A dysphemism is an expression with connotations that are offensive either about the denotatum (the object referred to by the linguistic expression) or to the audience, or both. Dysphemisms contrast with neutral or euphemistic expressions. Like euphemism, dysphemism is sometimes motivated by feelings such as fear and distaste, though it may also be motivated by hatred and contempt.
Euphemism is defined as an "...alternative to a dispreferred expression, in order to avoid possible loss of face: either one's own face or, through giving offense, that of the audience, or of some third party". A euphemism is then a term used to avoid making oneself look bad in front of others (positive face of the speaker), to express oneself without restriction (negative face of the speaker), and to avoid offending the listener (listener's negative face).
- 1 Usage
- 2 Types
- 3 Context and drift
- 4 Taboo terms
- 5 See also
- 6 Notes
- 7 References
One common use of dysphemism is the disenfranchisement of one social group by another. Dysphemisms are used by people as tools of humiliation, degradation, and minimization of people of whom they disapprove.
When a speaker uses a dysphemism, he or she uses a marked form to express his or her view or attitude towards the listener or group. This means that he or she uses a form that is not typical to his or her speech. It must be noted that marked forms are relative to the speaker and social context. Should the speaker use exclusively intimate terms to address a person (first name) then that would be his or her norm. To show social-distance or to express anger he or she would use a marked (atypical) form, thus use a more formal form of address by adding a title or using the listener's last name.
Animal names are frequently used as dysphemistic epithets. By using one, the speaker offends the listener by targeting his or her humanity. Examples include "bitch", "pig", "chicken", "snake" and "rat".
A speaker may use a minced oath when wanting to swear (interjectionally) for emphasis without offending. The illocutionary act (expressive) is dysphemistic while the locution is euphemistic so as not to offend others.
- "Oh dear!" (instead of "Oh damn!")
- "Shoot!" (instead of "Shit!")
- "Oh fudge!" (instead of "Oh fuck!")
Abusive language can be used as friendly banter between friends, intended without animosity. This is indicative of close ties, friendship, or familiarity. For example, "Hey, asshole! How's it going?" or "How's my favorite moron doing?"
"-ist" dysphemism (racist, sexist, etc.)
Ethnic slurs are dysphemisms targeted at those of a particular ethnicity, and may involve an element of stereotyping. Dysphemisms for those of a particular biological sex, religious persuasion, political stance, ability level, or any other personal trait may function likewise.
With regard to homosexuality there are a wide range of terms used: "gay", "homosexual", "queer" and "faggot" being common, with the former two being used mostly in positive or neutral contexts, while the latter two are generally considered dysphemistic when used outside of the homosexual community. The term "faggot" is considered especially inflammatory and abusive in almost all instances of utterance by a non-gay speaker.
The term "gay" can be traced back to the 19th century. It then fell into disuse before being adopted and made a positive term by the homosexual community as their preferred way to define themselves.
When a person uses another's name rather than a kinship term or appropriate title of address that is not contextually appropriate. The speaker uses a more casual or lower style than is appropriate given the social context.
- "Hey, Barack!" (rather than "Mr. President")
- "Donna, what are you doing?" (rather than "Mom")
- "How are you doing, Bill?" (rather than "Uncle Bill")
This situation may not constitute dysphemism if the speaker's expression of close social contact (via informal form of address) is welcomed by the listener, such as a mother who prefers being called by her name as opposed to "Mom" (not unknown in the UK). If this were a welcome act then it would appeal to the listener's positive face rather than damage it. Therefore this casual style would not constitute a dysphemism in this context as it is no longer offensive.
Anger or dissatisfaction with the listener (or group of people) may compel a speaker to use a name dysphemism or term of address dysphemism.
Offending another person with a gesture or action. There are many different non-verbal dysphemisms that vary culturally, such as raising the middle finger to mean "fuck you" in Western culture, or forming the "A-ok" circle with the index finger and thumb, which carries the same meaning in some Latin American countries.
Various slang terms that are dysphemistic in one culture may not be if they hold a different meaning in another culture. For instance the word "fag" when used in American English is typically a slur against gay men. However in British English the word "fag" is also an inoffensive term used to refer to a cigarette. Likewise the word "fanny" when used in American English is a euphemism for one's buttocks, benign enough that children use it. However in British English the word "fanny" is slang for a vagina, and is considered to be vulgar.
Context and drift
Some phrases that are euphemisms in certain contexts can be considered dysphemistic in others. These are often referred to as X-phemisms, as the nature of whether the utterance is dysphemistic or not depends on the context of the utterance. When speaking to a close friend about death, it would be considered euphemistic to say "he kicked the bucket". However if a doctor were to say this phrase following an unsuccessful operation, the phrase would be considered dysphemistic in the context of professional medicine. Likewise many X-phemisms regarding sexual intercourse could be considered euphemistic within peer groups yet dysphemistic in certain audiences. One might be more likely to say that they "got laid" to one of their Fraternity brothers than to their grandparents.
