Sometimes we use indirect expressions instead of directly naming something unpleasant or embarrassing. We call these expressions euphemisms, and you need to know them for two important reasons:

1. You’ll sound insensitive if you don’t use euphemisms. If you say “I’m sorry your friend died,” instead of “I’m sorry your friend passed away,” your conversation partner might find your comment rude. Death is a scary concept, and as a society we’ve agreed to use polite euphemisms as substitutes for death and die.

2. You won’t understand much of what you read and hear if you don’t know euphemisms. If you read a news story about “collateral damage” from drone strikes, you need to know that the article is about civilian deaths. If you receive an email about “an outstanding balance on your account,” you need to know that you owe money. If you hear that a movie contains “adult content,” you need to know that the movie contains sexually explicit material.

To help you with these expressions, I’ve put together a list of 100+ polite euphemisms you should know. There is also a practice activity at the end of the post (interactive version here).

My goal with this post is to help you avoid problems, which is why I’ve only included polite euphemisms on this list. You won’t find expressions like kick the bucket (a crude euphemism for die) in this article.

Euphemisms about money

richwell-to-do, well-off, wealthy, and affluent

“There are many well-to-do families in this town.”

“Natalie’s family is pretty well-off. I don’t think she’s going to need to take out any college loans.”

“Our charity relies on several wealthy donors.”

“One criticism of the tax plan is that it benefits the affluent.”

to make a lot of money: to do well for oneself

“You’re doing well for yourself. Why don’t you get a new car?”

poor: economically disadvantaged, needy, low income, underprivileged, and in need

“We have scholarship programs for economically disadvantaged students.”

“This organization provides assistance to needy families in Orlando.”

“Most low-income Americans are in favor of the law.”

“Art and music have been cut from many schools which serve the underprivileged.”

“The church will be collecting Christmas gifts to donate to families in need.”

poor country/third world countrydeveloping country

I came to the United States from a developing country.”

money owedoutstanding balance

“You are receiving this letter because there is an outstanding balance on your account of $135.78.”

to pay money that is owedto settle an account

Please call us back so we can discuss options for settling your account.”

paysalary, compensation, compensation package

“I feel that my salary isn’t competitive.”

“The job sounds great, but we haven’t discussed my compensation yet.”

“What kind of compensation package are we offering?”

tip: gratuity

“An 18% gratuity is included for parties of eight or more.”

Bill Gates is a wealthy philanthropist whose foundation does a lot of charitable work in developing countries. (Photo by ckgodman from Pixabay)

Euphemisms about jobs and employment

to get fired: to get laid off, to be dismissedto be let go

“John was laid off last year and is looking for work.”

“His resume looks great, but it turns out he was dismissed from several of his previous positions.”

“Some people were recently let go, so a lot of our employees are on edge.”

to fire people: to let (someone) go, to lay (someone) offto downsize

“I heard a rumor that management is going to let some people go at the end of the year.”

“We’ve been fortunate enough to not have to lay anybody off this year.”

“I’d help you try to get a position at my firm, but we’re not hiring. In fact, we’ve downsized in the last few months.”

to remove from duty: to put on administrative leave

“The police officer was put on administrative leave for using excessive force.”

to quit: to resign, to leave the company

“I’m thinking of resigning at the end of the year.”

“Kevin left the company to pursue another opportunity.”

boss: supervisor

“My supervisor gave me some really good suggestions today.”

secretary: assistantpersonal assistant

“I’ll have my assistant set up a meeting.”

“I didn’t talk to Ms. Waters, but I did get in touch with her personal assistant.”

janitor: custodian

“The municipality employs three full-time custodians.”

housewife: homemaker

“Karly is a homemaker and a mother of three children.”

trash man: sanitation worker

“The municipality plans to hire more sanitation workers to accommodate the growing population.”

lawyer: attorney

Smith’s attorney says her client will plead not guilty.”

unemployed: between jobs, out of work

“I was between jobs at the time, so I was happy to have some freelance work to do.”

“Meghan’s father is out of work right now, so he’s been volunteering a lot.”

