Euphemisms—Watching How
We Speak

By Randy Blackaby

Words are windows to the heart. They provide some of the clearest insight into our character. In fact, our "word" or "words" are the essence of who we are--teachers, leaders, comforters ... or gossipers, whiners, liars. Our speech is one form of "fruit" about which the Bible speaks. Each of us will be judged according to his fruit.

In James 3:1-12, the scriptures declare just how powerful the human tongue can be in doing either good or evil. Like a bit in the horse's mouth, the rudder on a ship, or just a small fire, the tongue is powerful. And, if a person can control his tongue, he can control his whole body. Some tongues both praise God and curse men. Such should not be.

Jesus declared, "For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things."

The use of one’s tongue is a great challenge, and it cannot be met by simply remaining quiet. We can sin by saying nothing, when we should speak up. We are challenged to boldly tell the truth and not to be cowardly, but to show love. We are challenged to confront sin and sinners and not to be quiet and leave the job to others. We are challenged to explain our feelings without bitterness or overstatement.

There are many sins of the tongue--from profanity and cursing, to lying and gossip--to avoid. Many of us who think we do a good job of "holding our tongues" may be failing without fully realizing it. We may be using euphemisms for words and ideas we would never allow to proceed out of our mouths.

What is a euphemism? The idea comes from a Greek word, euphemismos, which fundamentally means "good speech." Euphemisms involve the use of mild or vague expressions to substitute for blunt precision or disagreeable truths or concepts. They sometimes involve substituting an inoffensive, or even a pleasant term, for one more explicit, thereby veneering the truth by using kind words.

In general, nothing is inherently wrong with this. The Bible gives some examples of acceptable euphemisms. For instance, it describes death as sleep or rest.

In Matthew 15:7, Jesus used euphemistic language to explain how we eliminate, through the bowels, what we put into our mouths. We do the same virtually every day. We don't say, "I need to go urinate or defecate." We say, "I need to go to the bathroom or the men’s room." We generally don't speak of someone vomiting or puking; we say they were nauseated. We don't speak of people being old; we say they are mature. Sometimes it becomes comical. We defer saying we are short and say we are vertically challenged.

But while some euphemisms present no real concern for Christians, others do. For instance, instead of using the more accurate descriptions of the sin of adultery, people often refer to it as an affair or a relationship. Adulterers are called companions or significant others, instead of partners in sin, fornicators, and whoremongers.

Baby murder, or abortion, is called pro-choice. That presents a much nicer picture than reality? It calls to mind a picture of a woman who chooses not to have a baby. It doesn't conjure up images of an innocent little creature, being chopped to pieces, poked in the head, and then sucked out into a trash bin.

Homosexuality, which scripture describes as an abomination, is euphemistically referred to as being gay. What was a good word now represents something very repugnant to God.

Experts identify four main reasons why people use euphemisms. They are evasion, hypocrisy, prudery, and deceit. At least three are sinful.

If Christians use euphemisms to cover or minimize what they’re really saying, it is deceitful. We are taught to be truthful. If we mean yes, we say yes. If we mean no, we say no (Matthew 5:37).

There are three areas in which to be careful about using euphemisms:

  • Language related to sexuality and what might be called lavatory (potty) talk.
  • Language that involves softer words substituted for swearing or cursing.
  • Language that substitutes for profanity--profaning God's name.

There is no inherent impropriety in talking about proper sexuality or bodily functions. But, according to Ephesians 5:12, it is shameful to speak of some ungodly behavior, including that done in the sexual realm. We are taught to avoid evil speaking (Ephesians 4:29-31) and filthy language (Colossians 3:8). The word of God condemns filthiness, foolish talking, and coarse jesting (Ephesians 5:4). So, the language of the gutter, of sexual sin, four-letter words, and euphemisms for the same, are sinful.

Using polite words to essentially swear, curse, or damn someone isn't something a Christian should do. We are taught not to curse our fellow men (Romans 12:14; James 3:9). Cursing involves invoking damnation or harm upon others. Many Christians can be heard using euphemistic words for damn and hell.

Another area where many Christians unwittingly stumble is language that relates to God's name. Using God's name in vain is to use it improperly, without respect, or without meaning. Cursing and profanity are not necessarily the same thing. One can profane God's name without cursing.

God's name can be used righteously to identify God to others, to address Him, or praise Him. His name is holy and sacred. That means, set apart for a special purpose. When we take anything that is holy and use it for ordinary, common purposes, we profane that thing.

Words and phrases such as golly, gee, gosh, jeepers, by jingo and Judas priest are all euphemistic words for God's name. They are usually used as filler words and mean nothing. We are taught in 2 Timothy 2:16 to avoid "profane and idle babblings," or "empty chatter."

Sometimes, when someone brings our attention to improper euphemisms, we say, "Well, I didn't mean anything by those words. I didn't even know that's what they meant." Does ignorance justify? If you didn't mean something bad by the words, what did you mean? Often, a person responds, "I didn't mean anything." That sounds much like idle babbling or empty chatter, doesn't it?

Sometimes we agree that a certain word once meant something bad. For instance, today’s young people are often heard saying that something sucks. Many of us recall when that word referred to an act of sodomy. Youngsters today use it to mean something distasteful or disliked.

We do recognize that words change in meaning. But let's be certain we know what we are saying, and that those who hear us know what we mean.

When in doubt about using a word or words, compare them to the criteria set forth in Titus 2:6-8: “Likewise, exhort the young men to be sober-minded, in all things showing yourself to be a pattern of good works; in doctrine showing integrity, reverence, incorruptibility, sound speech that cannot be condemned, that one who is an opponent may be ashamed, having nothing evil to say of you.”

Euphemisms

A Sampling of Common Euphemisms

For curses:For God’s Name:Crudities:
Blame (damn)By jove (ref. To Jehovah)Diddly poo (defecation)
Blazes (hell)By jingo (by Jesus)Poppy cock (soft dung)
Confound (damn)Cripes (Christ)Oh, shoot (Sh..)
Dang (damn)Criminey (Christ)Shucks (Sh..)
Darn (damn)Jiminey Cricket (Christ)Screw (fornication)
Doggone (God damn)Judas Christopher (Christ) 
Goldang (God damn)Judas Priest (Christ) 
Gosh durn (God damn)Egad, gadzooks, gad (God) 
Heck (hell)Golly, golly gee, gee whiz (God) 
Sam hill (hell)Gosh, gosh almighty (God) 
 Geez, jeepers (Jesus) 
 Good grief (Good God) 
 Zounds (by God’s wounds) 

Sources:
A Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Doubletalk, by Hugh Rawson
A Dictionary of Euphemisms: How Not to Say What You Mean, by R.W. Holder
Kind Words: A Thesaurus of Euphemisms by J.S. Newman & Carole G. Silver

NT Passages for studying euphemisms:
James 3:1-12; Matthew 12:34-37; Ephesians 4:29-31, 5:4,12; Titus 1:15—2:1, 2:6-8; Colossians 3:8; Romans 12:14; 2 Timothy 2:16


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