A Comprehensive Guide to Euphemisms in Chinese and English

I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of euphemisms in language – that is, words and expressions which allow you to express something without doing so in a direct way. In Chinese they are known as 婉辞, though in daily conversation it is more common to hear them described as 委婉语 or 委婉的说法.

Here are some common examples of euphemisms in English:

– If a mother says her son has “special needs”, it means her son has a disability.

– If a politician says he’s sorry for being “economical with the truth”, it means he is sorry for having been caught out lying.

– If a man says he went to a “gentlemen’s club” to see some “exotic dancers”, he means he went to a strip club to see some strippers.

It is also interesting that whether a certain term can be considered a euphemism is often a matter of opinion. For example, I have heard it claimed that the term “sex worker” is a euphemism, but I think of it rather as a direct and clear way of indicating a particular profession without using the term “prostitution” which often carries negative connotations.

As for Chinese euphemisms, from what I’ve seen in my research, while Chinese does have a good number of euphemisms, they seem to encompass a different range of concepts than English does. For example, I could not come up with an equivalent for “special needs”, “economical with the truth”, “gentleman’s club” and “exotic dancers” in Chinese. Of course, if you can, feel free to leave a message at the bottom of this post.

That’s not to say that Chinese euphemisms don’t exist or that they aren’t interesting. On the contrary, as this post will show, there are many, and some of them are very interesting. And just like English, Chinese also has euphemisms which cannot be translated easily. Here are some that I have managed to find:

– “Modesty words” (谦词) such as 献丑, 谬奖, 谬赞, 过誉, 岂敢岂敢, etc. which can be used to show modesty in an indirect way; English lacks such a class of words. The pronouns 鄙人 and 不才, which can also be used to humbly refer to oneself to show respect to others, are also good examples of “modesty words”.

– Words that have come out of social issues unique to China, such as下海 which is used to describe changing one’s occupation to enter the market economy, and 和谐 (“harmonise”), a euphemism for online censorship.

– A myriad of other informal expressions that merit futher research, such as the sentence 这个做法不太地道 (“this method is not too authentic”) which is used to describe doing something that is hurtful to others.

One more interesting expression is 快不行了 which gets the award for the most flexible euphemism as it can have three different meanings depending on context. Thus the sentence 他快不行了 could be:

– Hinting at death: “He’s knocking on death’s door.” (i.e. He’s about to die.)

– Hinting at intoxication: “He’s pretty close to wasted.” (i.e. He’s more or less intoxicated.)

– Or even hinting at sex: “He’s about to come.” (i.e. He’s about to reach orgasm.)

This example is perfect because it highlights three of the most common categories of euphemisms – death, intoxication and sex.

But adding to that list are fifteen other categories that I’ve been able to come up with.


Euphemism Categories

  1. Death
  2. Suicide
  3. Murder
  4. Going to the Toilet
  5. Masturbation
  6. Sexual Intercourse
  7. Sex Work
  8. Extramarital Affairs
  9. Pornography
  10. Weight Gain
  11. Physical Unattractiveness
  12. Dismissing Employees
  13. Joblessness
  14. Mental Illness
  15. Stupidity
  16. Intoxication
  17. Menstruation
  18. Pregnancy


Naturally, it is no surprise that conventional taboos (禁忌) such as death, going to the toilet, sex, etc. feature prominently; these are often considered universally sensitive topics.

So let’s have a look now at some of the most common euphemisms in Chinese and English. I’ve put them all in simple sentences to make it clear how they can be used naturally. Note that literal translations for the Chinese phrases are also given in brackets. Enjoy!


1. Euphemisms for Death

“Death” and “to die” are translated into Chinese as 死亡 or 死去. The verbs 挂 and 嗝儿屁 are also commonly used in informal contexts. The following are some common euphemisms related to the concept of death in Chinese and English.


Chinese euphemisms

  • 他去世了。(“He has passed away.”)
  • 他走了。(“He has left.”)
  • 他与世长辞了。(“He has said farewell to the mortal world.”)
  • 他去见阎王了。(“He has gone to see the King of Hell [Yama].” = He’s gone straight to hell.)
  • 他升天了。(“He has ascended to the heavens.”)
  • 他去见马克思了。(“He’s gone to see Marx.”)


