5 Euphemisms to Cut From Your Writing — Once And For All

5 Euphemisms to Cut From Your Writing — Once And For All

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 

Filed Under: Craft

23 comments

  • Were they playing bridge? (I HATE “passed.”)

  • Julia says:

    You haven’t lived till you’ve heard laconic Australians glossing over stuff. “The team had a pretty ordinary day.” ie , The other team thrashed them. “Not bad” equals pretty good. There’s heaps more.
    My pet peeve is definitely, “He passed.’ The Bible has ‘breathed his last’, which is sort of sad, poetic, gives a vivid eyewitness impression and gets the job done.

  • Great article and spot on for most of the points raised. However, when it comes to the subject of death, I think most people still aren’t ready to embrace it bravely as an undeniable reality. Hence the use of euphemisms to take the sting out of a painful occurrence. Saying it baldly could make some people wince (emotionally, physically).

  • Doing ‘good’ instead of doing ‘well’. It’s a bad grammar the Brits have picked up from the Yanks. But as a medical writer, I write about ‘health and well-being’, not health and good-being.

  • Steven M Vance says:

    To euphemize or not to euphemize. Is that the question? It seems to me the answer is situational in nature.

    Writing nonfiction…one needs to be direct and be clear in what is being communicated. Euphemisms. most of the time, are not going to be a great idea. With the exception, perhaps, when used for effect and/or humor.

    The fiction writer, however, can definitely find the use of euphemisms natural for certain characters. Most of us have probably known a person who has difficulty speaking bluntly. If that is what the story needs, if it benefits from it, then why not embrace it? Judiciously.

  • Jo says:

    Our of curiosity I looked up the origin of “passed away”. In the 1400s most people believed the soul passed on to heaven thus the term “passed away”. It seems like a totally appropriate. term at that time and through the centuries until the current decades.

  • Susana says:

    I’m afraid I find few of these suggestions superior to the actual euphemisms.

  • David says:

    good article but she should have condemned the new practice of saying “passed” instead of passed away or died. This makes dumbing down exponential.

  • There can be tone deafness sometimes when a writer decides either never to be literal or never to use metaphors, and make no mistake about it, euphemisms fall under the heading of metaphors.

    To insist on constant literalism is to pass up many opportunities for rich writing. I would not suggest knee-jerk avoidance of euphemisms and other metaphors, but judicious, intentional use of them. If you find yourself saying that every dead person “passed,” then you’ve probably allowed a euphemism to become a cliche and would do well to think harder about your word choices. That doesn’t necessarily mean that a flat “died” has to become your new cliche.

    Trish O’Connor
    Owner, Epiclesis Consulting LLC

  • “Expire.” Makes me want to look for an expiration date.

  • Wendy says:

    Well, if you’re a nursing home, your “residents” don’t “die,” they “expire.” Learned that when my dad breathed his last.

    And while you or I may not find “dead” a hard adjective to use with a loved one, lots of people do.

  • It’s not about dumbing down the subject of death; it’s about sensitivity. Many sympathy cards refer to “passing away” and “loss” rather than “death” and “dying.”

    I’d rather hear, “I’m sorry to learn your father passed away” than, “I’m sorry to learn your Dad is dead.”

  • Never say never. It’s about perspective, period, the character, gender, age.

    When the protagonist in my novel, The Girl Who Loved Cigars, a teen girl growing up in the 1970s, learns her boyfriend dumped her for another girl, she’s devastated. In talking about it with her foster mother, she doesn’t and wouldn’t say, “They had sex,” she says, “He slept with her.”

  • Diana,
    You’ve hit the nail, right on the head. Thanks. Stay safe.

  • Bob says:

    Great article. Enjoyed it. Here’s another one – as bad as it can get. He had a car accident and that is about as bad as it can get. Hm? Really? What level of bad were you expecting? Think this: He had a car accident and died. See? New level for as bad as it gets. When you step back and evaluate, as bad as it can get – you’ll discover it is an onion with so many layers. LOL.

  • The positivity in using your suggestions is basic to behavioral change and can be uplifting and have a positive, long-term effect on the brain. Kudos.

  • Kate Hitt-Kaplan says:

    Thank you for the smile. I will never euphemitize (my word) again without laughing at myself.

    My take away…It is bad to think of being rich in monetary terms only. Passing judgement is never decent, good, or reasonable. When I am dead it doesn’t matter who I slept with while having sex.

  • Ubai says:

    Hi Dana,
    I agree with your suggestions. It is better to be “direct” instead of trying to cover up reality.
    But in my experience, there are specific audiences, like you have mentioned in point 4, where euphemisms are the norm.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It will improve my writing.

  • Javier Antonio Quinones Ortiz says:

    Bravo!

  • Pamela J Blair says:

    Thanks for these. I’ve also cringed when people have said “passed” or “passed away” instead of using “die.” But “having sex,” although maybe most accurate, is not of my older generation–our euphemism was “to make love.” I still prefer that, even though people doing it may not love each other.

  • Marc says:

    Passed away is another form of dumbing down the whole subject of death and I avoid it wherever possible.
    ‘He passed…’ is another one and make you wonder what exactly he passed and to whom.

  • I strongly disagree. Those are phrases we use in real life, and if you are writing dialogue, and want it to sound real, you’ll write the way people talk. Just don’t use it too often.

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