Euphemisms in General (Monolingual and Bilingual) Dictionaries
Andrejs VEISBERGS, Riga, Latvia
The paper deals with euphemisms and their treatment in general (monolingual and bilingual) dictionaries. We give a linguistic analysis of euphemism formation (based on English material) and discuss the treatment of euphemisms in several English, Russian, German and Latvian monolingual and bilingual dictionaries. Serious inconsistencies have been noted in euphemism treatment (editorial decisions, subjective solutions in individual cases, labelling absence or inconsistency, avoiding of euphemisms). The problem of the ephemeral or transitory nature of euphemisms and its reflection in dictionaries has been viewed.

1 Euphemisms
The post-modern society produces a multitude of euphemisms. New power to euphemism production is provided by political correctness (Burridge, 1996) and various “isms” (starting from ableism and ending with weightism). The widespread character of this phenomenon was confirmed by the coinage of a new term – euphemantics (Dodd, 1962) in the 60ies of the 20th century. Numerous books (Pei, 1970; Enright, 1985; Allan, 1991) and dictionaries (Spears, 1981; Neaman, 1983; Green, 1984; Holder, 1987; Rawson, 1989; Ayto, 1993) have been dedicated to the subject. Euphemisms are emotionally neutral words or expressions used instead of synonymous offensive, too direct or unpleasant words. Thus they deal with the ambiguous and the unpleasant. Traditionally euphemisms concentrate in the spheres connected with the human body, secretion functions, nakedness, genitals, sickness, crimes, military action, but today they actively invade new spheres – advertising, business, politics – anything “from private pleasure to public pain” (Rawson, 1981). Like slang, most euphemisms are ephemeral (there is, however, a core set which is rather stable). One of the causes of a rather rapid change of euphemisms is that after a certain period of use they tend to acquire the negative meaning of whatever they refer to and become contaminated and cumbersome; new ones are then sought. Hence the ever changing vocabulary items for bad/disagreeable/taboo concepts (Hughes 1991:13-15). Hence, 2000 words for “prostitute” in English (Allan; Burridge 1991). This in turn affects the general usage as well, thus intercourse has almost disappeared from normal conversation because of its euphemistic sexual connotations. Euphemism creation techniques involve some of the traditional word-formation types, but also present some peculiarities. The techniques are similar in most languages:

Loans borrowed mainly from Latin and Greek seem less offensive: they are more technical, sophisticated, longer and sometimes the meaning is not immediately apparent: to micturate (to piss), rebate (bribe), senior (elderly), sub-optimal (failed).


less developed/underdeveloped (laid-off). remains (mortal remains).Proceedings of EURALEX 2000                 Abbreviations seem less dangerous or impolite: WC (toilet). however for reasons of space. big C (cancer). The analysis of various monolingual and bilingual dictionaries suggests that (1) among lexicographers there seems to be no consensus on the nature of euphemisms. There is a distinct tendency in many languages to use negative prefixes for softening the effect of the word or making it extremely vague: the underprivileged (the poor). to deselect (to exclude). Longer periphrasis. involuntary conversion (crash landing). we will focus here on English and bilingual English dictionaries. action (military action). Thus from the lexicographic viewpoint euphemisms are either (1) specific words or word combinations having euphemistic meaning. Russian and Latvian. 2 Dictionaries Apart from specialised euphemisms dictionaries which are not the subject of this paper. KIA (killed in action). Asterisks. Fanny Adams (fuck all). or (2) euphemistic senses in polysemantic words or phrases from the general lexicon. inmates. to disimprove (to make worse). relationship (affair).d (God). intercourse (sexual intercourse). residents (prisoners). gosh (good gracious). to hit the jackpot (to hit a big target). Truncation – deletion of some letters in writing is less widespread today as it used to be. Use of negative. manhood (penis). Ellipsis is used for euphemization as it transfers the meaning of the phrase onto another word. 774 . Adaptations (distortions) – a specific word-formation pattern of euphemization: cripes (Christ). period of use. assets (enemy targets). which is not directly associated with the avoidable subject: ladies (ladies’ room). Metaphoric transfers: blossom (pimple). visually impaired (blind). eff (fuck). euphemisms appear also in general dictionaries. equivalents). Widening of meaning – a word (usually a semantically more general superordinate term) is found and its meaning is widened to include the meaning of the avoidable word. ordinances (bombs). where some lexemes are gaining semiaffix status: differently abled (disabled). physically different/ challenged (crippled). Thus. Here euphemistic use often borders on intentional blur. (2) often there is no strategy of euphemisms reflection/treatment (labelling. There seem to be waves of euphemization when either a particular type of euphemism creation is heavily used or a sphere of human activities undergoes serious euphemization. In extreme cases we find the complete substitution of denotative meaning: growth (cancer). theatre of operations (battlefront). German. clients.1995): surgical strikes (precision bombing). or hyphens are usually used: G. real war simulated the vocabulary of the technology of illusionary entertainment (Ebo. These conclusions seem to apply to several languages under investigation – English. obfuscation and politically correct language. F**k (fuck).

