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A dysphemism is an expression with connotations that are offensive either about the subject matter or to the audience, or both. Dysphemisms contrast with neutral or euphemistic expressions.[1] Dysphemism is sometimes motivated by feelings such as fear, distaste, hatred, and contempt.


The word dysphemism comes from the Greek dys δύς "mis-" and pheme φήμη "speech, voice, reputation". Related terms include malphemism (from the Latin malus "bad"), and cacophemism (from the Greek kakos κακός "bad").


One common use of dysphemism is the disenfranchisement of one social group by another. Dysphemisms are used to humiliate, degrade, and minimize people of whom one disapproves.[2]

A dysphemism is a marked form which expresses the speaker's view or attitude towards the listener or group, as opposed to a form that is typical of his or her speech. Thus 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 their norm. To show social distance or to express anger one would use a marked (atypical) form, for example a more formal form of address, adding a title or using the listener's last name.[1]



One kind of dysphemism is synecdochic, where a part is used to represent the whole,[1] such as "He's a prick." or "What an asshole."

Dysphemistic epithets

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".[3]

Euphemistic dysphemism

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.

  • "Shoot!" (instead of "Shit!")
  • "Oh fudge!" (instead of "Oh fuck!")

Dysphemistic euphemism

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, you old bastard! How's it going?".

"-ist" dysphemism (racist, sexist, homophobic, 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, religion, political stance, sexual orientation, ability level, or any other personal trait may function likewise.

Name dysphemism

When a person uses another's name rather than an appropriate kinship term or title of address.[clarification needed] The speaker uses a more casual or lower style than is appropriate given the social context.

  • "Donna, what are you doing?" (rather than "Mom")
  • "How are you doing, Bill?" (rather than "Uncle Bill")

(Many languages, to a greater extent than in English, use different forms to indicate respect, and thus provide more scope for such dysphemism and require care by non-native speakers to avoid causing offence by unintentional dysphemism.)

This use of language may not constitute dysphemism if the choice of words used by the speaker is welcomed by the listener, such as a mother who prefers being called by her name as opposed to "Mom" ("Mum" in some Commonwealth countries). In that case it would appeal to the listener's positive face rather than damage it, and would thus not be a dysphemism.

Anger or dissatisfaction with the listener (or group of people) may compel a speaker to use a name dysphemism or term of address dysphemism.[1]

Cross-cultural dysphemism

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 usually an inoffensive term used to refer to a cigarette.[4] Likewise, the word "fanny" when used in American English is a euphemism for one's buttocks, so benign that children use it. However, in British English, the word "fanny" is slang for a vagina, and is considered to be vulgar.[5]

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:[6] 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 use this phrase after 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 a friend than to one's grandparents.[6]

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.[7] Labeling groups as terrorist draws associations with other groups labeled as such even when no direct connection might be present. In 2003, the Philippine government's intention to label the Moro Islamic Liberation Front as a terrorist organization was indicated by the organization to be an escalation of hostilities.[7] 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".[7]

The interpretation and the production of a text (whether it be written, verbal, or multi-modal) depends on the previous knowledge and experience of the interpreter or producer. The individual compares matching features with representations stored in their long term memory.[8] 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,[9] 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,[10] but they are now rarely used without dysphemism. Likewise, the word "retard" was introduced as a new polite form once the previous terms were outdated. Since then "retard" has been used dysphemistically, suggesting that this term might now be outdated as well. Often a word with both taboo and non-taboo meanings becomes restricted to the taboo definition alone. The term "euphemism treadmill",[11] coined by Steven Pinker, describes this process, in which terms with an emotionally charged referent that were once euphemisms become dysphemistic by association with the referent.

Reclamation of dysphemisms

"Nigger" would typically be dysphemistic; however, if used between African-Americans it may be seen as neutral (although extremely casual) by the listener, depending on his/her social distance from the speaker and perceived status relative to the other party;[1] 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.[3]

Taboo terms

Taboo terms are used as insults, epithets, and expletives because they damage the listener's face, which might destroy social harmony — especially if 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.[1]

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."[3]

Bodily effluvia, or bodily excretions, are perennial targets for dysphemy. Many communities historically believed that bodily effluvia such as feces (faeces), spittle, blood, nail-parings, and hair-clippings were cursed. Such revulsion is apparently learned: children and animals are not put off by bodily effluvia (unless they have a foul smell). In a study done at Monash and La Trobe Universities in Melbourne, Australia, subjects rated bodily effluvia according to how revolting they found them. 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.[1] 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".[12]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Allan, Keith; Burridge, Kate (2001). Euphemism and Dysphemism: Language Used As Shield and Weapon (1st Replica Books ed.). Bridgewater, N.J.: Replica Books. ISBN 978-0-7351-0288-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Allan, Keith; Burridge, Kate (2006). Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language (Reprinted ed.). Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-52564-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Rawson, Hugh (1989). Wicked words: a treasury of curses, insults, put-downs, and other formerly unprintable terms from Anglo-Saxon times to the present (1st ed.). New York: Crown Publishers. ISBN 0-517-57334-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "Definition of Fag". The American Heritage Dictionary.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "Definition of Fanny". The American Heritage Dictionary.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.0 6.1 Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  8. Fairclough, Norman (2001). Language and power (2nd ed.). Harlow, [u.a.]: Longman. ISBN 978-0-582-41483-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Read, Allan (1934). "An Obscenity Symbol". American Speech. 9 (4). |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Gould, Stephen Jay (1996). The mismeasure of man (Rev. and expanded ed.). New York: Norton. ISBN 0-393-03972-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Pinker, Steven (2002). The blank slate: the modern denial of human nature. New York: Penguin. ISBN 978-0-14-200334-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Spears, Richard A. (2001). Slang and euphemism: a dictionary of oaths, curses, insults, ethnic slurs, sexual slang and metaphor, drug talk, college lingo, and related matters (3. rev. and abridged ed.). New York [u.a.]: Signet. ISBN 978-0-451-20371-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>