A euphemism is an expression intended by the speaker to be less offensive, disturbing, or troubling to the listener than the word or phrase it replaces.
Euphemisms are often used to hide unpleasant or disturbing ideas, even when the literal term for them is not necessarily offensive. This type of euphemism is used in public relations and politics, where it is sometimes called doublespeak.
There are also superstitious euphemisms, based (consciously or subconsciously) on the idea that words have the power to bring bad fortune (for example, not speaking the word "cancer") and religious euphemisms, based on the idea that some words are sacred, or that some words are spiritually imperiling.
Many euphemisms fall into one or more of these categories:
The English language contains numerous euphemisms related to dying, death, burial, and the people and places which deal with death. The practice of using euphemisms for death is likely to have originated with the "magical" belief that to speak the word 'death' was to invite death. People who have died are referred to as having passed away or passed or departed. Deceased is a euphemism for 'dead', and sometimes the deceased is said to have gone to a better place, but this is used primarily among the religious with a concept of heaven.
There are many euphemisms for the dead body. Modern funerary workers use terms such as the loved one or the dearly departed. (They themselves have given up the euphemism funeral director for grief therapist, and hold arrangement conferences with relatives.) A recently dead person may be referred to as the late John Doe. The terms cemetery for graveyard and undertaking for burial are so well established that most people don't even recognize them as euphemisms.
Contemporary euphemisms for death tend to be quite colorful, and someone who has died is said to have passed away, passed on, checked out, bit the big one, kicked the bucket, bitten the dust, bought the farm, cashed in their chips, croaked, given up the ghost, gone south, shuffled off this mortal coil (from Shakespeare's Hamlet), or assumed room temperature. When buried, they may be said to be pushing up daisies, sleeping the big sleep, taking a dirt nap, or six feet under.
Expressions which are used to sound intentionally harsh are known as dysphemisms.
Doublespeak refers to euphemisms used by government, military, or corporate institutions in an attempt to confuse and conceal the truth. An example of doublespeak is the use of friendly fire as a euphemism for being attacked by your own troops.
Other common euphemisms include:
restroom or bathroom for toilet;
acting like rabbits, making love, getting it on, doing it, or sleeping with for having sexual intercourse;
motion discomfort bag and air-sickness bag for vomit bag;
sanitary landfill for garbage dump;
third-party unauthorized use for cracking (computer crime);
ill-advised for very poor or bad;
pre-owned vehicles for used cars
correctional facility for prison
the big C for cancer;
the crab for cancer due to the constellation Cancer;
bathroom tissue, t.p., or bath tissue for toilet paper (Usually used by toilet paper manufacturers)
custodian or caretaker for janitor;
sanitation worker (or, sarcastically, sanitation engineer) for "garbage man";
Where can I wash my hands? or Where can I powder my nose? for Where can I find a toilet?. (This is an Americanism. A person asking this in Europe may be directed to a room that contains only a washbasin and no toilet.)
Not To Say What You Mean: A Dictionary of Euphemisms by R.
We often use euphemisms when dealing with taboo or sensitive subjects. We speak of "full-figured" women. We "fudge" on our income tax. We get "cold feet" before our wedding. In How Not to Say What You Mean, R.W. Holder offers an engaging volume that celebrates this human tendency to use mild, vague, or roundabout expressions rather than those which are blunt, precise, and true.
Slang and Euphemism by Richard A. Spears.
Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Doubletalk by Hugh Rawson.
Dictionary of Euphemisms by John Ayto.
Ntc's Dictionary of Euphemisms by Anne Bertram.