This part of the body regarded 1. Yet practice shows a different situation: OED actually provides very few euphemisms.g. or unpleasant truths.2 Modern desktop dictionaries Five medium size desktop dictionaries (The Concise Oxford. US. longevity and spread of the concrete word/meaning. e.. senior citizen – a term for an elderly person. Chambers 20th Century Dictionary.. Hence also euphem. for: sexual activity. bathroom – a room containing a bath and often other toilet facilities. Generally very few euphemisms and euphemistic meanings were found to be included. as the seat of physical strength and of generative power     possess – spec. parlour etc. as the part of the body that should be covered by clothing and about which the clothes are bound 2. The expressions massage establishment.g. Now only carnal knowledge (archaic and legal) The problem is addressed in the Guide: “The OED confines its occasional use of the term to obviously oblique references to such things as sexual intercourse (a fate worse than death).” 2.       massage – used euphem. e. could document the euphemism use and timing extensively. one who is past the age of retirement.. There are numerous other terms that are elaborated without the use of the label “euphemism”. This is no doubt prompted by the inability to decide on the semantic vagueness. in Benson (1986). orig. though the definitions are clearly euphemistic..1 Large-size historical dictionaries Large size historical dictionaries. nor is there a separate article dedicated to them in the Encyclopaedia of Lexicography (Wörterbücher 1989). used as signs outside a building are frequently alleged to mean ‘brothel’..L EXICOLOGICAL P HENOMENA OF L EXICOGRAPHICAL R ELEVANCE Euphemisms have not been thoroughly discussed in lexicographic literature.. e. and the descriptions are not always exhaustive. These have often specialised labels.g. words ‘used euphemistically’ sometimes preface a definition involving an ironic reversal of meaning. esp. . As well as occurring as an italicized label. such as the Oxford English Dictionary. 775 . – Chiefly Biblical and poetic. 2. or criminal behaviour . Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. Collins English dictionary) were selected for a case study. to have sexual intercourse with (a woman) knowledge – sexual intimacy.   loins 2. they are not mentioned in many books on lexicography. Frequently used in official communication and by the media as a euphemism for ‘old-age pensioner’. for lavatory.

blessed e. cloakroom e. +coll.Br. + + + + + + +obs. rest-room – love-child + demise + hostess +popularly intercourse + friend + fallen woman + possess +spec. +fml. e. e. +arch. + +US + + + e. – + – e. + e. – + + + + + + – + – Collins e. the remains + depart + one-night stand +spec. e. e. massage (parlour) e.Oxf. e. + e.US e. The few euphemisms or euphemistic meanings that we encountered centred mainly in the sphere of sex. bathroom e.Br. +US e. + + +US +US + – +Sl. Fanny Adams e. e. – + + +infml. + +arch. – + – – – – – e.US pass away + sleep with/together +coll. e. +infml. + + e. e.joc. +coll. +obs. e. know +arch. knowledge +arch. + + + – + – Table 1: Traditional euphemisms in 5 monolingual English dictionaries New euphemisms accordingly find it hard to get into dictionaries while old. + + + + + + + + + +biol.fml.Br. help oneself e. adult e. + – e. – e. +US.NZ e. e. e. e. Chambers e.C e. e. 776 . – – + + + + + + + + + + + – – – + + – – OALD – – e. + + – +infml. to relieve oneself + prophylactic + member +arch. disadvantaged + third-degree (treatment) + institutionalize + appropriate – four-letter word + pacification + action + dehire +US Conc. posterior +coll. + – – – – + – +arch.Proceedings of EURALEX 2000 OED eff e. – e. senior citizen e. – + – + + +arch. +coll. e. +joc. e. e. archaic and rarely used euphemisms tend not to be eradicated form the following revised editions.US gosh + holiday e.

