What is the grammatical term for watering down a phrase so it makes it non-offensive? For example, rather than 'rape' a newspaper may print 'assaulted' they wont use the offensive details but what is this technique called in English?

  • It's not a grammatical term, whatever it might be. Grammar doesn't have to do with "watering down" meaning; it has to do with putting words together, whatever their meaning. Mar 15, 2018 at 3:17
  • @John Understatement? Litotes? Mar 15, 2018 at 3:26
  • Those aren't grammatical; they're rhetorical. Mar 15, 2018 at 16:09

1 Answer 1


It's not really a specific “English” technique, but there are several ways to describe this:

  • To Bowdlerize (Cambridge, Oxford)

    Origin Mid 19th century: from the name of Dr Thomas Bowdler (1754–1825), who published an expurgated edition of Shakespeare in 1818, + -ize. [Oxford]

  • Political Correctness (Cambridge, Oxford) — not so much the technique as the motive

    A politically correct word or expression is used instead of another one to avoid being offensive [Cambridge]

  • To Understate (Cambridge)

    to describe something in a way that makes it seem less important, serious, bad, etc. than it really is

  • Euphemism (Wikipedia — sorry!)

    A euphemism /ˈjuːfəˌmɪzəm/ is a generally innocuous word or expression used in place of one that may be found offensive or suggest something unpleasant.[1] Some euphemisms are intended to amuse; while others use bland, inoffensive terms for things the user wishes to downplay. Euphemisms are used to refer to taboo topics (such as disability, sex, excretion, and death) in a polite way, or to mask profanity.[2]

You can find a number of others by looking up downplay or water down and chasing around a thesaurus. One usually found in the negative is [Don't] mince [one's] words.

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