Some examples:

  • Instead of admitting that I'm an alcoholic, I just say I had one too many drinks.
  • Instead of the bank admitting that it has lots of loans that are in arrears and are likely to default, it only says that it has underperforming loans.
  • Instead of admitting that they overeat, they simply claim that they have a strong appetite.

Basically, I'm after a word for when a phrase is used that is not really a lie, but doesn't give the whole truth to make it sound more positive than it actually is. Usually when something should be dealt with, but it's kind of swept under the carpet by the misleading phrase.

  • 2
    Can you write an example sentence where the word or phrase would be used? The following is the strict rule of this community. Questions on choosing an ideal word or phrase must include information on how it will be used in order to be answered. For help writing a good word or phrase request, see: About single word requests. Please edit your question accordingly.
    – user140086
    Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 15:27
  • 9
    It's amazing how many good answers there are for this one. It must be something people do constantly... Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 20:16
  • 7
    Public Relations
    – John
    Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 15:21
  • 4
    its an undocumented feature.
    – montelof
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 16:05
  • 2
    I was trying to reference the famous bug sugarcoating phrase: "It's not a bug; it's an undocumented feature"
    – montelof
    Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 19:37

24 Answers 24



M-W: to make (something) seem smaller or less important

dictionary.com: to treat or speak of (something) so as to reduce emphasis on its importance, value, strength, etc.: The press has downplayed the president's role in the negotiations.

  • 3
    I'd probably use the expression "playing down" rather than "downplaying" as in "He was playing down the problem". I'm not sure if there's any real difference.
    – Richard
    Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 14:28
  • 31
    On the other hand, I find downplaying the problem to be smooth and natural, and playing down the problem to be very weird, because downplay is a single word, not a phrasal verb. The down part is not a preposition that would allow word reordering. For example, outtakes are short video clips of mistakes in filming. Would you ever break that apart into takes out? If the coach sidelines you, does he also line side you? If you are hijacked, are you jacked high? If someone lowballs your bid, were you also balled low?
    – ErikE
    Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 20:32
  • 8
    @Richard Fwiw, I've never heard the expression "playing down" although I've heard the verb "downplay" many, many times (AmE, Western Pennsylvania)
    – Jason C
    Commented Jul 16, 2016 at 8:01
  • 3
    @Richard which could just as easily mean "messed up" or "destroyed" as "stolen while occupied". Not sure what your point is—I'm pretty sure you downplay things and don't down play them or play down things. The shot up of the situation is that we shouldn't load over our words. Grown in toenails really hurt. The boxer cut uppered his opponent. I am lighting high how odd it is to split prepositions out of single words that aren't phrasal verbs. I am storm braining for you! (Actually, you've given me a fun word game to play, thanks!) I hope I haven't done anything handed under.
    – ErikE
    Commented Jul 16, 2016 at 15:12
  • 2
    @ErikE - The FT headline is "Andrea Leadsom seeks to play down pro-EU comments". You can see similar content here; "Hammond plays down PM’s ‘spectre of war’ speech" thetimes.co.uk/article/… and here "The Latest: Congressional Dems play down Clinton report" - washingtontimes.com/news/2016/may/25/…
    – Richard
    Commented Jul 16, 2016 at 16:28

Sugarcoat - to make (something difficult or distasteful) appear more pleasant or acceptable.

You can't sugarcoat your alcoholism this time MonkeyZeus, I'm taking the kids and leaving you! Also, what parent in their right mind would name their child with a name as awful as yours?!

  • 1
    I thought sugarcoat was only used to soften harsh messages to others. Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 9:36
  • 1
    @reinierpost I think downplay is much more apt, but I think there are reasons you might want to sugarcoat your message if someone is sensitive to their own problem. Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 13:51
  • @WayneWerner yes, but I wasn't aware that someone could sugarcoat their own problem. Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 13:59
  • 2
    @reinierpost: You could say the bank in the OP's example was sugarcoating their loan exposure, or say that they're downplaying the risk of their loan exposure. It's not a drop-in replacement for downplay. I just speak English, I don't analyze it, so I can't tell you exactly why "downplay their loan exposure" doesn't seem to mean exactly the same thing. (To me, "downplay their loan exposure" means de-emphasize the fact that there are bad loans, while "sugarcoat their loan exposure" means to give the impression that the loans aren't so bad, rather than avoiding the topic.) Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 6:45
  • 2
    Equivalently, candycoat.
    – Kylos
    Commented Jul 22, 2016 at 14:03