A sanitation worker. Photo by John W. Iwanski on Flickr.

Euphemisms about death

to die: to pass away, to not make it, to be laid to rest

“My grandfather passed away a few years ago.”

“There was a shooting on my street last night. Unfortunately, the victim didn’t make it.”

“Edith was laid to rest next to her parents.”

dead: is no longer with us

“So many of the people in this Vietnam War documentary are no longer with us. “

to have a loved one die: to lose someone

“Many people choose to undergo counseling after they lose someone.”

someone’s death: someone’s passing

“We were all very sad to hear about Paul’s passing.”

the dead person/people: the departed

“The hospital has yet to release the names of the departed.”

the now dead: late

I just read a fantastic article about the late journalist Christopher Hitchens.”

to kill (a sick or unwanted animal): to euthanize, to put to sleepto put down

“The veterinarian said we’d have to euthanize the horse after it broke its leg.”

“It was hard to tell the kids that we were going to have to put the cat to sleep.”

“Marilyn had to put down her poodle this weekend. She’s going to be upset for a few days.”

One of the hardest things about being a veterinarian is having to put down sick animals. (Photo by skeeze from Pixabay)

Euphemisms about sex

sex: to sleep together, to have relations, to get intimate, to make love

“Some couples vow not to sleep together until they get married.”

“It’s strictly forbidden to have relations with the people you manage.”

“A police officer encountered two people getting intimate behind the restaurant.”

“One survey question asked couples how often they make love.”

sexual relationship: romantic relationshipaffair

“What happens if two employees are involved in a romantic relationship?”

“Their affair lasted several years before they were discovered.”

to have many sexual partnersto be promiscuous: to sleep around

“People who sleep around are at a greater risk to contract sexually transmitted diseases.”

prostitute: sex worker, call girl, working girl

“Prostitution is legal, but sex workers must register with the state.”

“I can’t believe he resurrected his political career after being caught with a call girl.”

“In her upcoming role, the actress plays a working girl in London in the 1930s.”

to have sex for money: to turn tricks

“The club was shut down by the state. The owners were caught allowing dancers to turn tricks in the back room.”

sexual content (in film, TV shows, books, etc): adult content, explicit content, graphic content (These terms can also be used to describe violence)

“It’s an R-rated film and contains some adult content.”

“I never let my child watch anything with explicit content.”

“Due to the graphic content, we cannot show this movie in class.”

reproduction: the birds and the bees

“Did your parents teach you about the birds and the bees, or did you learn about it in school?”

pornography: adult entertainment

“The adult entertainment industry spends millions of dollars on lobbyists.”

stripper: exotic dancer

“To put myself through college, I worked as an exotic dancer.”

brothel: house of ill repute

“Fifty years ago, there were several houses of ill repute in this town.”

strip club: gentlemen’s club

“Police found the suspect at a local gentlemen’s club.”

A sign outside a gentlemen’s club. (Photo by kalhh from Pixabay)

Euphemisms about pregnancy

pregnant: expecting

“One of my coworkers is expecting, so we’re going to buy her a gift.”

birth controlcontraception: family planning

“Women don’t have much access to family planning in this country.”

to abort: to terminate the pregnancy

“Due to the serious health risk to the mother, the physician recommended that the pregnancy be terminated.”

This woman is expecting. (Photo by Free-Photos from Pixabay)

Euphemisms about bodily functions

bathroom: restroom, to go to the ladies’ room, to powder one’s nose (typically for women), to go to the men’s room

“Excuse me, where are the restrooms?”

“I’ll be right back. I’m going to run to the ladies’ room.”

“I’m going to go powder my nose. I’ll be right back.”

“Could you please tell me where the men’s room is?”

to urinate: to go to the bathroomto relieve oneself

“I really had to go to the bathroom, but the next rest stop was 40 miles away.”

“Several of the hikers stepped off the trail to relieve themselves.”

to defecate: to go to the bathroom, to have a bowel movement, to move one’s bowels

“I quit drinking coffee, and now I have trouble going to the bathroom in the morning.”

“My doctor asked me how many bowel movements I typically have in a day.”