English euphemisms

  • He’s passed away. (most common euphemism for death)
  • He’s no longer with us. (another common euphemism for death)
  • He’s kicked the bucket. (a phrase with a flippant tone)
  • He’s bit the dust. (also with a flippant tone)
  • He’s pushing up daisies. (also flippant)
  • He’s gone to meet his maker. (a phrase with a humorous tone)
  • He’s in a better place now. (commonly used among religious people)
  • The incident resulted in significant loss of life. (“loss of life” is a term commonly used in media reportage to refer to death)



2. Euphemisms for Suicide

“Suicide” and “commit suicide” are translated into Chinese as 自杀 or 自尽. “Assisted suicide” and “euthanasia” are translated into Chinese as 安乐死. The following are some common euphemisms related to the concept of suicide in Chinese and English.


Chinese euphemisms

  • 他有轻生的想法。(“He thinks of life lightly.” = He has been contemplating suicide.)
  • 他结果了自己的生命。(“He finished off his life.” = He committed suicide.)
  • 他想自我了断。(“He wants to finish himself.” = He wants to kill himself.)
  • 他痛不欲生。(“He is in so much pain he cannot go on anymore.”)


English euphemisms

  • He took/ended his life. (most common euphemism for suicide in English)
  • He died at his own hands. (also a common expression)
  • He offed himself. (to off sb = to kill sb)



3. Euphemisms for Murder

“Murder” and “to murder”, and “killing” and “to kill” are translated into Chinese as 谋杀 and 杀死/杀掉/害死 respectively. The following are some common euphemisms related to this concept.


Chinese euphemisms

  • 我送你上西天。(“I’ll take you to the western Pure Land of the Buddha Amitābha.” = I’ll kill you.)
  • 我明天就干掉你。(“I’ll do [kill] you tomorrow.”)
  • 我结果了你。(“I’ll finish you.”)
  • 我解决了你。(“I’ll resolve you.”)


English euphemisms

  • They had no choice but to put the dog down (to put it out of its misery). (to put down an animal/to put an animal out of its misery = to kill an animal, usually because it is sick or injured)
  • The Mafia bumped him off. (to bump sb off = to murder sb, commonly used in organised crime)
  • Some collateral damage was sustained during the attack. (collateral damage = unintended deaths and damage resulting from military operations)
  • The target was neutralized. (to neutralize = to kill or destroy sb or sth, another euphemism commonly used in the military)
  • The regime has been involved in ethnic cleansing. (ethnic cleansing = killing members of an ethnic or religious group)



4. Euphemisms for Going to the Toilet

“To go to the toilet” is translated into Chinese as 上厕所. The following are some common euphemisms related to this concept.


Chinese euphemisms

  • 他去洗手了。(“He’s gone to wash his hands.”)
  • 他去方便一下。(“He’s gone to make convenience.”)
  • 他刚才去大号/小号了。(“He’s just done a big number/small number” – i.e. number one/number two.)


English euphemisms

  • He’s gone to answer the call of nature. (common euphemism for going to the toilet)
  • He’s gone to the loo. (British English only)
  • He’s gone to spend a penny. (British English only)
  • He’s gone to take a slash. (British English only)
  • He’s gone to the bathroom. (chiefly American English)
  • She’s gone to powder her nose. (used by women to indicate going to the toilet)



5. Euphemisms for Masturbation

“Masturbation” and “to masturbate” are translated into Chinese as 手淫. Informally, the verbs “jerk off”, “jack off”, “beat off”, “toss off”, “wank”, etc. are used to refer to male masturbation. The following are some common euphemisms related to this concept.


Chinese euphemisms

  • 他经常自慰。(“He often consoles himself.”)
  • 打飞机太频繁对身体不好。(“Beating the aeroplane too much is bad for your health.”)
  • 他去打手枪了。(“He has gone to beat the handgun.”)
  • 他没有女朋友,所以只好自己解決。(“He has no girlfriend, so he has no choice but to self-resolve.”)


English euphemisms

  • He enjoys playing with himself. (“to play with oneself” is a common euphemism for both male and female masturbation)
  • He likes rubbing one out. (another common phrase)
  • He likes to choke the chicken. (has a humorous tone)
  • She likes to flick the bean. (“to flick the bean” is refers exclusively to female masturbation; also has a humorous tone)



6. Euphemisms for Sexual Intercourse

 “Sexual intercourse” and “to have sexual intercourse” are translated into Chinese as 性交. Chinese, like English, does not have a verb for “sex” that is not a swear word. The following are some common euphemisms related to sexual intercourse in Chinese and English.