A noun to express that could be euphemism:

Euphemism: The substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant

Definition from the Merriam-Webster. The verb would be to euphemize

  • 26
    This. It's worth noting that in the long term, euphemisms fail, as people learn they mean the same thing as the "offensive" term, and thereby become "offensive" themselves. Consider how "crippled" was deemed offensive, and "handicapped" offered as the polite equivalent. As soon as people figured out it meant the same thing, it was swapped out for "disabled", which is now falling out of favor as well (Some have offered "differently-abled" while others, who don't know how English works, insist on "persons with disabilities" as if it were significantly different from "disabled person" Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 17:41
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    @MontyHarder There are several names for this phenomenon; my favorite is the "euphemism treadmill"
    – Sabre
    Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 18:03
  • 1
    @Sabre Mine, too, but I ran out of space to shoehorn it in. :) Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 22:33
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    @MontyHarder Just a note on the "Persons with disabilities". This is done to put the reference to the "person" first in the phrase giving it a more personal focus and aiming to prevent addressing the disability over the person. Source: hours of corporate training.
    – gmiley
    Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 11:46
  • 3
    I don't agree with this answer. A euphemism is designed to express the same idea in more palatable terms. For instance, the asker's first example replaces "I'm an alcoholic" with "I had one too many drinks" - this changes the idea expressed (alcoholism is a chronic condition, one too many drinks is a single mistake even non-alcoholics make), so it's not a euphemism. A euphemism for this phrase would be something like "I'm not the type to refuse a drink", which still expresses an inability to stop drinking without using the often offensive term alcoholic.
    – talrnu
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 16:43

I'd say these are all understatements.

The presentation of something as being smaller or less good or important than it really is:
a master of English understatement
[COUNT NOUN]: to say I am delighted is an understatement


  • understate is a good word to answer this question. Actually, even more generally, the "under-" prefix can be used with a large number of verbs. e.g., underestimate, underperform, underwhelm...
    – TOOGAM
    Commented Jul 16, 2016 at 3:01
  • The only counter to this is that understate can also apply to positives. The question is specifically about negatives, which means that in some contexts, whitewash could be more applicable.
    – Rich
    Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 15:39

your examples sound like whitewashing

whitewash verb white·wash \ˈhwīt-ˌwȯsh, ˈwīt-, -ˌwäsh\

  1. to make (something) whiter by painting it with whitewash
  2. to prevent people from learning the truth about (something bad, such as a dishonest, immoral, or illegal act or situation)


  1. a book that tries to whitewash the country's past
  2. refused to whitewash the governor's chronic disregard for the truth

source: merriam-webster

further reading:

wikipedia defines whitewash thusly: "to gloss over or cover up vices, crimes or scandals or to exonerate by means of a perfunctory investigation or through biased presentation of data"

  • Whitewash means to remove or ignore negative connotations. The question is how to understate or downplay the negatives, (but see my comments there).
    – Rich
    Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 15:37
  • @Rich whitewashing is a complex activity that includes downplaying and removing both negative connotations and denotations. besides that, the examples from the question are clearly removing and/or ignoring negative facts from the situations, not simply softening the connotations to downplay the emotional impact. Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 14:14


verb (with object)
Make (something) seem less important, significant, or complex than it really is.
"the problem was either trivialized or ignored by teachers"
"As a result, the film seems to trivialize important events in Dutch history"


There are many good answers already in the list, but the one that jumped to my mind is not included, so I'll add it:

Gloss over

to avoid considering something, such as an embarrassing mistake, to make it seem not important, and to quickly continue talking about something else - Cambridge Dictionary


One common idiom is soft-pedal from the action of pressing the "soft" pedal on a piano to reduce the volume. The basic usage is to de-emphasize or minimize something that would otherwise seem quite important.

soft-pedal: to treat or describe (something) as less important than it really is http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/soft%E2%80%93pedal

  • Interesting, but incomplete to me without examples! They are a must for me.
    – learner
    Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 8:36

As a former counselor (addictions and otherwise), the word we used was "minimize", though this could be confusing to someone outside the field. E.g. in a list of diagnostic criteria for a subject, we might write, "Mr. Smith minimized the consequences of his drinking." This might mean that he said he had a "fender-bender" when in reality he totaled his car.