“Some prescription medications make it difficult for patients to move their bowels.”

to flatulate: to break wind, to pass gas

“My son broke wind in the restaurant and it embarrassed me.” 

“You should avoid these foods if they cause you to pass gas.”

A sign for the restrooms. (Photo by evitaochel from Pixabay)

Euphemisms about physical appearance

fat: heavyset, portly, full-figured (typically for women), a bit overweight, to have a few extra poundsplus-sized (typically for women), big-boned, husky

“John is the heavyset man standing in the corner.”

Stanley was a bit portly as a teenager, but has since lost some weight.”

“I don’t know if this dress is appropriate for someone so full-figured.”

“Carolyn is a bit overweight. She has decided to talk to her physician about it.”

“After nine years of marriage, we both have a few extra pounds.”

“Plus-sized customers don’t feel comfortable shopping here. All of the store’s models are very thin.”

“Since I was a big-boned kid, I was always the goalkeeper on my soccer team.”

“For a short, husky guy, he’s a phenomenal swimmer.”

bald: a little thin on top

“Mike’s getting a little thin on top. He’s started shaving his head.”

This guy is a little thin on top. (Photo by andremsantana from Pixabay)

Euphemisms about age

old: elderly, a senior citizen, a pensioner, a retiree

“Medicare provides health benefits for the elderly.”

“Senior citizens are eligible for a 15% discount on all services.”

“Harold is a 68-year-old pensioner from Sheffield.”

“Many retirees are moving abroad in an effort to cut costs.”

Two senior citizens. (Photo by jackmac34 from Pixabay)

Euphemisms about drugs, alcohol, and addiction

drunk: inebriated, intoxicatedhad one too many

“This establishment reserves the right to refuse service to inebriated customers.”

“I got the sense that Mr. Thomas was too intoxicated to follow my instructions.”

“Chad had one too many glasses of merlot and started texting his ex-girlfriend.”

addiction: substance abusesubstance abuse problem

“Many musical artists struggle with substance abuse.”

“There are several toll-free numbers you can call to get help with a substance abuse problem.”

to go back to drinking/using drugs: to fall off the wagon, to have a relapse (or to relapse)

“My uncle was sober and attending Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings for a few months, but then he fell off the wagon.”

“Scott relapsed, and had to be checked into rehabilitation again.”

This guy has had one too many. (Photo from jarmoluk from Pixabay)

Euphemisms about disabilities

mentally retarded: mentally handicapped

“In the movie I Am Sam, Sean Penn plays a mentally handicapped man fighting for custody of his daughter.”

special needs (In an educational context, this term refers to children who have physical disabilities, learning difficulties, or behavioral/emotional difficulties.)

“My sister is a teacher and often works with special needs children.”

emotionally disturbed (In an educational context, this term refers to children who have difficulties with behavior and learning that cannot be explained by other factors.)

“Working with emotionally disturbed students can be exhausting.”

Euphemisms about war

war: armed intervention

“Polls show that most citizens are against the armed intervention.”

to kill: to neutralize

“Several enemy combatants were neutralized in the attack.”

genocide: ethnic cleansing

“Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror involved social engineering and ethnic cleansing.”

torture: enhanced interrogation

“I don’t believe that any situation warrants enhanced interrogation techniques.”

an attack from your own sidefriendly fire

“Friendly fire accounts for an astounding number of deaths and casualties.”

civilian deaths: collateral damage

“One problem with drone strikes is that they often cause collateral damage.”

rebelsguerrillas: freedom fighters

“Our government is currently providing financial assistance to the freedom fighters.”

to be killed: to lose one’s life, to make the ultimate/supreme sacrifice

“Thousands of men lost their lives during the D-Day invasion.”

“On this day we honor the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.”

A military monument dedicated to soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice of giving up their lives for their country. (Photo by Amber_Avalona)

Euphemisms about crime

in prison: incarcerated, to serve time

“Brittany’s father was incarcerated for most of her life.”

“He was convicted but never served time.”

jail, prison: correctional facility

“This correctional facility houses several thousand inmates.”

prisoner: inmate (someone convicted of a crime), detainee (someone in custody)

“Some of the inmates are working on getting an associate degree.”