Chinese euphemisms

  • 他跟她做爱。(“He made love to her.”)
  • 他跟她上床。(“He slept with her.)
  • 他跟她发生关系。(“He had relations with her.”)
  • 他们行了房事。(“They did room-matters.”)
  • 他俩正快活着呢。(“They’re having some fun.”)
  • 他们俩每天晚上嘿咻。(“They heave-ho every evening.”)
  • 他们去打野战了。(“They went to engage in guerrilla warfare.” = They went to have sex in a public place.)


English euphemisms

  • He made love to her. (common euphemism for sex)
  • He slept with her. (another commonly used euphemism)
  • They hooked up. (= they had casual sex)
  • He has been intimate with her. (= he has had sexual relations with her)
  • Teaching your child about the birds and the bees can be awkward. (the birds and the bees = basic facts about sex and reproduction told to a child)



7. Euphemisms for Sex Work

“Sex work” and “sex worker” are translated into Chinese as 性工作 and 性工作者 respectively. The following are some common euphemisms related to this concept.


Chinese euphemisms

  • 她是个小姐。(“She is a miss.”)
  • 她是个鸡。(“She is a chicken.”)
  • 他是个鸭。(“He is a duck.”)
  • 她是个失足少女。(“She is a woman who has taken a wrong step in life.”)
  • 她是青楼女子。(“She is a woman of a mansion.”)
  • 她是个风尘女子。(“She is a woman of the windblown dust.”)
  • 她是个站街女。(“She is a streetwalker.”)
  • 她是个三陪小姐。(“She is a sanpei girl.” = She is paid to eat, drink and sleep with men.)
  • 她是个出台小姐。(She is a coming-out girl.” = She is a paid escort.)
  • 他是我的嫖友。(“He is my brothel buddy.”)
  • 这两个家伙爱逛窑子。(“These two guys love going to pits [brothels] together.”)
  • 她已经从良了。(“She has given up sex work to get married.”)


English euphemisms

  • She’s an escort. (an escort could be a sex worker or someone hired to accompany someone to social events)
  • She’s on the game. (British English)
  • She’s a lady of the night. (common in literary contexts)



8. Euphemisms for Extramarital Affairs

“Extramarital affair” and “cheating on one’s partner” (or “two-timing”) are translated into Chinese as 外遇 or 婚外恋. In Chinese, the terms 小三 (“mistress”) and 包二奶 (“to keep a mistress”) are also commonly used. The following are some common euphemisms related to extramarital affairs


Chinese euphemisms

  • 他出轨了。(“He has gone off the tracks.”)
  • 他们分手的原因是因为其中一人劈腿儿了。(“The reason they broke up is because one of them did the splits.”)
  • 他有新欢了。(“He has a new-happiness.” = He has a mistress.)


English euphemisms

  • He’s been unfaithful. (most common euphemism for engaging in an extramarital affair)
  • He’s been seeing someone on the side. (another common euphemism)



9. Euphemisms for Pornography

“Pornography” is translated into Chinese as 色情作品. The following are some common euphemisms related to this concept.


Chinese euphemisms

  • 他喜欢看成人电影。 (“He likes to watch adult movies.”)
  • 他喜欢看黄片。 (“He likes to watch yellow films.”)
  • 他喜欢看AV。 (“He likes to watch AV [adult videos]”.)
  • 他喜欢看毛片。 (“He likes to watch hair-films.”)
  • 他喜欢看黄书。 (“He likes to read yellow books [erotic fiction].”)


English euphemisms

  • This premises provides adult entertainment. (“adult entertainment” is the most common euphemism for pornography; it can also be an umbrella term for a range of other sexually-oriented services)
  • He likes to watch blue movies. (“blue movies”, a common term in literary contexts, refers to pornographic videos)
  • This material is sexually explicit. (the term “sexually explicit material” is commonly used in formal contexts to refer to pornography)



10. Euphemisms for Weight Gain

“Weight gain” and “to put on weight” are translated into Chinese as 变胖 or 增重. The following are some common euphemisms related to this concept.


Chinese euphemisms

  • 他最近发福了不少。(“He has received a lot of good luck recently.”)
  • 他很富态。(“He has a rich shape.”)
  • 他有个啤酒肚。(“He has a beer belly”.)
  • 他有个将军肚。(“He has a general’s belly.” = He has a beer belly.)
  • 他肚子上有救生圈儿。(“He has a life-buoy on his belly.” = He has a spare tyre.)