or by difficulties of translation. death – thus in the traditional. such as COBUILD (general avoidance of labels) or Webster (College edition). It should be mentioned that there are also dictionaries which do not use the label euphemism at all. 2. to produce a more exact picture. 5. 777 . The most outstanding result of the study was that only one word (blessed ) was characterized as euphemism by all five dictionaries. another word for penis Collateral damage – unintentional damage to civil property and civilian casualties caused by military operations. label “euphemism” is provided for the source word/sense. Thus. second part – mainly euphemisms outside the traditional sphere). euphemistic sense of the word does not appear at all. Sl. bodily functions. The following strategies have been registered in the choice of a translation equivalent: 1. Massage parlour – a word meaning a brothel (= place where people pay to have sex). Finally. the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (1995) (learners’ type) does not give the label. This may start a discussion on what sort of label euphemism is – is it a style or register marker? Is it an evaluative label (Puschel 1989)? How valid is the term itself? It seems however important for learners. for example. This can be accounted for either by considering the meaning not worth including because of the ephemeral character of many euphemisms. a list of euphemisms was drawn up (first part mainly containing the traditional euphemisms. However similar words and meanings are treated differently:         Member – another word for penis Organ – a euphemistic word for penis Tool – Taboo. 2. denotational equivalent is provided.3 Bilingual dictionaries Bilingual dictionaries have a still harder choice. yet the word appears in quite many lemmas.g. Details are summarized1 in table 1. page 776. The Collins English Dictionary (1995) does not suggest the use of the label euphemism. transparent “fresh” euphemism is created by the compilers. The use of a target language equivalent in bilingual dictionaries also raises the question of whether a modern equivalent or a dated euphemism of that period (if there is one) or an explanatory note is given (not characteristic of bilingual dictionaries). Equivalent euphemism in the target language. but tries to suggest the connotations through the definition. 4. sphere. not to say old-fashioned.L EXICOLOGICAL P HENOMENA OF L EXICOGRAPHICAL R ELEVANCE body. used to pretend that it is not a brothel. 3. e. losing the euphemistic effect.

Proceedings of EURALEX 2000 Duden EN-DE EN-RU – – – – e+ = – – e= = + – e+ = e+coll. – = – – + – = e. – – – + – + + + + – Lang. + + + + + + – + + + – – – +joc. + =US =US e+ + + + e+ = = + – + + – + + – – = – e= + =coll. – + + = – – = – = – – + =coll. + =US + + + = – + + – = e= – =coll – – – =US – + – – = – eff Fanny Adams massage (parlour) bathroom cloakroom adult pass away sleep with/together the remains depart one-night stand to relieve oneself prophylactic member posterior restroom love-child demise hostess intercourse friend fallen woman possess know knowledge blessed senior citizen gosh holiday help oneself disadvantaged third-degree (treatment) institutionalize appropriate four-letter word pacification action dehire EN-LV – – = – – – = – + + – – – + + =US – = – + + + – – – =iron. EN-DE – – – = – – = + + = – + – +med. + – = – Table 2: The euphemisms from table 1 in 4 bilingual dictionaries 778 .

