Grammar Gremlins: Euphemism or Dysphemism?

Returning once more to Theodore Bernstein’s long list of Rhetorical Figures and Faults (in The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage) with the Gremlins, we reach one we’re all familiar with, and another I’d never heard of, at least by name.

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We all know what a euphemism is, a nicer or gentler word for something disturbing, or perhaps not suited for polite conversation. You know, like death. When someone announces a death, we say “Sorry for your loss.” Even years after the event, we say “George passed away.” Or, less solemn but still skirting the words “death” and “die,” we have phrases like “kick the bucket,” “buy the farm,” and “give up the ghost.”

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And then there’s sex, another area where euphemisms abound, a bit more lightheartedly. “Sleeping together?” That usually refers to a situation in which sleep is an afterthought, if it happens at all. Even the tender “making love” is a euphemism. From “afternoon delight” to “mattress mambo” to “knocking boots,” the imaginative terms go on and on. Feel free to make up your own.

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The term I’d never heard is dysphemism, essentially the negative version of euphemism. Bernstein defines this as “the use of a disparaging or offensive term to describe something inoffensive or even grand.” He mentions “tin can” for a Navy ship, “the old lady” for one’s mother, or “shack” for mansion. A modern example might be “snail mail” for postal deliveries.

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Bernstein’s examples of dysphemisms are rather mild, but other definitions emphasize the intention to shock or offend. Animal names applied to people are one form: weasel, snake, pig, chicken, sheep and so on all qualify as dysphemisms: “That weasel cheated on me!” or “He never said a word in my defense, that sheep!” Dysphemisms for death might include “snuff it” or “croak.”

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Words don’t necessarily stay on one side or the other of this divide. “Toilet” was once a euphemism for several much older terms, only to be replaced over time by bathroom and then restroom, moving farther away from the original function. To complete the change, calling something else a toilet is clearly a dysphemism.

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Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. “Gratuity” sounds like a euphemism for “tip,” but it’s actually the much older word. William Brohaugh’s English Through the Ages lists “gratuity” as in use by 1525, and “tip,” with the same meaning, in use by 1755 (who knew?). So it’s more likely that “tip” is a dysphemism for “gratuity.” A phrase like “the old ball and chain” for a wife might be a euphemism if said with affection or a dysphemism if used with anger or bitterness.

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As writers of fiction, we’re seldom, if ever, looking for ways to insult or offend our readers. (Leave that to the stand-up comedians!) We’re more likely to use euphemisms and dysphemisms to avoid offense (inventing new naughty words for our characters to use, for example) or for humorous effect. Avoid the well-worn euphemisms and dysphemisms when you can, and let your imagination run wild. This is an area where a writer can have a lot of fun with words.

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