“Holding detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp has always been controversial.”

were/had been stolen: fell/had fallen off the back of a truck

“The watches looked like they had fallen off the back of a truck.”

young criminal: juvenile delinquent

Many juvenile delinquents have gone on to lead productive adult lives.”

arrested: taken into custody

“Detectives have several leads, but no one has been taken into custody yet.”

suspect: person of interest

“A spokeswoman for the police department didn’t give details but did say there was a person of interest in the case.”

death penalty: capital punishment

“Capital punishment is a legal penalty in 31 US states.”

lawyer: attorney

“Our attorneys have battled insurance companies for the last 30 years.”

The view from inside a correctional facility. (Photo by babawawa from Pixabay)

Other euphemisms

problem: issue

“We’re having an issue with one of our suppliers.”

illegal immigrants: undocumented workers

“Some citizens favor harsher penalties for companies that employ undocumented workers.”

used: second handpre-owned

“You can save a lot of money by buying second-hand furniture.”

“Are you interested in buying a pre-owned vehicle?”

People looking at second hand books. (Photo by memyselfaneye from Pixabay)

Practice

Make the sentences less direct by using euphemisms. Sample answers are listed below.

There is also an interactive version of this exercise.

1. One of our employees spent some time in prison when he was younger.

2. Martin’s uncle died in World War II.

3. Chelsea was an advertising executive, but now she’s a housewife.

4. George works as a trash man, but is currently looking for work as a janitor.

5. Sally’s German Shepherd had to be killed. It had cancer.

6. Sir, I’m very sorry but there is a problem with your order. It looks like it won’t be shipped until Thursday.

7. Did the doctor recommend getting an abortion?

8. The job offer sounds great, but I was hoping for better pay.

9. I think it’s great that our company provides employment opportunities to the mentally retarded.

10. Our boss wants us to complete this report by the end of the day.

11. You owe our company some money. Please pay us as soon as possible.

12. A local teacher was removed from duty due to his drug addiction.

13. I wouldn’t show that movie to your child. There is a lot of sexual content.

14. Give me a couple minutes to go to the bathroom, and then we can continue the conference call.

15. Let’s buy some used furniture instead of spending a fortune on a new bedroom set.

16. I heard a rumor that our company is planning on firing several salespeople on Friday.

17. Mrs. Smith’s secretary will arrange the meeting and send out a schedule.

18. I saw an interesting documentary about prostitutes in Amsterdam.

19. Poor children are more at risk to drop out of high school.

20. Karl is the fat man who sits next to Angela in Accounting.

21. I had to pick up my friend from a party last night. He was drunk and unable to drive.

22. Several students in my English class are from third world countries.

23. I’m unemployed right now, but I hope to find something soon.

24. Is the death penalty a possibility in this trial?

25. I was very sorry to hear about your grandfather’s death.

26. We can’t give specifics on the case, but we can inform you that we have arrested someone.

27. Several prisons are hiring. You should apply.

28. Are there many illegal immigrants in this industry?

29. Some old people are upset about the government cuts.

30. Our firm has 15 lawyers, all with over 15 years’ experience in family law.

31. The war has been controversial because of the accidental civilian deaths.

Answers

There may be additional euphemisms that you could use in this exercise. These are sample answers only.

1. One of our employees spent some time in prison when he was younger.
One of our employees was incarcerated when he was younger.
One of our employees served time when he was younger.

2. Martin’s uncle died in World War II.
Martin’s uncle lost his life in World War II.

3. Chelsea was an advertising executive, but now she’s a housewife.
Chelsea was an advertising executive, but now she’s a homemaker. 

4. George works as a trash man, but is currently looking for work as a janitor.
George works as a sanitation worker, but he is currently looking for work as a custodian.

5. Sally’s German Shepherd had to be killed. It had cancer.
Sally’s German Shepherd had to be put down. It had cancer.
Sally’s German Shepherd had to be euthanized. It had cancer.

