otherwise is a disservice to the reader. It tells them they should be uncomfortable talking or learning about the subject, and it clouds the information they’re there to learn.
To be fair, some euphemisms are fun. In researching for this post, I came across “making a deposit in the porcelain bank” (using the toilet) and “one sandwich short of a picnic” (not smart). Let’s never lose these gems.
But most of them are useless and debilitate your effort to connect with or teach readers. Train your eye to catch and cut meaningless euphemisms from your writing — they abound.
Start with these five common euphemisms…
5 euphemisms to cut from your writing
1. Less than ideal (instead of ‘bad’)
Literally most things are less than ideal. “Ideal” is a high standard. Worse, everyone’s definition of “ideal” is different, so this description tells your reader nothing. Or it makes them feel judged.
If something is bad, say “bad.” Or grab a thesaurus, and find a more meaningful word. Or avoid judgement altogether, and just describe the thing:
- My credit score is less than ideal. Credit scores come in standard categories that include “poor” and “fair.” You can also say what you mean, which is “low.”
- This dress isn’t exactly ideal. What isn’t right about the dress? Is it too tight, too short, too many polka-dots?
- Circumstances aren’t ideal. What’s wrong with your circumstances? Were you trying to get a WiFi signal for your Zoom meeting in your backyard and fell into a sinkhole?
2. Doing well (instead of ‘rich’)
The Midwest has a tight hold on my heart, and I know we don’t like to talk about money — especially when we’ve got it.
If someone is so bold as to let their wealth or success be known, we might describe them, demurely, as “doing well for themselves.”
That beige phrase strips away all mention of money while at the same time implying it takes money to “do well.” What a mess.
I advocate talking plainly about money so we can all get over our hang ups.
But I know that’s tough, so try baby steps. I like to describe my vast accumulation of wealth with specifics that don’t involve numbers, like:
- I no longer save the extra condiment packets that come with take out.
- I always have a backup shampoo.
- I order appetizers when I go out to eat.
- I don’t cut my own bangs anymore.
3. Decent (instead of anything)
Do you have a “decent” job or earn a “decent” wage or have a “decent” home?
This is another weird euphemism that says nothing but still passes judgement.
The same goes for “good” and “reasonable.”
Be specific, so readers understand what you mean. Does a “decent job” give you a corner office or let you work from home? Is a “reasonable wage” $15 an hour or $50? Is a “good home” a loft in Brooklyn or a farmhouse in Ohio?
Keep an eye out for your biases creeping into descriptions like these, and add specifics to give readers an accurate picture they can see from their own perspective.
4. Passed away (instead of ‘died’)
After two years writing about death and end-of-life experiences, I have no tolerance for words that invite us to ignore the reality of death.
People die; it’s the only universal truth we all experience.
Speaking about it in hushed tones and with sanitized language perpetuates our fear and shame around the subject.
Some death euphemisms, like “no longer with us,” are actually confusing.
Heavenly euphemisms like “passed away” might inject values and beliefs your audience doesn’t share or understand, which makes it tougher for them to connect with your writing.
Just say “died.”
Caveat: If death-related events like “crossing over” or “being with God” are part of your reality, these aren’t euphemisms. Use them as long as your audience is on the same page about their meaning — but opt for “died” when writing about the end of a life.
5. Slept together (instead of ‘had sex’)
Through a little sleuthing around age nine, I figured out the basic mechanics of sexual intercourse.
By that time, I was also quite familiar with the concept of a sleepover.
I was genuinely confused when the characters on “Friends” and “Fraisier” talked about “sleeping together” in scandalous tones. I used to sleep with my friends all the time. My cousins, even. When I was afraid of the dark, I slept with my sister.
When I figured out the adults were (avoiding) talking about sex, I thought, “Wow, grow up.”
As with death and money, clouding sex in meaningless language perpetuates shame, fear and confusion. It even has dangerous consequences, like our discomfort with talking about consent and boundaries.
Like money, I advocate for specific language around sex. At least, get comfortable with the word “sex.” Even better, get used to discussing specific actions — because, really, “sex” alone isn’t that clear.
This article was originally published in Notes newsletter, a monthly selection of pet peeves, warnings, advice, secrets and pro-tips for pitching, writing and — above all — keeping editors happy.
Photo via Dean Drobot / Shutterstock