Monday, February 19, 2024

Euphemisms in the Bible?

Sometimes the biblical writers do not speak plainly and are less than “honest or frank in what they write.”1 Instead they will use a euphemism for certain body parts, acts, or ideas. A euphemism is: “The use of a word or phrase that is less expressive or direct, but considered less distasteful, less offensive than another.”2 The biblical writers, in some cases, tend to avoid the use of disagreeable, or what were considered offensive or “impolite” words or expressions.3 I have been aware of such being the case for the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament since my seminary days, when it was pointed out that the expression “to cover one’s feet” (KJV, 1 Sam 24:3, Judg 3:24) was an euphemism for “relieving one’s self” (as it is translated in the RSV). Candidly, the expression means to urinate or defecate.

It turns out, however, that there are many expressions found to be euphemisms in the both Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and New Testament that are used to avoid speaking plainly. “Most of the euphemisms found in the HB/OT relate to three areas of common human experience: (1) death; (2) sexual activity and the organs associated with it; and (3) certain bodily functions,”4 whereas most “euphemisms in the NT have to do with sexual organs, sexual relations, or death.”5

The King James Version (KJV) generally translates the biblical euphemisms literally (what the text says). The New Revised Standard Version (RSV) generally translates biblical euphemisms by expressing the offensive idea concealed in the euphemism, but nevertheless translates them into an English euphemism. Here are examples of euphemisms in the NT for each of the categories: “see a man’s shame” (KJV) is an euphemism for “male genitalia” (NRSV, Rev 16:15), which itself is an English euphemism for penis and testicles; “the fruit of his loins” (KJV) is an euphemism for “put a descendent upon his throne” (NRSV, Acts 2:30), which itself is an English euphemism for seminal ejaculation and impregnation; “I do not know a man” is an euphemism for “I am a virgin” (NRSV, Luke 1:34), which itself is an English euphemism for not having had sexual intercourse; “give a wife due benevolence” (KJV) is an euphemism for “give a wife her conjugal rights” (NRSV, 1 Cor 7:3), which itself is an English euphemism for satisfy a wife sexually; “put off my tabernacle”(KJV) is an euphemism for “death” (NRSV, 2 Pet 1:14); “let your servant depart in peace” (KJV) is an euphemism for “dismiss your servant” (NRSV, Luke 2:29), which is an English euphemism for die (see Luke 2:26).

Euphemisms in the Bible are not exactly lies or untruths but they are clearly a softening of the truth in order to disguise what is considered distasteful, impolite, or offensive. They are not straight-forward, candid, or frank statements, which makes them something less than the “unvarnished” or complete truth. Their use by the writers of the Bible makes the Bible seem a more human product and little less a collection of texts divinely inspired. It hardly seems possible that the Almighty could be involved in a shading of the truth, as John (16:13; 17:17) and the psalmist (119:160) seemed to think—although the authors of First Kings (22:22-23) and Second Chronicles (18:21-22) appear to think differently. Go figure!

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th ed., s. v., “candid.”

2Ibid., s. v., “euphemism.”

3Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, s. v., dysphemism: using “a disagreeable, offensive, or disparaging word or expression.”

4Here is a list of expressions considered to be euphemisms by a jointly authored essay:



Hedrick jr said...

Did i understand you to say that the writers of the OT and NT were more likely to use euphemism in different sectors of human behavior (e.g. OT avoids words pertaining to excretion; NT avoids words pertaining to sexual relations)? So sensitivity has shifted?

Charles Hedrick said...

Yo will have to explain your last enigmatic phrase, "So sensitivity has shifted." Can you clarify a bit? But you did understand me correctly.