English euphemisms

  • He’s put on a few extra pounds. (most common euphemism for weight gain)
  • He’s lost his figure. (= he’s no longer slim)
  • He’s out of shape. (= he’s no longer physically fit)
  • He’s big-boned. (this phrase has a humorous tone)
  • He’s got a spare tyre. (this phrase also sounds humorous)
  • He’s got a beer belly/gut. (this could sound humorous)
  • He’s got a food baby. (= he’s got a big belly from eating too much, humorous in tone)



11. Euphemisms for Physical Unattractiveness

“Physical unattractiveness” (i.e. being ugly, ugliness) is translated into Chinese as 难看 or 丑陋. The following are some common euphemisms related to this concept.


Chinese euphemisms

  • 她长得不怎么样。(“She’s doesn’t look very good.”)
  • 他第一次见网友就碰到了恐龙。(“The first friend he made online turned out to be a dinosaur [i.e. an ugly girl].”)
  • 他这个癞蛤蟆想吃天鹅肉。(“This toad wants to eat some swan meat. = An ugly man wants to get with a pretty girl.)
  • 他就是个现代版的武大郎。(“He’s a modern-day version of Wudalang.” = He is a short man.)


English euphemisms

  • She’s rather plain looking. (most common euphemism to describe physical unattractiveness)
  • She’s not much to look at. (another common phrase)
  • He’s vertically challenged. (this phrase is humorous in tone, used to describe a short person)



12. Euphemisms for Dismissing Employees

“To dismiss employees” or “to fire/sack someone” is translated into Chinese as 解雇 or 开除. The following are some common euphemisms related to this concept.


Chinese euphemisms

  • 他被炒鱿鱼了。(“He was squid-fried.” = He was fired.)
  • 他下岗了。(“He came off sentry duty.” = 1. He has retired. 2. He has been laid off.)


English euphemisms

  • He was let go. (most common euphemism to describe dismissing employees)
  • The company was downsized. (downsizing is another a common concept that expresses this meaning)
  • He was made redundant. (this usually comes as a result of downsizing)



13. Euphemisms for Joblessness

“Joblessness” and “to lose one’s job” are translated into Chinese as 失业. The following are some common euphemisms related to this concept.


Chinese euphemisms

  • 他待业。(“He is awaiting employment.”)
  • 他赋闲在家。(“He’s resting at home.”)
  • 他在家里蹲。(“He’s squatting at home.”)


English euphemisms

  • He’s been out-of-work for a few weeks. (most common euphemism to describe joblessness)
  • He’s between jobs at the moment. (this phrase can have a humorous tone)



14. Euphemisms for Mental Illness

“Mental illness” and “crazy”/”insane” are translated into Chinese as 精神病 and 疯狂 respectively. The following are some common euphemisms related to these concepts.


Chinese euphemisms

  • 他神经病。(“He has a nervous disorder.”)
  • 他脑子有点问题。(“His brain has a little bit of a problem.”)


English euphemisms

  • He’s not all there. (one of the most common euphemisms to describe mental illness)
  • He’s lost his marbles. (this phrase is also relatively common)



15. Euphemisms for Stupidity

“Stupidity” and “stupid” are translated into Chinese as 愚蠢 or 傻. The following are some common euphemisms related to this concept.


Chinese euphemisms

  • 他脑子进水了。(“His brain has flooded.”)
  • 他是个脑残。(“He is a brain-disabled person.”)


English euphemisms

  • He’s a bit thick. (most common euphemism to describe stupidity)
  • He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed. (also common, with a humorous tone)
  • He’s mentally challenged. (also has a humorous tone)



16. Euphemisms for Intoxication

“Intoxication”, “intoxicated” and being “drunk” are translated into Chinese as 喝醉. English also has dozens of informal adjectives with the same meaning, such as smashed, hammered, plastered, trashed, etc. The following are some common euphemisms related to intoxication.


Chinese euphemisms

  • 他喝多了。(“He’s drunk a lot.”)
  • 他喝高了。(“He’s drunk tall.”)


English euphemisms

  • He’s under the influence. (this phrase has a formal tone)
  • He’s tired and emotional. (this phrase is humorous in tone)



17. Euphemisms for Menstruation

“Menstruation”/”period” and “menstruation”/“to be on one’s period” are translated into Chinese as 月经 and 来月经 respectively. The following are some common euphemisms related to this concept.


Chinese euphemisms

  • 她大姨妈来了。(“Her aunt has come.”)
  • 她老朋友来了。(“Her old friend has come.”)
  • 她例假了。(“She is on a public holiday.”)
  • 她喜事来了。(“A good thing has come for her.”)


