Winning English - Mastering Idioms, Slang, and Cultural References

Euphemisms! • To be let go • Between jobs • Vertically challenged • Passed away • Number 1 and number 2 • and more!

Hello, everyone! Today I focus on euphemisms. A euphemism is a word or phrase designed to make a bad thing sound good, or at least neutral. Euphemisms are used for a variety of reasons. Sometimes we use them to be polite. Sometimes we use them to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. And sometimes we use them to avoid talking about bad things, without lying about them outright. So, let’s look at some examples!

(Before you might be tempted to ask - I don't know why my left eye is so puffy today! I can assure you I feel fine. I was surprised to see it when I looked into the camera! 😅)

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Job and no job

Let's start with the world of work - and the fact that sometimes people get fired from their jobs. "To get fired" is even a bit of a euphemism. It means you have been told you are longer employed by the company and that you should leave. If you get fired, it's often because you did something wrong, but that's not always true.

Sometimes you get fired for reasons beyond your control, so people have come up with softer ways of saying that. One is, "We're letting you go." "To be let go" sounds a bit like the employer is helping you. The company is releasing its hold on you and freeing you, although you probably wouldn't feel that way.

By the way, when you do lose your job, you are unemployed, by definition. But you might not want to tell other people that. So, you might say, "I'm between jobs." You had a job. You will have a job in the future. But for now, you are between those. It's sounds and feels better to think you'll have a new job soon.

Personal appearance

There are also many euphemisms for how people look. Most of the time people want to be polite and nice when describing a person's traits - especially if those traits are sometimes seen as negative. For example, people often don't want to feel short or fat - although, in my opinion, it shouldn't matter that much.

Anyway, people often use the word "challenged" to talk about these traits in a euphemistic way. “To be challenged” is to struggle with something or to have a hard time. The word challenged then gets modified with another word in front.

So, for example, there’s vertically challenged, which is euphemism for short. “Vertical” is the dimension of up-down, or put more simply, height. So, “vertically challenged” means the person is having trouble in up-down dimension, or height, which means the person is short. So, we avoid saying short by saying vertically challenged.

Another example is horizontally challenged, which is a euphemism for fat. Horizontal is the dimension of left-right, or put more simply, width. So a “horizontally challenged” person is having trouble in the left-right dimension, which means they are wide, which means they are fat.

Death is not pleasant

Death is perhaps the worst topic of all, so we have plenty of euphemisms for it, too.

Death means some has died, of course, but when talking to people who have had a relative or friend die, it can actually be rude to use the verb "to die". For example, you would not want to say, "I heard your father died." That would seem too blunt.

Instead, it's better to say "passed away". "I heard you father passed away." This is considered gentler and kinder.

You can also say "resting in peace". For example, "My father is in a better place enow. He's resting in peace." This is considered more gentle than saying, "My father died."

By the way, "rest in peace" is something people often say when they want to honor someone who has died. That often gets shortened to just "RIP" - although, for me, just writing "RIP" feels less respectful than fully writing out "rest in peace".

I have one more example regarding death, but this time for pets. Unfortunately, we sometimes choose or need to kill pets that are old or sick. But saying that you are killing your pet feels very wrong. No one kills something he or she loves.

So, instead, we say “put to sleep”. Someone might say, "We're very sad today. We had to put our family pet to sleep."

Note that "put to sleep" is never used for people! Sometimes people have to make the difficult choice to end medical care, but we never call that putting the person to sleep.

Bathroom stops

Let's turn to some lighter topics that also often use euphemisms. We all need to go to the bathroom, of course. We pee and poop. But we also often try to avoid using those words - or even ruder words!

One solution is to use the phrases "number 1" and "number 2". Number 1 is pee, while number 2 is poop. People often use these phrases with children. A child might say to a parent, "I have to go to the bathroom!" The parent might ask "Number 1 or number 2?" in order to decide just how quickly a bathroom stop is needed.


When you've had too much alcohol and can't control your behavior very well, you are drunk. But sometimes we try to be polite when we see that someone is drunk. We try to gently point out his or her condition without criticizing the person for it. Instead, we say, "He's had one too many." The “one” in this sentence is an alcoholic drink. Most people can keep control after one or two drinks, but once you've had "one too many", you are out of control.

Car ownership

Finally, we all like to own new cars, but sometimes those are too expensive, so we buy cars that other people have used for a while. In fact, it was common in the past to call these "used cars". But at some point, the car industry decided this didn't sound good. The thinking was, I guess, who wants to own something that's been used by someone else before? So, the industry came up "pre-owned".

"Pre" is a word part that means "before". You'll see it in many different words. So, "pre-owned" just means “owned before” by someone else. It's not "used", as in old and tired and dirty. See, "pre-owned" is much better! And I’m sure car dealers are thinking hopefully it gets a higher price, too!

So many more to choose from

That's just a few common euphemisms that English speakers use all the time. There are so many that I had a hard time picking out just a few. Clearly there are many bad things in the world that people want to treat more gently! I'll revisit more euphemisms in future newsletters.

UK English vs. US English - again!

I’ve been telling you a lot lately about the differences between British English and American English. In fact, there’s a famous quote about this that’s often attributed to - maybe not accurately - to Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw:

“The British and the Americans are two great peoples divided by a common tongue.”

“Tongue” in this case means “language”. And I’ll leave it up to you to decide on “great peoples.” But these differences have been used by many comedians for humor over the decades, including this example from the movie “Austin Powers: Goldmember”. I’ll just warn you, this is a bit risqué! (“Risqué” - pronounced riss-KAY - means slightly indecent and possibly shocking, especially for its sexual nature. In other words, please don’t have little kids watch this!)

Note that in the video there was a bonus euphemism! It’s “on the job”. I’ll let you sort out what it means.

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