Visual euphemism is the use of a pleasing or inoffensive image to represent an object, concept, or experience that's considered unpleasant, distasteful, or distressingly explicit.
In Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language (2006), Keith Allan and Kate Burridge point out that "visual euphemisms are commonplace; for example, low-calorie salad dressing (usually oil-free) is presented in shapely, slender-waisted bottles. The shape, the cleverly altered spelling and reversed coloring on some of the packaging sends out the message non-fattening loud and clear."
Examples and Observations
- "Good visual euphemisms are to be found in advertisements concerned with false teeth-something that no one wants to see. An advertisement for one fixative simply shows two beautiful slim blue cylinders fitting together perfectly, as a voice praises the efficiency and salubriousness of the product."
(Toni-Lee Capossela, Language Matters. Harcourt Brace, 1995)
- Visual Euphemisms in Everyday Life: "Romance in the Toilet Bowl Cleaner"
"Society has many instances of visual euphemisms. Bald men wear toupees. Both sexes wear contact lenses. Fig leaves hide the genitals of statues. Pubic hair was airbrushed out of soft-porn photographs until the 1960s. The Society for Indecency to Naked Animals designed boxer shorts, knickers, and petticoats to cover the sex organs of animals during the 1960s (cf. Fryer 1963:19). Frilled pantalettes modestly hid the limbs (legs could not properly be mentioned, especially in America, see Read 1934:265) of the table and the pianoforte during the Victorian era…
"Attractive packaging itself is a kind of euphemism: emphasis on appearance instead of the product contrasts strikingly with the old-time grocer who displayed items in bulk. Lighting effects that redden meat, the waxing of fruit, and the attractive packaging are cosmetic; and like verbal euphemism, they create a positive illusion. Still photography, film, and television are superb media for deceptive euphemisms… These media present a world of perfected forms in which there is romance in the toilet bowl cleaner, poetry in the sanitary napkin, temptation in the tampon, and beauty in a glass of dentures."
(Keith Allan and Kate Burridge, Euphemism and Dysphemism: Language Used as a Shield and Weapon. Oxford University Press, 1991)
"As trash-happy and ridiculous as it sounds, the movie Spring Break Shark Attack isn't just another load of tired old beach bunk. For one thing, the scary parts really are scary, enough so that little kids should be sent to their rooms--where, presumably, they can watch the less menacing aquatic antics of SpongeBob SquarePants…
"When a partly eaten shark victim washes up onshore, for example, he really looks like a partly eaten shark victim, not the scrubbed-up visual euphemism of TV times gone by. Is this progress? Well--kinda?"
(Tom Shales, "Cue the Shark Music and Prepare to Be Scared." The Washington Post, March 19, 2005)
- Sexual Encounters
"Victorian novels and pictures frequently feature a woman enthroned on a gentleman's knee as a visual euphemism for sexual encounter. Although William Holman Hunt's famous picture The Awakening Conscience (1854) indicated that the fallen woman regained her moral conviction by showing her in the act of rising from her lover's knee, many pictures and stories celebrated the happy wife, held by her husband on his knee as both sweetheart and child."
(Judith Farr, The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Harvard University Press, 1992)
- Deception and Secrecy
"There is no doubt that some euphemism adds dimensions of deception and secrecy. And in the case of the visual euphemism the illusion is very effective. It's always much harder to prove misrepresentation when a claim is expressed non-verbally; in other words, not in propositional language with actual nouns and verbs. The visual euphemism can be a lot more sneaky."
(Kate Burridge, Weeds in the Garden of Words: Further Observations on the Tangled History of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2005)