Oxford: OUP. in table 1. 1986. 1990. No. A Review of General Semantics. London: Bloomsbury. John Benjamins.. The same list of English euphemisms as above.2. 1995. Vol. pp. M. R. [Berg 1993] Berg D. was applied to four bilingual dictionaries (Duden Oxford Großwörterbuch Englisch. however.. no substantial findings were made as old-fashioned euphemisms or their equivalents (know. San Francisco. Burridge. Fall. 779 . 3. [Burridge 1996] Burridge K.18. The Oxford Russian Dictionary.26. Ilson. [Chambers 1995] Chambers 20th century Dictionary.: “Euphemantics.19-25. Details are given2 in table 2.: Lexicographic Description of English. : Euphemisms. Bilingual dictionaries. 1969. English-Latvian Dictionary. All dictionaries use the label euphemism. A. Vol. occasionally provided more modern and untraditional euphemisms than monolingual ones. [Ebo 1995] Ebo. Chambers. No.L. B. page 776. 42 . page 778. 1993. New York: Oxford University Press. K. [Ayto 1993] Ayto.: A Guide to the Oxford English Dictionary. 1996. keeping them exclusively modern is not a perfect solution. J. 1995. : “Political correctness: euphemism with attitude”. pp. As concerns the issue of euphemism equivalents vis a vis time period. Vol. [Duden 1990] Duden Oxford Großwörterbuch Englisch. K. The new language of Science”. in: Journal of American Culture.240. Langenscheidts Enzyklop"adisches W"orterbuch der Englischen und Deutschen Sprache)..L EXICOLOGICAL P HENOMENA OF L EXICOGRAPHICAL R ELEVANCE As bilingual dictionaries are often used for translation purposes of texts of different time periods. Benson. [Dodd 1969] Dodd. 1991. the rate of euphemism reflection is much lower in the bilingual dictionaries. blessed ) were normally not reflected. Mannheim: Dudenverlag.49. 3. 1993. 3d Edition. [Benson/Benson/Ilson 1986] Benson.: “The Gulf Conflict and the Technology of Illusionary Entertainment”. 1995. 1995. Notes 1 The abbreviations in the table have the following meaning: word or meaning given as euphemism word or meaning given without label “euphemism”.. “euphemistic” word or meaning not given at all abbreviations in the table have the following meaning: + = – e e + – 2 The euphemistic equivalent given non-euphemistic equivalent given word or meaning not given at all label euphemism applied References [Allan/Burridge 1991] Allan. 12. 236 . In conclusion it can be stated that the study produced more questions than answers which suggests the problem of euphemism treatment in dictionaries deserves more attention than it has been given so far. R. E. [Concise 1995] The Concise Oxford Dictionary OUP. pp. As can be seen. in: English Today. [Collins 1995] Collins English Dictionary. : Euphemism and Dysphemism: Language Used as Shield and Weapon. Harper Collins Publishers. in: ETC.

: Wicked Words. [Oxford Russian 1995] The Oxford Russian Dictionary. pp. [Oxford 1995] Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. 1985. 1995. OUP. in: Dictionaries. 1981. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. 780 . 1995. [Longman 1976] Longman Modern English Dictionary. New York. J.62. ed. Riga: Jana seta. Oxford: Blackwell.. OUP. Longman Dictionaries. [Oxford 1989] Oxford English Dictionary. [Rawson 1981] Rawson. [Puschel 1989] Puschel U. [Rawson 1989] Rawson. [Pei 1970] Pei M. 1983. 693-699. 1984.: “Contrastive Analysis of Word-formation Types”. Silver. Dictionnaires. H. 1981.G. [Green 1984] Green. 1981.: Newspeak: A Dictionary of Jargon. H. Jonathan David Publishers. 1995.: A Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Doubletalk. London: Allen and Unwin. Ed. J.1-3. [Enright 1985] Enright. [Hughes 1991] Hughes G. C. Worterbucher.S.: “Evaluative Markierung im allgemeinen einsprachigen Wörterbuch”. Owen Watson: Longman.: Fair of Speech: The Use of Euphemism. 1998. 1987. Bath: University Press. [Holder 1987] Holder. 1989. D. 2nd. R. Oxford: Oxford University Press.: A Dictionary of American and British Euphemisms. [Spears 1981] Spears. 1991. [Neaman/Silver 1983] Neaman. in: Contrastive and Applied Linguistics. R. 1976. edit. 1981. OUP.: Words in Sheep’s Clothing.: Slang and Euphemism. University of Latvia: 38. New York: Walter de Gruyter. Berlin: Langenscheidts. London: Hamish Hamilton. Riga. 5th.Proceedings of EURALEX 2000 [English 1998] English-Latvian Dictionary.: A Dictionary of Euphemisms. J. 1970. 1989. 3d. Crown Publishers Inc. edit. Inc. [Longman 1995] Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. A. [Veisbergs 1981] Veisbergs. New York: Crown Publishers Inc. 1989. [Langenscheidt 1981] Langenscheidts Enzyklopädisches Wörterbuch der Englischen und Deutschen Sprache. W.: Swearing. Berlin.

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