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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas Democrat-Gazette WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE Illustration - Photo by Nikki Dawes

A euphemism is a word or phrase you choose when you think a certain word is too blunt or offensive to use.

The word comes from two Greek roots: "eu" and "pheme." "Eu" means good, as in eulogy (good words said about people, most often after they die) or euphoria (a good feeling). "Pheme" means speech, as in blaspheme (unfavorable words about something) or aphemia (loss of the ability to speak).

Let's face it: Few things are worse than dying. So English speakers have come up with many euphemisms for death. Rather than say someone "died," people say:

He passed away (or passed).

She went to be with her Lord.

He went home.

She departed.

He entered eternal rest.

She was called home.

He left this world.

She succumbed.

He lost his battle.

She slipped away.

Those are pretty gentle ones. I'm not sure I understand the appeal of:

Pushing up daisies

Giving up the ghost

Met the reaper

Businesses have a treasure trove of words to avoid saying people are going to be fired:

We're having a reduction in force.

You're being terminated (or let go).

We're downsizing, restructuring, streamlining, redeploying assets, right-sizing.

Your position is being eliminated.

No one seems to know the origin of "pink slip" as a euphemism for firing someone. It doesn't seem to have anything to do with lingerie, though.

In Britain, a euphemism for getting fired is "being made redundant." That doesn't sound soothing at all.

In war, a killing may be called "neutralizing the target" or "collateral damage."

When the economy is in bad shape, no one likes to say so. Some familiar terms used when the economy is tanking:

slow economic growth


pause in recovery

a period of uncertainty

downward trend

The truth may hurt, but using clear, accurate terms for things is the better way to go. Euphemisms blur meanings, and, in the long run, sometimes sound worse than the original terms.

By the way, a "dysphemism" is a word or phrase that you use to make something sound worse than it is. If, say, you don't like the cuisine in your workplace cafeteria, you may call it "the cafe of terror."


After I used "bee's knees" in a column recently, a friend went in search of the origin of the phrase.

The Oxford Dictionaries website says that the phrase was used as early as the 18th century to describe something tiny or insignificant. Then, in the 1920s, American slang picked up a lot of descriptions of tiny things to indicate that something was to be admired. "Bee's knees" was one of these.

Others were "the cat's whiskers" and "the canary's tusks." But my favorite was "the flea's eyebrows."


A reader wrote to mention a broadcaster's use of the phrase "yesterday night." We agreed that it would be better to say "last night." But I couldn't find any guidelines on this. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut.


And today, I found an interesting lesson on the use of "first" versus "firstly."

Use "first." You can't go wrong when you listen to E.B. White, who wrote on the matter in The Elements of Style:

"Do not dress words up by adding 'ly' to them, as though putting a hat on a horse."

Horses probably hate that.

Sources: Oxford Dictionaries,,, Random House, University of Oregon, Christian Science Monitor, Merriam-Webster.

Reach Bernadette at

ActiveStyle on 02/20/2017

Print Headline: Beating all around the proverbial bush


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