Friday, July 14, 2006


[From DFW's famous and fun essay on the puzzle of English usage, one finds this...]
In language, both dysphemism (from the Greek 'dys' δυς = non and 'pheme' φήμη = speech) and cacophemism (in Greek 'cacos' κακός = bad) are rough opposites of euphemism, meaning the usage of an intentionally harsh word or expression instead of a polite one.

The latter is generally used more often in the sense of something deliberately offensive, while the former can be either offensive or merely humorously deprecating. Examples of dysphemism include dead tree edition for the paper version of an online magazine, or the American military personnel's use of shit on a shingle for their common breakfast of creamed chipped beef on toast.

Dysphemism is as common as euphemism in everyday usage. Few sports teams actually slaughter or annihilate one another; few companies crush their competition; no one is dumb as a box of hair (nor, for that matter, a box of rocks or bricks, or a sack of hammers, with or without their heads, door knobs however is subject to opinion).

Many of the same subjects can be dysphemized as euphemized, such as sex and death—a well-thought-of dead person may be said to have passed away, a disrespected one to have kicked the bucket or to be worm food. Oddly, some humorous expressions can be both euphemistic and dysphemistic depending on context: for example spank the monkey might be used as either a softer alternative to "masturbate", or as a more deliberately provocative one depending on the audience. Likewise, pushing up daisies can be taken as either softer or harsher than "died". This is because terms which can be dysphemic can also be affectionate.

The dysphemism treadmill

Similar to the concept of the euphemism treadmill, a complementary "dysphemism treadmill" exists, but is more rarely observed. In these cases, notions of profanity, obscenity and other words once called "offensive" are later described as "objectionable", then "questionable", and in some cases, they reach near- or outright acceptability.

One modern example is the word "sucks." "That sucks" began as American slang for "that is very unpleasant", and is shorthand for "that sucks dick." It developed over the late-20th century from being an extremely vulgar phrase to mainstream slang. A similar phenomenon happened with "jerk", which began as "jerk-off", in reference to someone who was boorish or stupid, and was a forbidden term in public media, but is now acceptable (for example, the Steve Martin film, The Jerk).

Sometimes a term will go from being a euphemism to being a dysphemism and then go back to being a euphemism. "Queer" and "gay" for example both started as euphemisms for homosexual, and then got on the euphemism treadmill and became insults — but are now the preferred adjectives amongst the gay community itself.


  • Worm food (for dead)
  • (in French) "Manger les pissenlits par la racine" meaning "to eat dandelion's roots" (for to be dead)
  • Broken, crippled, losing (for buggy[1])
  • Pushing up daisies (for dead)
  • Point your percy at the porcelaine (for urinate)

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