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Euphemism

1. What is it?

A euphemism is an inoffensive word or phrase used in place of an offensive, rude or taboo one.

Importantly, although a euphemism is used, the audience knows what the original word was.

Euphemisms are used in any circumstance or writing that deals with a difficult subject matter.

2. Why use it?

Avoid being rude or insensitive.Speak carefully when discussing taboo subjects, such as death, sex, toilet habits, or controversial politics.
 For comedic or insulting effect.

3. Examples

“I’m just going to freshen up. Wait for me here, would you?”


“I want you to be careful around boys: they are only interested in hide the sausage” Mary told her daughter. Of course, Mary did not reveal that she and her husband had got freaky on their first date.


Alexander looked at the flowers slowly wilting in front of the headstone. It had been six years since his father had passed on, but the pain and downright anger had not dissipated.

4. Examples in literature

Under Milk Wood 
by Dylan Thomas

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Title: Under Milk Wood
Author: Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)
Published: 1954
Language: English
Genre: Drama, radio play, comedy, pastoral poem
Plot: On a normal day in the village of Llareggub, the audience meets the villagers. As they interact with each other, the secret desires, lost loves, memories of better days, or irritations with their partners come to the fore. Amongst them are Cpt. Cat, whose memories of drowning shipmates has robbed him of joy; Willy Nilly, the postman who reads other people’s love letters; and Polly Garter, the lowly cleaner who sings about her sexual relationships.
Setting: Llareggub, a fictional village in Wales
Characters: Cpt. Cat; Rev. Jenkins; Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard

Excerpt:

Polly Garter [ Singing ]:

I loved a man whose name was Tom
He was strong as a bear and two yards long
I loved a man whose name was Dick
He was big as a barrel and three feet thick
And I loved a man whose name was Harry
Six feet tall and sweet as a cherry
But the one I loved best awake or asleep
Was little Willy Wee and he’s six feet deep.

Oh Tom Dick and Harry were three fine men
And I’ll never have such loving again
But little Willy Wee who took me on his knee
Little Willy Wee was the man for me.

Now men from every parish round
Run after me and roll me on the ground
But whenever I love another man back
Johnnie from the Hill or Sailing Jack
I always think as they do what they please
Of Tom Dick and Harry who were tall as trees
But most I think when I’m by their side
Of little Willy Wee who downed and died.

O Tom Dick and Harry were three fine men
And I’ll never have such loving again
But little Willy Wee who took me on his knee
Little Willy Weazel was the man for me.

Skimming, Scanning and Basic Comprehension

1. What is Polly’s song about?
2. Polly’s song names six men. What are their names?
3. What has happened to Willy Weazel? 
Identifying Techniques

4. What rhyme structure is used in the song?
5. In what narrative voice is the song sung?
6. What parallelism is used?
7. Underline the similes that appear within the piece.
8. The passage uses several euphemisms. Highlight them. 
Text Analysis

9. What do you feel the tone of the song is? Why?
10. Although most of the relationships described in the song are in the past tense, which part lets you know the song’s narrator is still sexually active?
11. What is the singer’s attitude towards love now? Which words or phrases reveal this? 
Provoking Opinion

12. Why do people use euphemisms? Why do people not directly say what they mean in some situations?
13. Writers have been known to use euphemisms in order to get around censorship laws. Is it right for a country to censor writers? Why or why not?
14. In the play, the character of Polly reveals a hypocrisy in the townsfolk: an unmarried single mother with obvious sexual desires, she is socially shunned as a ‘fallen woman’; however, she is also lusted after because she is young and sexually active. Is Thomas right to suggest our social and personal morality that denies or condemns base urges is a based on a lie?
15. As a whole, Under Milk Wood describes the sex, lust, stupidity, hypocrisy and gossip that exists beneath the façade of village life. What do you think of small town/village life? Is it different from society in a city?

Ulysses 
by James Joyce

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Title: Ulysses
Author: James Joyce (1882-1941)
Published: 1922
Language: English
Genre: Fiction; novel; modernist
Plot: Ulysses transposes the adventures of Homer’s Odyssey into a single dull day in early 20th-century Dublin. The monsters and gods of Odysseus’s tale are absent, but exist in abstract form in the thoughts of Ulysses’s characters. These include Stephen Dedalus (Telemachus) as he teaches a class and then goes to the seaside; Leopold Bloom (Odysseus), who goes to a funeral and the pub; and Molly Bloom (Penelope), who is having an affair.
Setting: Dublin
Characters: Leopold Bloom; Molly Bloom; Stephen Dedalus

Excerpt from Episode 6 ‘Hades’:

The priest closed his book and went off, followed by the server. Corny Kelleher opened the side doors and the gravediggers came in, hoisted the coffin again, carried it out and shoved it on their cart. Corny Kelleher gave one wreath to the boy and one to the brother-in-law. All followed them out of the sidedoors into the mild grey air. Mr Bloom came last, folding his paper again into his pocket. He gazed gravely at the ground till the coffin cart wheeled off to the left. The metal wheels ground the gravel with a sharp grating cry and the pack of blunt boots followed the barrow along the lane of sepulchres.
The ree the ra the ree the ra the roo. Lord. I mustn’t lilt here.
– The O’Connell circle, Mr Dedalus said about him.
Mr Power’s soft eyes went up the apex of the lofty cone.
– He’s at rest, he said, in the middle of his people, old Dan O’. But his heart is buried in Rome. How many broken hearts are buried here, Simon!
– Her grave is over there, Jack, Mr Dedalus said. I’ll soon be stretched beside her. Let Him take me whenever He likes.

1. The passage describes a

a) funeral
b) wake
c) death
d) reunion
e) church service

Answer
a
2. Which euphemism for being dead is used in the passage?

a) sleeping
b) pushing up the daisies
c) passed on
d) at rest
e) gone to a better place

Answer
d
3. What is the deceased’s connection to Rome?

a) He died there
b) It was his favourite place
c) His heart has been buried there
d) He had an unfulfilled ambition to visit there
e) His family was from there

Answer
b
4. From the final lines of dialogue the reader can understand that Simon is

a) married
b) widowed
c) a bachelor
d) gay
e) remarried

Answer
b
5. Compared to the euphemisms in the passage from Under Milk Wood, those in the passage from Ulysses

a) are more comical
b) are ruder
c) cover a more sombre subject
d) appear more frequently
e) use more obscure language

Answer
c

5. Tasks

Task 1: Think of 5 euphemisms for each of the following topics: death, sex, and the going to the toilet.
Task 2: Write a dialogue in which the characters discuss an awkward subject using euphemisms.

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