This usage traces its origins to Dr. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychiatry, as one of the types of defense mechanisms.

  • 2
    I do not think this usage is confined to any particular field. We might say: "The accused tried to minimize the seriousness of his offense."
    – David42
    Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 18:24
  • 1
    But note that you had to use the qualifier "tried". As a psychological defense mechanism, "minimizing" does not require that it be successful.
    – Chozang
    Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 18:32
  • 1
    The qualifier "tried" is not absolutely necessary. For example I could say: "The use of such euphemisms tends to minimize the ugliness of war."
    – David42
    Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 19:34
  • 1
    Although this word might actually be used in this way, this usage is somewhere between ambiguous and confusing, so please don't repeat it in new writing. The core issue is that "minimize" means to cause an actual reduction, not just a reduced perception.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 18:29


In public relations, Spin is a form of propaganda, achieved through providing a biased interpretation of an event or campaigning to persuade public opinion in favor or against some organization or public figure. While traditional public relations may also rely on creative presentation of the facts, "spin" often implies the use of disingenuous, deceptive, and highly manipulative tactics

From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spin_(propaganda)


  • 2
    Are you quoting someone here? If so, you should indicate that with a citation and probably a link. Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 23:40
  • Came to suggest "spin-doctor", but yes, spin alone works better. Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 5:28
  • upvoting for "spin", this is very common usage. Coming down from the PR/political sense, "spinning" is basically exactly what the OP is asking about -- "not quite lying" but bending the truth as much as is possible to make the subject matter seem more palatable to the audience. Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 15:53
  • Spin isn't unidirectional. You could spin a positive story about an opponent to seem more negative. "Sure, Bob attended the veteran's benefit dinner, but was he really there because he cares about vets, or just because he wanted to look good?"
    – barbecue
    Commented Jul 23, 2016 at 19:39

In case you need something more than single-words...

Make light ofTFD

to treat something as if it were unimportant or humorous.
"I wish you wouldn't make light of his problems. They're quite serious."
"I make light of my problems, and that makes me feel better."

Make little ofTFD

to minimize someone or something; to play someone or something down; to belittle someone or something.
"John made little of my efforts to collect money for charity."
"The neighbors made little of John and thought he would amount to nothing."


If you're in the mood for a colourful idiom: A superficial fix for a more serious issue can be called putting lipstick on the pig.

  • 1
    +1. We could probably coin lipsticking for this, for short (if it doesn't already exist).
    – Drew
    Commented Jul 16, 2016 at 1:54
  • 4
    +1, There are a number of other idioms for this, such as "polishing a turd".
    – DCShannon
    Commented Jul 16, 2016 at 4:03

Justify, Minimize, and Rationalize

Justify has a secondary meaning of trying to defend oneself (especially when not warranted) such as he tries to justify his actions.

Minimize has a secondary meaning of representing the lowest possible amount or importance as in he minimizes the importance of his actions.

This term is used in psychology with the definition: a type of deception involving denial coupled with rationalisation in situations where complete denial is implausible. It is the opposite of exaggeration. Wikipedia

Rationalize has primary meaning which is to give causes which superficially seem reasonable but are unrelated, such as he tries to rationalize his actions.

In psychology, it has the following definition: a defense mechanism in which controversial behaviors or feelings are justified and explained in a seemingly rational or logical manner to avoid the true explanation, and are made consciously tolerable—or even admirable and superior—by plausible means. Wikipedia



This word was the first that popped into my head, which dictionary.com defines as:

to make or become better, more bearable, or more satisfactory; improve

dictionary.com made a distinction between ameliorate and:


to make easier to endure; lessen; mitigate

Which it claims, means to actually improve the situation, rather than merely downplaying it or sugar coating it

  • 1
    ameliorating about actual improvements.
    – Nemo
    Commented Jul 17, 2016 at 12:20

Massage the truth

You can massage figures or facts to make them more amenable to your purposes. It sounds quite harmless.


These sentences use weasel words.

From M-W :

: a word used in order to evade or retreat from a direct or forthright statement or position

Or a longer definition from wikipedia :

A weasel word (also, anonymous authority) is an informal term for words and phrases aimed at creating an impression that a specific and/or meaningful statement has been made, when only a vague or ambiguous claim has been communicated, enabling the specific meaning to be denied if the statement is challenged.