6. Sir, I’m very sorry but there is a problem with your order. It looks like it won’t be shipped until Thursday.
Sir, I’m very sorry but there is an issue with your order. It looks like it won’t be shipped until Thursday.

7. Did the doctor recommend getting an abortion?
Did the doctor recommend terminating the pregnancy?

8. The job offer sounds great, but I was hoping for better pay.
The job offer sounds great, but I was hoping for a better salary.
The job offer sounds great, but I was hoping for a better compensation package.

9. I think it’s great that our company provides employment opportunities to the mentally retarded.
I think it’s great that our company provides employment opportunities to the mentally handicapped.

10. Our boss wants us to complete this report by the end of the day.
Our supervisor wants us to complete this report by the end of the day.

11. You owe our company some money. Please pay us as soon as possible.
You have an outstanding balance. Please settle the account as soon as possible. 

12. A local teacher was removed from duty due to his drug addiction.
A local teacher was put on administrative leave due to his substance abuse problem.

13. I wouldn’t show that movie to your child. There is a lot of sexual content.
I wouldn’t show that movie to your child. There is a lot of explicit content.
I wouldn’t show that movie to your child. There is a lot of adult content.
I wouldn’t show that movie to your child. There is a lot of graphic content.

14. Give me a couple minutes to go to the bathroom, and then we can continue the conference call.
Give me a couple minutes to go to the restroom, and then we can continue the conference call.
Give me a couple minutes to go to the ladies/men’s room, and then we can continue the conference call.

15. Let’s buy some used furniture instead of spending a fortune on a new bedroom set.
Let’s buy some pre-owned furniture instead of spending a fortune on a new bedroom set.
Let’s buy some second-hand furniture instead of spending a fortune on a new bedroom set.

16. I heard a rumor that our company is planning on firing several salespeople on Friday.
I heard a rumor that our company is planning on laying off several salespeople on Friday.
I heard a rumor that our company is planning on letting several salespeople go on Friday.

17. Mrs. Smith’s secretary will arrange the meeting and send out a schedule.
Mrs. Smith’s personal assistant will arrange the meeting and send out a schedule.
Mrs. Smith’s assistant will arrange the meeting and send out a schedule.

18. I saw an interesting documentary about prostitutes in Amsterdam.
I saw an interesting documentary about sex workers in Amsterdam.

19. Poor children are more at risk to drop out of high school.
Underprivileged children are more at risk to drop out of high school.
Economically disadvantaged children are more at risk to drop out of high school.
Children from low-income families are more at risk to drop out of high school.

20. Karl is the fat man who sits next to Angela in Accounting.
Karl is the heavyset man who sits next to Angela in Accounting.

21. I had to pick up my friend from a party last night. He was drunk and unable to drive.
I had to pick up my friend from a party last night. He’d had a few too many and was unable to drive. 

22. Several students in my English class are from third world countries.
Several students in my English class are from developing countries.

23. I’m unemployed right now, but I hope to find something soon.
I’m between jobs right now, but I hope to find something soon.
I’m out of work right now, but I hope to find something soon.

24. Is the death penalty a possibility in this trial?
Is capital punishment a possibility in this trial?

25. I was very sorry to hear about your grandfather’s death.
I was very sorry to hear about your grandfather’s passing.
I was very sorry to hear that your grandfather passed away.
I was very sorry to hear that you lost your grandfather. 

26. We can’t give specifics on the case, but we can inform you that we have arrested someone.
We can’t give specifics on the case, but we can inform you that we have taken someone into custody.

27. Several prisons are hiring. You should apply.
Several correctional facilities are hiring. You should apply.

28. Are there many illegal immigrants in this industry?
Are there many undocumented workers in this industry?

29. Some old people are upset about the government cuts.
Some elderly people are upset about the government cuts.
Some retirees are upset about the government cuts.
Some seniors are upset about the government cuts.
Some pensioners are upset about the government cuts.

30. Our firm has 15 lawyers, all with over 15 years’ experience in family law.
Our firm has 15 attorneys, all with over 15 years’ experience in family law.

31. The war has been controversial because of the accidental civilian deaths.
The armed intervention has been controversial because of the collateral damage.