There may also be instances in which conflicting definitions of the same word may lead to unintentional dysphemism. The pejorative use of the word terrorist is a salient example, as definitions of the word terrorist may vary across cultures and even within individuals in the same culture. Typically the word "terrorist" refers to one who uses violence and fear as a means to pursue political, religious or ideological aims. This definition is ambiguous, and many groups that refer to themselves as "freedom fighters", "revolutionaries", "rebels" or "liberators" are referred to as "terrorists" by dissenting parties. Labeling groups as terrorist draws associations with other groups labeled as such even when no direct connection might be present. In 2003 the decision to label the Moro Islamic Liberation Front as a terrorist organization was taken by the MILF to be an escalation of violence. It was their belief that by calling their organization a terrorist organization they were being directly compared to Al-Qaeda, with whom they claim no connection. Naming groups in this way has been described, "A name will place emphasis on certain aspects and characteristics of an object, while neglecting or omitting other key areas".
The interpretation and the production of a text (whether it be written, verbal, or multi-modal) is dependent on the previous knowledge and experience of the individual doing the interpretation or production. The individual's interpretation is accomplished through the active processing of matching features with representations stored in their long term memory. Certain lexical items can be used to activate these representations, conjuring stereotypical images which then become the prototype in the listener's mind. Dysphemic terms activate negative stereotypes present in the listener's memory and affect their interpretation of the given text.
Move from euphemism to dysphemism
The process of pejoration leads to words that were once considered euphemisms to now be considered dysphemisms. Words like "negro" and "colored" were once considered euphemisms, but have since been replaced by terms like "black" and "African-American". Sometimes slight modifications of dysphemisms can make them acceptable: while "colored people" is considered dysphemistic, "people of color" does not carry the same connotations. The words "idiot" and "moron" were once polite terms to refer to people with mental disabilities, though now are rarely used outside of dysphemism. Likewise, the word "retard" was introduced once these terms were outdated to be the new polite version. Since then "retard" has been used dysphemistically suggesting that this term might now be outdated as well. It is a common phenomenon for a word with both taboo and non-taboo meanings to be semantically narrowed to the taboo definition alone. The term "euphemism treadmill", coined by Steven Pinker, describes this process where terms with an emotionally charged referent that were once euphemisms become dysphemistic by association with the referent. From the mid 20th century on, the central meaning of the word "gay" shifted from the original meaning akin to "merry" or "cheerful" towards the current meanings of "homosexual" and "worthless".
Reclamation of dysphemisms
"Nigger" would typically be dysphemistic; however, if used between African-Americans it may be seen as neutral by the listener depending on his/her social distance to the speaker and perceived status relative to the other party; see Nigga.
Reclamations of taboo terms have been both successful and unsuccessful. The term "Chicano" (from Spanish meaning "boy") was a derogatory term and has been successfully reclaimed. Some terms like "Yankee" (for an American) or "Punk" for a late 1970s rocker, began as derogatory but were not considered such and adopted proudly by the named group. Movements to reclaim words for homosexuals such as "fag" and "dyke" are also noteworthy.
Taboo terms are used as insults, epithets, and expletives because they damage the listener's face which destroys social harmony. This is the case especially when the speaker and listener are socially distant from one another. For this reason, terms of insult are socially taboo and dysphemistic. Breaking a social taboo can act as an emotional release with the illocutionary act of expressing a feeling or attitude.
Bad or taboo words for many things far outnumber the "good" words. Hugh Rawson notices in his book Wicked Words that when looking at Roget's International Thesaurus, there are "...89 synonyms for drunk, compared to 16 for sober, and 206 for bad person compared to 82 for good person. The synonyms for unchastity in the Thesaurus fill 140 lines, occupying exactly four times as much space as those for chastity. For unchaste woman, 34 synonyms are listed, for unchaste man, 24. No synonyms at all are given for chaste woman and chaste man."
Bodily effluvia, or bodily excretions, are perennial targets for dysphemy. Many communities believed that such bodily effluvia as a person's feces, spittle, blood, nail-parings, and hair-clippings were cursed. This belief was so strong that until the twentieth century, a person's bodily effluvia were formally cursed and either buried or drowned together with a tablet on which the curse was inscribed. This revulsion is something that is apparently learned; children and animals are not put off by bodily effluvia. In a study done at Monash and La Trobe Universities in Melbourne, Australia, subjects rated bodily effluvia according to how revolting they found it. Feces, vomit, semen and menstrual blood were rated as most revolting while nail parings, breath, blood from a wound, hair clippings, and breast milk were rated as least revolting. This continuum of the level of revulsion is apparent in certain dysphemism such as shitter for "toilet", to come off for "to ejaculate", and puke hole for "tavern" or "toilet".
|Look up dysphemism in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- ^a dysphemism – from the Greek dys δύς "mis-" and pheme φήμη "reputation"
- ^b malphemism – from the Latin malus "bad"
- ^c cacophemism – from the Greek kakos κακός "bad"
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- "Definition of Fanny". The American Heritage Dictionary.
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