To tergiversate is synonymous with the use of weasel words to avoid making an outright assertion. Weasel words can imply meaning far beyond the claim actually being made. Some weasel words may also have the effect of softening the force of a potentially loaded or otherwise controversial statement through some form of understatement, for example using detensifiers such as "somewhat" or "in most respects"....

[...] Use of vague or ambiguous euphemisms (e.g., replacing "firing staff" with "streamlining the workforce")


To be in denial is a slightly different take on your query that focuses somewhat more on the mental state of the person in question. But it directly applies to cases where, as you say in your question, "something should be dealt with, but it's kind of swept under the carpet by the misleading phrase."

in denial: A condition in which someone will not admit that something sad, painful, etc., is true or real. — M-W

Example: "I think John is in denial about his alcohol problem. Whenever I try to talk to him about it, he just says that he has a few drinks every now and then."

It is used most often in cases where Person A believes there's a problem that should be dealt with and Person B (usually either the one who has the problem or one who's consent or participation is necessary in order to deal with the problem) is unwilling or unable to recognize that the problem is as severe as Person A believes it to be.


Sex up is how they referred to fiddling Tony Blair's Iraq dossier. Apparently this has entered general parlance (although I've not heard it elsewhere).

The implication is that no actual lying is taking place, but that spin is being placed on certain parts of the message.


  • Sexing-up is "hyping up" to make something seem more powerful or more significant, like Blair did with his WMD "evidence". The questioner asked for I think the opposite i.e. a word when the "real thing" is being downplayed.
    – k1eran
    Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 16:26
  • 1
    I've tweaked your idea and added a "sex down" answer !
    – k1eran
    Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 16:34

Inspired by MadMaardigan's "sexed up" answer, I suggest instead "sexed down".

E.g. from the BBC

The government has been accused of "sexing down" a draft report on alcohol misuse to prevent the study damaging the case for extending pub opening hours.

E.g. from businessinsider.com

LONDON (Reuters) - New delays to a major report into Britain's role in the Iraq War sparked fears on Wednesday that the public would conclude an inquiry's long-awaited findings had been "sexed down" to prevent criticism of former high-profile figures.

I can't find a respectable dictionary definition, but see the "sexed up" answer for the definition of original idiom.


Note the term sweet lemons is used as a formal term in psycology as a defense mechanism.

Interestingly, it's hard to find via Google as the actual tree and Thai restaurants dominate the results. But here is a textbook showing what I remember.


The word 'prevaricate' matches your definition exactly: telling the truth, strictly speaking, but by subtly distorting the facts to effectively lie.

  • Prevaricate does not convey the specific sense of reducing the importance of the thing discussed. You could just as well prevaricate to exaggerate the importance of a trivial thing.
    – barbecue
    Commented Jul 23, 2016 at 19:35
  • I think this word, Prevaricate, is the most accurate answer to the original question. The meaning when you type it into google is, "speak or act in an evasive way". Perfect.
    – Dave
    Commented Jul 27, 2016 at 6:18

Rose-Colored Glasses or Rose-Tinted Glasses

You could say that you are viewing a problem through rose-colored glasses.

optimistic eyes (views the world through rose-colored glasses)

There is a good discussion about the etymology of the phrase at the following link.

Origin of "Rose tinted glasses"?


A formal word for this is circumlocution, according to Cambridge Dictionary:

(an example of) an indirect way of saying something, especially something unpleasant

Cambridge Dictionary also provides to example sentences, these are quoted below:

"Economical with the truth" is a circumlocution for "lying".

Politicians are experts in circumlocution.

Attribution: "Circumlocution Meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary." Cambridge Dictionary. Accessed March 28, 2018. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/circumlocution.


If it is more pro-actively made-up we can call it romanticizing

the free dictionary says romanticize is


To view or interpret romantically; make romantic.


To think in a romantic way.

Google says it means:

deal with or describe in an idealized or unrealistic fashion; make (something) seem better or more appealing than it really is.

with the sample sentence:

"the tendency to romanticize non-industrial societies"

Wiktionary also adds:

(transitive) To interpret or view something in a romantic (unrealistic, idealized) manner.

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