Figures of Speech – Euphemismos (Substitution)

The ability to communicate with words is one thing that sets mankind apart from all other creatures. God is the Author of language, and no one has ever used language as precisely as God does in the Bible, including His use of figures of speech, of which there are more than 200 varieties in Scripture. [1] When most people say, “a figure of speech,” they are speaking in general terms of something that is not true to fact. However, genuine “figures of speech” are legitimate grammatical and lexical forms that add emphasis and feeling to what we say and write. In the Bible, God uses figures of speech to emphasize things that He wants us to see as important. Many people who read the Bible never think to ask themselves, “How do we know what God wants emphasized in His Word?” God uses figures of speech to put emphasis where He wants emphasis, so it is important that we recognize and properly interpret the figures of speech in the Bible. Knowing the figures of speech God uses in the Bible helps us to understand the true meaning of Scripture and enables us to more fully enjoy its richness.

The figure of speech we are going to study in this article is Euphemismos (euvfhmismoj), from which we get our English word “euphemism.” [2] The root of the Greek word is eu meaning “good,” and phemi, meaning “speech.” The verb euphemeō and the noun euphemismos referred to “good speech,” and the range of meanings those words had in ancient Greece was very broad. Uses included using words that were good omens, shouts of triumph, speaking well of or praising someone, and prayer and praise offered to the gods. More along the lines of the English definition of euphemism, other ancient Greek meanings of the words were to abstain from inauspicious words, and to speak in a mild, soft manner.

The modern definition of euphemism is “the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant.” [3] Thus if we do not want to say someone “died,” we say he “passed,” or “passed away.” If we do not want to say two people engaged in sexual intercourse, we say they “slept together.” If we do not want to say a couple is committing adultery, we say they are “having an affair.”

The difference between a true euphemism and an idiom can be very subtle, and often the definitions overlap. An idiom is a figure of speech in which the use of a word or words is peculiar to itself in that it has a meaning that usually cannot be derived from the literal meaning of the word or words. Idioms have to be individually learned because the meaning of the words is not literal, but assigned by the culture. While most euphemisms are idioms, many idioms are not euphemisms. That is because many idioms are hard, harsh, cold-hearted, and cynical. In contrast, true euphemisms are an agreeable and inoffensive way to refer to something, or a way to refer to a subject by suggestion instead of by direct address.

For example, if we are speaking with someone whose loved one has died, we can say the loved one “passed away” to soften the reality of the situation, but we cannot use some of the common idioms such as “kicked the bucket,” “bought the farm,” “assumed room temperature,” or “cashed in their chips,” and get the same effect.

Because euphemisms by their very nature deal with difficult, delicate, or potentially embarrassing situations, it is natural that the preponderance of euphemisms has to do with death, sex and “going to the bathroom” (which is itself a euphemism for urinating or defecating). Writing about euphemisms is a delicate task, because the subjects need to be handled clearly but graciously.

Genesis 15:15
You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age.

God told Abraham he would go to his fathers, a clear euphemism for dying.

Leviticus 18:6 (KJV)
None of you shall approach to any that is near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness: I am the LORD.

The euphemism “uncover their nakedness” is commonly used in the Old Testament instead of more graphically discussing sexual intercourse.

Judges 3:24 (KJV)
When he [Ehud] was gone out, his [the king’s] servants came; and when they saw that, behold, the doors of the parlour were locked, they said, Surely he covereth his feet in his summer chamber.

“Covers his feet” is a euphemism for defecating, because in squatting down the body and clothes covered the feet. Many translators feel that “covers his feet” is too unclear for the modern reader, so many modern versions read, “relieving himself,” which is an English euphemism for what the king was doing.

Ecclesiastes 12:5 (KJV)
Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:

This verse is about old age, and some of the less pleasant things that happen. Aged people are more typically afraid of falling, thus “afraid of that which is high.” The almond tree bloomed brilliant white, thus, the statement about the almond tree flourishing is a euphemism about the white hair that comes with old age. Also, the word “desire” in the phrase “desire shall fail” is a euphemism, but one that is more complex than it seems. The literal Hebrew is the “caper berry fails” (or “is broken”). Understanding the euphemism requires knowing that the caper berry was considered by the ancient Hebrews to be an aphrodisiac, increasing sexual desire. For the caper berry to fail meant that one’s sexual desire was gone and could not even be regained by stimulation.

Isaiah 7:20 (KJV)
In the same day shall the Lord shave with a razor that is hired, namely, by them beyond the river, by the king of Assyria, the head, and the hair of the feet: and it shall also consume the beard.

The “hair of the feet” is a euphemism for the pubic hair. Some modern translations wrongly have, “hair of the legs” instead of “hair of the feet,” and miss the euphemism. The Assyrians were among the most ruthless and cruel of the ancient warriors, and Israel had abandoned Yahweh’s protection, so Israel was subjected to the most horrific circumstances, including being shaved by their captors. Similar euphemisms regarding feet occur in 2 Kings 18:27 and Isaiah 36:12, where the Hebrew words, “water of the feet” mean urine. Also, Ezekiel 16:25 (Hebrew text) says that Jerusalem “spread wide her feet” to everyone who passed by, an idiom for having sexual intercourse with them, which itself was idiomatic for entering into covenants with the foreigners and foreign gods.

Ezekiel 16:7 (KJV)
I have caused thee to multiply as the bud of the field, and thou hast increased and waxen great, and thou art come to excellent ornaments: thy breasts are fashioned, and thine hair is grown, whereas thou wast naked and bare.

Sexual references are difficult to express delicately, and this verse is a great example. The Hebrew reads that the woman (Jerusalem) had come to the “ornament of ornaments” which the context reveals is her breasts. Interestingly, some versions shy away from the idea that the breast is an ornament, and translate the verse to say that the woman herself is the ornament. Thus, the Holman Christian Standard Bible says the woman “became very beautiful,” the NIV says she “became the most beautiful of jewels,” and the NRSV says she “arrived at full womanhood.” Other versions recognize that the subject of the sentence is not the woman herself but her “ornaments,” but avoid being too explicit. Thus, the ESV says the woman “arrived at full adornment,” while the NASB says she “reached the age for fine ornaments.”

John 11:11
After he had said this, he went on to tell them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.’

The word “sleep” is a common biblical euphemism for death (Job 7:21; Ps. 13:3; 90:5; Dan. 12:2; John. 11:11; 1 Cor. 11:30; 15:51; 1 Thess. 4:14; 5:10).


[1] E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted 1968).
[2] The spelling of the Greek word is different in Doric Greek from Koine Greek, so some lexicons may have different spellings.
[3] Mirriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: Eleventh edition (Marriam-Webster, Incorporated, Springfield, MA, 2004), “euphemism.”

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