EUPHEMISM (ευφημισμός):

A figure of speech by which a softened, indirect expression is substituted for a word or phrase offensive to delicate ears though more accurately expressive of what is meant. Instances of euphemisms are found in the Bible; and in the Talmud they are frequent, having been used whenever it was necessary to avoid unsuitable expressions. "Man should always express himself in fitting terms" (Sanh. viii. 1; Pes. 3a) was a favorite saying of the Rabbis. The technical expressions for "euphemism" in Talmudic literature are: (lit. "pure expression," "expression of honor," "beautiful expression"). In post-Talmudic writings it is called also ("expression of much light").

Euphemisms were used in deference to considerations of taste and delicacy. The ancients also had a strong belief in the power of ill-omened words to inflict misfortune, and generally avoided them by substituting euphemisms (: "man should never open his mouth for Satan"; Ber. 19a). The following are some examples from the Old Testament:

In the O. T.

For dying: ("he was not, for God took him"; Gen. v. 24); or ("he rested with his fathers"; Gen. xlvii. 30; II Sam. vii. 12; comp. κοτιμσθαι, "requiescere"); ("to be joined" or "united"; more often with various additions, as "to his people," "tribe," or "forefathers," or to his "grave"; comp. the Latin "abire ad plures" and "illuc, quo priores abiere"); ("he went the way of all the earth;" Kings ii. 2; comp. Job xvi. 22 and ; Targ. Yer. to Gen. xxxv.); ("sleep the eternal sleep"; Jer. li. 39, 57); ("go down to She'ol" Gen. xxxvii. 35). The dead are called ("that dwell in the dust"; Isa. xxvi. 19,17) and ("that sleep in the dust of the earth"; Dan. xii. 2). For urinating: (lit. "to cover one's feet"; Judges iii. 24; I Sam. xxiv. 4; also in the Talmud, as in Yeb. 103a, according to Rashi). For coition: ("know"; Gen. iv. 1); ("lie," generally with ("enter," with ); ("come near to a woman"; Ex. xix. 15); likewise , with the preposition ("approach"; Gen. xx. 4). For menstruation: (ib. xviii. 11) and ("the way of women"; ib. xxxi. 35; comp. Niddah 16a, 64b, and the play on words there). For cursing: (with an import directly opposite to the original one of " blessing"; I Kings xxi, 10, 13; Job i. 5, 11; ii. 5; perhaps, also, Ps. x. 3; further, in the later literature, as Sanh. 56a, where occurs).

A peculiar kind of euphemism is that occurring in the "ḳeri," as against that in "ketib." Thus, the verb (Deut. xxviii. 30) is always replaced by the synonym ; the disease termed (Deut. xxviii. 27), by . These and similar cases are treated in the closing part of Tosef., Meg., as also in Meg. 25b.

From the later literature, especially the Talmudic, many examples may be cited. For "to die" the following phrases occur ("depart"), common in Neo-Hebrew; also with the addition ("from the world") or ("to the Garden of Eden"; B. B. 16b; Tem. 16a); ("be rooted out from the world"; Suk. 45b); ("his spirit departed"; Ber. 61b; Shab, 88b; Aramaic, ; Meg. 16b); similarly, (Ket. 62b); (Gen. R. xciii. 8; compare with these phrases "animam exspirare," ἀποψύχειν, έκπνειν); ("his soul rested"; M. Ḳ. 25a, b; Ket. 104a). In modern times the expressions (lit. "he went to his eternity"); ("he was called to the dwelling on high") are used.

For death: ("departure"; 'Ab. Zarah 20b); ("going out of the soul"; M. Ḳ. 25a; with , "from the body," ib. 28b); ("departure"; Soṭah 12b); and ("departure" and "being gathered"; B. B. 16b); ("end"; Ned. 41a; comp. Gen. vi. 13); (said of an easy death, lit. "kiss"; Ber. 8a; M. Ḳ. 28a).

For a cemetery (in the old popular parlance, "the good place"):, ("house of life"); and ("eternal house"; see Eccl. xii. 5); and ("house of rest"); ("house of honor"). The Talmudic treatise on funeral ceremonies is called euphemistically ("Treatise on Joy"), instead of (probably with reference to Ps. xvi. 11).

For sicknesses: Besides epilepsy, whose victims are referred to as ("overcome" by a demon; e.g., Bek. vii. 6; Giṭ, 70a), and concerning whichin the classic languages a series of peculiar euphemisms occur, there are many other infirmities, especially those frequently encountered in the Orient, e.g., blindness and leprosy, which are indicated by softened paraphrases. Euphemistic expressions for blindness and the blind, occurring also in the Arabic, are cited by Landau ("Die Gegensinnigen Wörter," etc., pp. 199 et seq.). The most familiar of them (for blindness) is or ("having much light," "seeing much"), which later was considered a typical euphemism, as was also ("light of the eyes"). Abdominal complaints are named concisely (from = "below"; Ber. 55a; Shab. 81a; Ket. 10b).

In the Talmud.

