Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Christmas 2015: Professional Considerations

MEMEs: modern evolutionary medical euphemisms

BMJ 2015; 351 doi: (Published 11 December 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h6107
  1. David Isaacs, clinical professor1,
  2. Stephen Isaacs, retired consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist2,
  3. Dominic Fitzgerald, professor1
  1. 1Children’s Hospital at Westmead, Westmead NSW 2145, Australia
  2. 2London, UK
  1. Correspondence to: D Isaacs david.isaacs{at}

David Isaacs and colleagues propose the modern evolutionary medical euphemism—a way of never being totally frank if a more palatable alternative can be used

Euphemism, meaning a word or term that softens the meaning of an expression, derives from the Greek for the use of words of “good omen” or speaking well. The Greeks themselves reputedly used euphemism as a euphemism: to speak words of good omen meant “be quiet!” Europeans have used euphemisms increasingly since the 16th century to disguise the unpalatable or to avoid offence.

Politicians, the military, and bureaucrats often use euphemisms cynically. Politicians don’t lie but are economical with the truth or take factual shortcuts; they never argue but have full and frank discussions. We no longer have Ministries of War, only Ministries of Defence. Acts of aggression are pre-emptive retaliation (the paediatric equivalent is “He hit me back first”). Civilian casualties are collateral damage, and the relatives of our soldiers killed by our own weapons are relieved to know it was friendly fire. A cut appeals to a surgeon, but to a medical administrator …

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