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Wednesday, February 1, 2012



Do you think it's OK to call a person "fat" or "stupid"?


Jane, an American, and her Thai friend Lon are chatting.

Jane: It's difficult to find clothes in my size here in Thailand.
Lon: Yes, you are fat.
Jane: Oh! Lon …please don't say that!
Lon: Why not?
Jane: Well, we don't just call a person "fat."
Lon: What do you say?
Jane: We might say, "you're a little heavy," or "you're kind of overweight." But often, we don't comment on the person's differences at all. In this case, you might have just said, "Yes, larger sizes are hard to find."
Lon: But why?
Jane: Well, we don't think being…uh…fat is a good thing. To say it directly is insulting.
Lon: I thought Americans were very direct.
Jane: Well, for many things, we are. But for some things, we use euphemisms.
Lon: You fam…what?
Jane: Euphemism. It means something like "good words." It's a way of saying something that has a negative feeling, without being unkind.
Lon: Can you tell me other examples?
Jane: Yes. Instead of saying "She's old," we might say, "She's getting on," or "She's up in years." We wouldn't call a person "stupid," but we might say he's "not too bright" or "a little slow."
Lon: OK. I think I get it.


Lon may not realize that to an American, "fat" is insulting. We don't particularly mind if you say "you're tall" or "you're short" or "you're thin." (Though, to be honest, some people do get tired of it, and it may be best to keep personal statements like this to yourself, unless you know someone very well.)

A basic rule is: If you're not sure, don't say it. It is better to not know something than to offend someone by asking.

However, if you absolutely must find out something, you might begin by saying, "Is it alright if I ask you a personal question?" Then, if the person agrees, use somewhat indirect language to ask: "Would you mind telling me how old you are?" or "Could I ask your age?"

This might save embarrassment for both of you.


Find what's offensive in each sentence; then rewrite it to sound more polite.

1. (You ask your friend what his cousin looks like) My cousin is an ugly girl.
2. (Your friend cooks you dinner) This tastes terrible.
3. (Your friend comes in from the gym) Your feet smell bad.
4. (You give your boss a report) This is badly-written.
5. (Your friend almost falls) You are clumsy.

a. She has a nice personality.
b. This isn't your best work; please try again.
c. You might want to wash your feet.
d. I had a big lunch; I might not be able to eat much.
e. Oh! Be careful!


1. What do you think is the advantage of using euphemisms? When is it better to be direct?
2. Can you think of times when you have used euphemisms in your language? Think of some good examples and explain them in English.
3. With a friend, think of more situations where you might be rude, and think of nicer things to say.


1 a; 2 d; 3 c; 4 b; 5 e

This lesson is ©2012 by James Baquet. You may share this work freely. Teachers may use it in the classroom, as long as students are told the source (URL). You may not publish this material or sell it. Please write to me if you have any questions about "fair use."

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