For certain organs and their functions: Instead of the more literal expressions , or (e.g., Giṭ. 70a), one frequently meets with , which is also used to express the sexual relations (Ber. 62a; Ḥag. 5b; Sanh. 82b; comp. the Latin "necessaria"), and occasionally simply (Ex. R. ix. 7), and ("go aside"; Ṭoh. x. 2; Shab. 140b). Urine is called or (Ber. 25a); excrement, or ; a privy, (Meg. iii. 2, 27b) or . The expressions for sexual intercourse () are: (comp. the picture of the , B. M. 84b), (Ab. R. N. xvi. 2), (Yeb. 62b), (B. M. 107b; Soṭah 11b), (with the object suppressed; 'Er. 100b; Ket. 65a). Compare also the expressions , and, especially of the female, (Ket. 65b; Yoma 75a; see Prov. xxx. 20, and comp. , Ber. 62a), and (both = ; Yeb. 11b; Ket. 13a). The respective nouns are , or alone, or alone (Kallah); [Ex. xxi. 10], Ket. 47b); according to circumstances, (B. B. 10b; Pes. 72b), and (Soṭah 11b); (Giṭ. 70a; Yoma 74b); (Targ. to Eccl. x. 18). For the sexual organs—masculine: (B. M. 84a); (Kallah; Niddah 13b); (Ḳid. 25a); (Tem. 30a); (Targ.) or Hebr. (Bek. vii. 5, 44b); (Shab. 118b; comp. , Sanh. viii. 1, and for Yer. Yeb. ii. 4). Feminine: (Kallah; Ned. 20a); (Ket. 9a; Pes. 87a); (Sanh. 82b); (Ned. 20a; see 'Aruk, s.v.). For , Targ. Onḳ. to Gen. xxxiv. 31 and xxxviii. 15 has , for which the Hebrew equivalent ( is used (Kelim xxiv. 16, xxviii. 9).

Finally, in the category of euphemisms belong such general expressions as and . The first is used for "bleeding" in Shab. 129a, for "mourning" in M. Ḳ. 18a (comp. Vulg. "factus" in the sense of "death"; literally, "happening"), for "magic formulas" in Ḥul. 105b; in the phrase , 'Ab. Zarah 17a, means the same as . Very peculiar is the euphemistic term ("something else"), used in designating certain repulsive objects which one does not wish to name directly; thus it is used for "leprosy" (Pes. 76b, 112b; Shab. 129b; Giṭ. 57b, 70a) ; "swine" (Ber. 43b; Pes. 76b; Shab. 129b); "coition" (Ber. 8b; Beẓah 22a); "immorality" (Ket. vii. 5, 71b, 72a); "idolatry" (Men. xiii. 10, 109a; Shab. 17b).


The antonym of "euphemism "is "cacophemism," the application of expressions of contempt to desirable objects. The basis of the use of cacophemisms seems to be the wide-spread fear that too great happiness may attract envy (see Evil Eye). It was thought to avert this by giving a bad name to the thing which was in reality highly esteemed. The best-known though almost isolated example of this kind in Hebrew is = "the Ethiopian woman" (Num. xii. 1), which, according to Rashi, stands for "beautiful woman," and is so translated by the Targum of Onḳelos. Abraham ibn Ezra (ad loc. and on Ps. vii. 1) opposes this view very energetically; and in general denies that cacophemisms ever-occur in Hebrew. Instances do occur, however. Buxtorf, for instance (s.v. ), quotes , "ugly," as meaning "beautiful" also.

Another motive for the use of cacophemisms is the belief that it is a practise approved by one's own religion to treat with contempt everything which is in any way connected with the worship of strangers. The general term , when used to denote "idolatry" (Men. 109a; Shab. 17b), may perhaps be regarded as an example of cacophemism; generally, however, some disparaging, belittling expression (comp. 'Ab. Zarah 46a; Tosef., 'Ab. Zarah, 7) was chosen. Such cases are more numerous than those previously mentioned, and to them belong the various expressions used to denote idols: (Lev. xxvi. 30, etc., and often in Ezekiel); (Deut. xxix. 16; II Kings xxiii. 24); (I Kings xi. 7); (II Kings xxiii. 13); (properly "aberration"; often in the Targumim, as Onḳ on Num. xxv. 2; Targ. II Chron. xxxii. 15). Other examples are: ("idolatroustemple"; Targ. Judges xvii. 5); (properly, "sacrifices of the dead," Ps. evi. 28, and corresponding to the Aramaic , i.e., "mourning-feast," Targ. Yer. Num. xxv. 2); ("day of abuse," for "heathen festival day"; Gen. R. lxxxvii. 9; Cant. R., beginning); ("impurities of the Gentiles" = "their food and garbage"; 'Ab. Zarah 75b, 76a); , for sorcery and demoniac work (Rashi on Sanh. 91a); comp. (used in later times also for places of worship belonging to believers in other gods, just as they are popularly designated as ). See Abomination.

  • E. Landau, Die Gogensinnigen Wörter im Alt und Neuhebräischen Sprachvergleichend Dargestellt, Introduction (especially the concluding part), and pp. 34, 196, 201, 227, Berlin, 1896;
  • Z. D. M. G. xxxi. 264, 336, 354, 355; xl. 234.
G. S. E.
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