Friday, 22 May 2015

Dysphemism - The Euphemism's Evil Cousin

Two cigarettes
Cigarettes: also known as cancer sticks, lung darts and coffin nails
(photo by Geierunited)


Noun. Late 19th century.
[from DYS- bad, unfavourable, after euphemism.]

The substitution of a derogatory or unpleasant term for a pleasant or neutral one;
a term so used. Opposed to euphemism.

The dysphemism: the bolder, brasher, nastier cousin of the euphemism. Where the euphemism seeks to mollify, the dysphemism seeks to provoke; where the euphemism seeks to spare our sensibilities, the dysphemism seeks to crash right through them - offending, stoking, inciting and scandalising with every overblown, exaggerated, scandalous syllable it can muster. In short, if there were ever a phemism you would want to introduce to your parents, dysphemism wouldn't be it.

There are many reasons we choose to use dysphemisms, not least because they're highly effective at grabbing attention. Rather than calling her exercise book Run Overweight Woman Run, for example, author Ruth Field astutely utilised the power of dysphemism with Run Fat B!tch Run (for pure provocative punch, few words rival bitch); instead of calling welfare recipients welfare recipients, newspapers like The Daily Mail prefer terms like scroungers and spongers; and what paper would run with Mentally-ill Man With Knife when it can blast Knife-Wielding Maniac across its front page.

This is not to suggest, however, that the dysphemism is pure evil. After all, it carries the upfront and forthright honesty that its holier-than-thou cousin the euphemism could only ever dream of - who isn't sickened by the duplicity of terms like ethnic cleansing, voluntary repatriation or friendly fire? At least the dysphemism is clear in what it expresses. And we all use them, perhaps even more so than euphemisms - who hasn't called their neighbour's dog a mutt? Or their child a snotty-nosed brat? Or a lawyer a vulture? Or a doctor a quack? Or a certain newspaper a hate-filled mass of right-wing bum-fodder? Let he who is without dysphemism cast the first stone.

Do please leave your most phlegmatic comments in the waffle box below. 


  1. My exercise books were only named things like BIOLOGY and LATIN. Though, come to think about it, I did have one called ROUGH...that's pretty dysphemistic, isn't it.

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