Euphemisms: Where’s the harm?

TW: Mention of #suicide in relation to #suicideprevention.

I love language. I love it all, from accent to puns, colloquialisms to sesquipedalia.

I read Linguistics at university – essentially the science of language. I’m no expert, but language fascinates me no less. I love to write and I like to write about language, among other things. Its usage particularly interests me, since I find communication equally fascinating.

Euphemisms are common, certainly here in the UK where we do love a good euphemism.

We’ve so many euphemisms for death alone that someone’s probably published a book dedicated to them. But isn’t it all a bit Voldemort? As J.K. Rowling’s Dumbledore said, “Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself.” 

I wrote recently about the question of whether language usage could impede suicide prevention. Listening to a GP speaking to a patient, during an episode of the current series of fly-on-the-wall medical documentary series GPs Behind Closed Doors, I was taken aback when I heard her ask,

“Have you started thinking about doing something silly?”

Say what?

Silly is … clowning around; blowing raspberries; playing with water pistols; a whoopee cushion.

We need to talk about suicide. We REALLY need to talk about suicide – but do euphemisms help or hinder conversation? Statistics declaring suicide THE biggest killer of UK men under the age of 45 hit the headlines this week, thanks to Professor Green. That is not news to be taken lightly. I’ve twice been bereaved by suicide. I’ve experienced suicidal thoughts more times than I’d like to remember and ten years ago I attempted suicide. I am far from alone in that.

I’d argue that the euphemism ‘doing something silly’ is harmful. I think it trivialises suicide, infantilises it even. Doing something dangerous, yes; doing something desperate; definitely.

However, what matters most in terms of suicide prevention is that we are talking. Silence kills.

Perhaps euphemisms are very useful in helping us to communicate around difficult subjects? I would generally rather people were more direct. I think that leaves less room for misunderstanding, and helps to normalise speaking about the thing, such as death or more specifically suicide, itself.

Thanks for reading. I love a good discussion and I’d really love to hear your thoughts. Are euphemisms generally helpful? Should we be more direct? What about in terms of suicide prevention? You could comment on this post, or tweet me @heartsetonlivin .


9 thoughts on “Euphemisms: Where’s the harm?

  1. It seems that some medical personnel, in all fields, cannot escape the way that they talk to children. They become so used to these silly descriptions and euphemisms like those you mention, that the gravity of what they are discussing, and the potential impact on the patient concerned, loses its place.
    I would propose that the least we should expect from those professionals involved is unencumbered professionalism.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Will all your years of experience in the ambulance service, you’re well placed to comment 🙂 . It does seem daft to me to ask if someone intends to ‘do something silly’ rather than asking if they might be at risk of hurting or harming themselves. However, in conversation on Twitter yesterday I was reminded that context is everything. Perhaps the GP on the TV programme had previously spoken to that patient about this issue and had discovered using less direct terms was the best way to elicit information. Also via Twitter, I heard of someone, who is at risk, but who will only declare themselves to be so by using terms such as ‘doing something silly’ and would never be more direct. Different strokes, for different folks. As a language geek, and someone with a passion for suicide prevention, I think it’s an interesting topic to discuss. I strongly believe that it is vital to remove the taboo and discomfort surrounding discussion of suicide, as far as possible, in order to help save lives. Terms like ‘doing something silly’ don’t sit well with me personally, but if it gets people talking I can bear it. What matters most of all is that people are talking about suicide – not just those who are at risk, in order that people feel able to reach out and others are best equipped to help if the need arises. Thanks, as ever, for your comment, Pete. Hope you’re well. Best, hsol.


      • My experience of suicide was at a different level to most people. I saw the results of both ‘successful’ suicides (another contradiction in terms, widely used) as well as so-called attempted suicides. Because someone lives after taking a huge number of tablets does not take into account the long-term damage to liver and kidneys that may shorten their life anyway. It also propels them into the psychiatric meat-grinder that will chew them up, and spit them out, supposedly ‘cured.’
        As for the people who got their wishes, the sight of someone who has hit the pavement after falling twenty floors, or blown away their face with a shotgun, is enough to change anyone’s opinion about the failings in our society.
        The least we can hope for is for it not to be called ‘doing something silly,’ even on the off-chance that it might get the reticent to discuss it.
        Best wishes as always, Pete.
        (All fine here, thanks for asking.)

        Liked by 1 person

      • ‘Successful’ suicide. Gosh, I haven’t heard that term. ‘Completed suicide’, I’ve heard that and that seems more appropriate.
        At the risk of sounding sycophantic, I’ve long admired ambulance crew for their work, that’s some stuff you do. I’ve been on the receiving end, more than once, and been so thankful. Alas, my father was one of those who ‘hit the pavement’. Suicide prevention became and has remained a passion. hsol.


      • All the ‘Ambulance Stories’ I have posted on my blog are my way of trying to get across how strange a job it is. It is outside of any normal experience, and only really shared by others in the emergency services. When I was still doing it, I didn’t talk about it that much. Others just didn’t understand.
        You do all those things, see and experience them at close range, and then go home and try to live a ‘normal life.’ It’s different, it’s certainly that…


      • I haven’t read any of your ‘ambulance stories’ yet. I arrived at your blog after those posts, but have had in mind that one day when I’ve a mo. I will read some of them, I’d like to do so.

        I meant to say on your blog last week, but got distracted and forgot (!), that your fiction is great! Have you had any published? If not, why not? Go for it 🙂 ! hsol


      • No fiction published yet, I’m afraid. I haven’t even submitted it to anywhere. I have had film articles published on a website (for free of course) but that’s all so far.
        I am very pleased that you like it, but I am still a little unsure as to how good it is myself.
        As far as the Ambulance Stories go, and given what you told me earlier, you may want to avoid this one.
        Just a friendly warning, as it may be too personal to you.
        Best wishes, Pete.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve written for a living, but still I can’t claim to be an expert. Journalism is my first love but I do enjoy writing fiction too and used to run a writing group. I like to think I can recognise good writing when I see it, I genuinely expected you to have had stories published, such is the standard imho.

        Thank you for the warning regarding that particular ‘ambulance story’, it is appreciated. I don’t shy away from much reality but if it mentions suicide of the ‘pavement’ sort as we discussed, I would rather give it a miss.

        Keep the fiction posts coming please and please think about submitting some somewhere!
        Best, hsol.


      • It does mention that exact sort of suicide, hence the warning. Mind you, it is more about the mother left behind, than the ‘patient.’
        I am so pleased that you like my fiction, as it has been received only ‘moderately.’ I will consider submissions, at some point.
        Very best wishes, Pete.


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