Those Tactfully Confusing Euphemisms

Students in my ESL writing classes are often confused by the indirect terms we use to address sensitive issues. Here is a handout I put together for them to introduce them, in simple terms, to some out of the many euphemisms we use.

Americans teach their children: “If you can’t say anything nice, say nothing at all.” But what do you say when you need to mention something that isn’t nice, for example, unemployment or death?

Euphemisms are special words or phrases we use to refer to sensitive subjects, for example, death, unemployment, physicial appearance, or race. Some examples of euphemisms are copied below. You can see more examples, including those concerning sex and bodily functions here (Links to an external site.).

Appearance and Behavior

  • fat => big-boned, a bit overweight, a big man, a curvy woman
  • short => petite
  • odd or weird => special
  • he lies => he doesn’t always tell the truth; has vivid imagination
  • late => running a little behind
  • pushy/aggressive => assertive
  • bossy => outspoken
  • pregnant => with child, in a family way
  • sick/ill => under the weather
  • not here => unavailable
  • rude => highly strung, inappropriate
  • teenager behaving badly => a precocious teenager


  • blind => visually impaired, can’t see very well
  • deaf => hard of hearing, can’t hear very well
  • physically disabled => differently abled
  • crazy/mad => developmentally disabled; has a mental disability
  • autistic => to be on the [autistic] spectrum
  • neurodivergent means “differing in mental or neurological function from what is considered typical or normal; frequently used with reference to autistic spectrum disorders” (Oxford Dictionary)


  • died => passed away
  • dead (adj.) => resting in peace / no longer with us
  • dead (adj.) relative => my late grandmother
  • euthanizing a sick, old pet => put to sleep


  • cheap (cost) => economical 
  • cheap (person who likes to save money) => frugal, thrifty
  • past-due bill => outstanding payment
  • poor => economically disadvantaged, low-income 
  • rich => wealthy, well-off
  • poor country => developing country


  • fired from the job => they had to let her go; the company downsized; her position was eliminated; she left the company
  • unemployed => he is between jobs; pursuing other opportunities; considering options
  • jail/prison => correctional facility
  • a low-paid job => an entry-level job


  • supporting abortion => pro-choice
  • against abortion => pro-life

5 races, as definied by the federal government

  • African American / Black
  • Native American (not OK to say American Indian)
  • Asian American
  • White = Caucasian
  • Pacific Islander – someone from the Philippines, Tonga, Samoa, Hawai’i, and so on

Ethnic marker:

  • Hispanic, Latino (m) / Latina (f) / Latinx (both m + f)


Luis is from Mexico -> white / Hispanic

Omar is from Dominican Republic – black / Hispanic

Eva is from Poland: white / non-Hispanic

Additional terms

Chicano = Mexican American born in the US

Nationality = citizenship

Ethnicity = belonging to a certain ethnic group of people

Sometimes they are the same, but often different. For example, Sarkis is Armenian, born and raised in Syria. He has a Syrian passport. His ethnicity: Armenian; his nationality: Syrian. If he becomes a US citizen, then his ethnicity will remain Armenian, but his nationality will become American.


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