Don, a soldier sleeping in a hammock, is abruptly awakened some hours earlier than expected and is quite alarmed, thinking the camp may be under attack by the enemy. The company headquarters runner who woke him up says, "The Old Man [i.e. the commanding officer] wants to see you." Then we are told:

Don made a rhetorical and most ungracious suggestion as to what the captain could do about it and slid silently to his feet.

Thus the author reports the use of what is presumably coarse language without quoting it. This cannot be called euphemism: it doesn't say that something bad is something good. So my question is whether there is a standard name for this device.

(This is from Robert Heinlein's novel Between Planets, which appeared in 1951.)

2 Answers 2


In TV Tropes terms, this is called the Narrative Profanity Filter.

So, you're writing a book, and one of your characters, for whatever reason, has to swear. Not a problem - unless your intended audience are children or people who are generally against swearing. Is the risk of offending them worth the artistic reward of using exactly the right word? What can you do?

Easy: Just say that the character swore, without going into exactly what he said.

There's a section explicitly talking about Heinlein:

Robert A. Heinlein loves this trope, since he was both writing in the days when such curses were still considered somewhat unprintable, and often for the juvenile market. So his characters sometimes will say things like "Expletive Deleted!" or the first-person narrator will merely describe the profanity in vague and general terms such as "I told him what I thought of him, using words I hardly ever use."

  • Your second example of Heinlein's way of doing this is more typical of him than your first. A man was asked what had been said between him and a diplomat representing an enemy country. He tells us that he "started in" but was immediately interrupted by a superior, who said, "Discuss his ancestry and habits later. The facts." Aug 1, 2020 at 5:21
  • @MichaelHardy Good to know! I didn't write the example however; it's just from the TV tropes entry--see link. :)
    – Kitkat
    Aug 3, 2020 at 14:17
  • ok, Another one from Heinlein: BEGIN QUOTE "I don't know why I should fret, but there is something about you that arouses the maternal in me. Your big blue eyes, I guess." "Oh, go sniff space! Anyway, my eyes are brown." "I was speaking,' Sam said gently, "of the eyes in your dewy pink soul. Don't speak to strangers while I'm gone." Max used an expression he had picked up from Mr. Gee; Sam grinned and left. END QUOTE Sep 25, 2020 at 6:06

If you want the general idea, then it's an "omitted the vulgar language", "ellided over the swearing", or "summarized his insults".

But a singular term of art in linguistics for the concept... I don't know of one.

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