English euphemisms

  • It’s that time of the month again. (most common euphemism to refer to a woman’s menstrual period in English)
  • She’s on the rag. (another common euphemism for menstruation)
  • Aunty Flo’s in town. (this phrase has a humorous tone)



18. Euphemisms for Pregnancy

“Pregnancy” and “pregnant” are translated into Chinese as 怀孕. The following are some common euphemisms related to this concept.


Chinese euphemisms

  • 她有了。(“She has something.”)
  • 她有喜了。(“She has happiness.”)


English euphemisms

  • She’s expecting. (most common euphemism for pregnancy)
  • She’s got a bun in the oven. (this phrase has a humorous tone)
  • She’s eating for two. (this phrase could also sound humorous)
  • She is with child. (this phrase sounds a tad old-fashioned)
  • She’s had a visit from the stork. (from the metaphor of a stork representing the arrival of a new born baby)


Should you think of any common euphemisms in Chinese or English that I have left out don’t hesitate to leave a comment at the bottom of this post. Thanks for reading. – Carl

10 Comments to "A Comprehensive Guide to Euphemisms in Chinese and English"

  1. Matthew G's Gravatar Matthew G
    08/06/2014 - 7:11 am | Permalink

    Great list, I learned a lot! Thanks! By the way, don’t forget 脑子不正常 for mental disturbance.

  2. Nick's Gravatar Nick
    09/06/2014 - 8:57 pm | Permalink

    You have done a terrific job and i learned a great deal, especially those with humorous tone!

  3. 01/07/2014 - 8:22 pm | Permalink

    As always, these are fantastic articles – I steal sentence from them for my flashcards, and I bookmark for future reference. Thanks for the huge amount of effort which goes into compilations like this!

  4. 01/07/2014 - 8:41 pm | Permalink

    A have a few thoughts on the examples …

    DEATH: english (happy hunting ground in the sky)
    MURDER: english (put the dog to sleep)
    TOILET: chinese (Cantonese uses 爆石 -explode rocks; 大便 & 小便 are also used) english (to go see a man about a dog; to check the plumbing; take a slash)
    MASTURBATION (oh my mom would be proud to see me contributing to this discussion, sigh): chinese (打飞 & 打手枪 are more about ‘shooting’ than ‘beating’; isn’t ‘rubbing one out’ more for women than men? spanking the monkey, etc.)
    SEX WORK: as an aside, i never could work out why ‘chicken’ is used, until I saw that 妓 is pronounced ‘ji’ – maybe that’s it?) english (hooker is common)
    AFFAIR: chinese (外遇; 红杏出墙 for wife)
    DOWNSIZING: english (retrenched)
    MENSTRUATION: chinese (有M)

  5. lindasmik's Gravatar lindasmik
    09/11/2014 - 11:29 am | Permalink


  6. 05/01/2015 - 3:04 pm | Permalink

    This is great! Thank you!

  7. Anon Y Mouse's Gravatar Anon Y Mouse
    24/12/2015 - 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Some rather amusing euphemisms in English, can your work out what they mean?

    Category 1:

    “He has popped his clogs.”

    Category 15:

    “The porch light is on, but nobdy is at home.”

    “He is not playing with a full deck of cards.”

    “The elevator does not go all the way to the top.”

    Unnumber category — to vomit

    “He has tossed his cookeis.”

  8. Winnie's Gravatar Winnie
    29/12/2015 - 12:21 am | Permalink

    Hi Carl,

    I am amazed for your knowledge of Chinese language, I’ve learned a lot from you. Here I would like to share some of our expressions (Cantonese) for the above subjects.

    小便 = 交水费
    失业 = 做左量地官
    醜女 = 猪排


  9. Lai's Gravatar Lai
    20/05/2016 - 5:36 am | Permalink

    Hi Carlgene,

    I am so impressed by your comprehensive work about Chinese euphemisms.
    But I’d like to say you made a mistake in “Part 2. Euphemisms for Suicide about the ‘痛不欲生’ “. Well, generally, one uses this idiom to describe the deep sorrow he/she is suffering. Metaphorically, in his/her scenario, suicide is more preferable than moving on. But the point is to emphasize the sadness instead of committing suicide to end this sadness.

    Hope I did not offend you.


  10. Seth's Gravatar Seth
    31/05/2017 - 3:24 am | Permalink

    Here’s another category for the list: genitalia. Like in english, we say weenie, sausage, schmeckle (mainly Jewish people), and “little Jimmy” to mean penis. We also say “lady bits” to mean vagina. In Chinese, they say 鸡鸡 and 小弟弟/DD to mean penis.

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