Idiom vs. Euphemism: What Is the Difference?

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Here’s the difference between idioms and euphemisms:

An idiom is an expression or a saying that has a figurative rather than a literal meaning.

Whereas a euphemism is a type of idiom that softens an otherwise blunt, harsh, provocative, or sensitive topic.

If you want to learn all about the differences between these two figurative expressions, then you’re in the right place.

Keep reading!

Idiom vs. Euphemism: What Is the Difference?

What Is the Difference Between an Idiom and a Euphemism?

DefinitionA saying or an expression that contains figurative meaningA word or phrase to substitute a harsh or blunt expression
Formsayings, proverbs, prepositional phrases, clichéswords and phrases
Purposeto add humor to one’s written work or speech; to express complicated ideas in a simpler manner, or to add more color and regional flavor to one’s writingto express uncomfortable, unpleasant words or expressions in a mild or indirect manner

The quickest answer is that idioms are metaphorical phrases while euphemisms are a gentler way to word something.

An idiom is a figure of speech in which words are used to represent a non-literal meaning, often in metaphorical terms.

A euphemism is a tad more specific and refers to an expression that’s meant to stand in for some negative statement or word that the speaker may be avoiding, or that they might prefer to represent in a poetic or clever way.

There is some overlap, which we’ll get into, but for now, let’s first examine what they are and how they’re used.

What is an Idiom?

Bet your bottom dollar - english money idiom hand lettering on wooden blocks.

Idioms are non-literal phrases; they technically don’t mean what they say they mean.

This is the most important defining characteristic of idioms.

When you tell an actor to “break a leg” you don’t actually mean that they should go out on stage and seriously injure themselves, naturally.

The intended meaning is “good luck with your performance” and even though the meaning is immediately understood by anyone familiar with the idiom, it would seem like an incredibly rude thing to say to someone who isn’t.

They represent a unique challenge for non-native speakers and are quite an overbearing obstacle in learning any new language since they tend to be unique to specific geographic regions or demographics.

Sometimes idioms will even be unique to one dialect of one specific language, rather than the whole language, making key sentences nearly indecipherable.

Native and local speakers may not even realize they’re using idioms, since our brains quickly translate the nonsense into its intended meaning.

This is one of the key reasons that a non-native speaker might get confused.

Everyone else in the conversation might act like what you said was perfectly normal, but to them, it was a very out-of-place comment.

Idiom comes from the Greek “idios” meaning “personal” or “idioma” referring more specifically to personal property.

It’s a phrase that has been personalized to mean something new that is unlike the sum of its parts.

What Are Examples of Idioms?

Young woman pouring tea in white cup.
Turn over a new leaf.Change for the better.
Costs an arm and a leg.Is very expensive.
It was a piece of cake.It was very easy.
Between a rock and a hard place.In a difficult position.
Spill the beans.Tell the truth/reveal the secret.
The ball is in your court.It’s your turn to decide.
Joined at the hip.Always together.
Up for grabs.Available to whoever wants it.

Why Do Writers Use Idioms?

Hand holds pen on  wooden background with sheet of white paper.

There are a couple of different reasons to use idioms in writing.

The most obvious one is that they’re interesting. In both writing and speaking, we don’t want others to get bored of us.

Using interesting and quirky figurative language can be a useful way to hold someone’s attention.

Idioms can also be shorthand for a needlessly complicated statement.

It’s much easier and quicker to say someone is “up the creek without a paddle” than it would be to explain that they “are facing difficult problems that have no easily accessible solutions.”

Idioms that enter the vernacular often come from writers or speakers who first used the phrase for the sole purpose of giving their writing more voice and originality.

They then spread across the language, dialect, or region where that person had influence until they eventually become a widespread colloquialism.

When writers use pre-established idioms, it can also be a quick way to communicate the region that the characters are from, while simultaneously making the characters feel more real and grounded in that setting.

When a character says his wife “was madder than a wet hen” we don’t need an in-depth explanation to assume he’s from the American south.

What is a Euphemism?

Wood office desk table with blank notebook page with pen and a cup of coffee.

Euphemisms are a form of figurative language specifically utilized to refer to something embarrassing or offensive, giving off a softer more innocuous connotation than what is actually meant.

The more vulgar or dark the topic is, the more euphemisms there are bound to be.

It’s a practice of changing the connotation to suit the tone the speaker is going for, without changing the actual definition of what’s being said.

Euphemism comes from the Greek “eu” and “pheme” which mean “well” and “speaking” respectively.

A person who uses euphemisms to make their language more palatable could be quite literally said to be well-spoken.

Why Do Writers Use Euphemisms?

Word Euphemism from wooden letter blocks.

Euphemisms allow writers to explore delicate and potentially volatile topics in a way that may be less abrasive to the reader’s sensibilities.

This is a tactic that you might use to discuss views of politics or religion that you don’t agree with, for example.

Like idioms, though, a euphemism may be used specifically to invoke a reaction, such as humor, or it might be a way to lighten the impact of a statement, such as when a man who gets fired from work tells his wife that he’s going on an unexpected indefinite vacation.

What Are Examples of Euphemisms?

I'm Not Weird Im Limited Edition signpost on the street in a desert.
Kicked the bucketDied
Let goDismissed from employment
Make loveHave sexual intercourse
Break windPass gas

When Do Idioms and Euphemisms Overlap?

Word english made with block wood letters next to a pile of other letter over  wooden table.

A phrase that does not literally mean exactly what it says and that is also standing in for a darker phrase is both a euphemism and an idiom.

There are many, many examples of this in the English language.

When we say a person “kicked the bucket” the phrase being used is both non-literal and a proxy for a darker statement.

The person did not actually kick a bucket and the phrase is meant to be more innocuous than saying that they died.

A large number of euphemisms are also idioms, but there are far more idioms than there are euphemisms in the English language since the conditions for a phrase being an idiom are significantly more broad by comparison.

When Do They Not Overlap?

Empty notebook and coffee on  wooden table.

A phrase that is standing in for another darker phrase but that can still be taken literally is a euphemism that is not an idiom.

When we replace the phrase “garbage man” with “sanitation engineer” the literal meaning is not changed, but the tone is significantly more respectful.

Many similar examples can be found in the various euphemisms that are meant to be politically correct ways to represent a topic.

A phrase that can not be taken literally but that is not standing in for a darker phrase is an idiom that is not a euphemism.

Consider a person who “bites the bullet” (faces a hard task head-on).

This phrasing isn’t intended to downplay or sugarcoat the original message. If anything, it makes it much darker!

The vast majority of idioms are not euphemisms, as stated before, simply by virtue of how many there are in the English language.