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On dysphemism and euphemism

Q: I know that a euphemism is an inoffensive substitute for an expression considered offensive. But is there a term that refers to an offensive substitute for an inoffensive expression, such as using “death tax” for “estate tax”?

A: Yes, there is such a term—“dysphemism,” a word that’s about 150 years old.

A “dysphemism” is an unpleasant or derogatory word or expression that’s used in place of a pleasant or inoffensive one.

So “dysphemism” is the opposite of “euphemism” and in fact was modeled after the earlier word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

When it was formed in the 19th century, the OED explains, “dysphemism” was a combination of the negative prefix “dys-” plus the “-phemism” portion of “euphemism.”

The earlier word, which has been part of English since the mid-17th century, is from the Greek rhetorical term euphemismos (for speaking well, or speaking with good words). The elements are eu- (good, well) plus pheme (speech).

John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins, says euphemismos was first used by the Greeks to denote “the avoidance of words of ill omen at religious ceremonies, but it was subsequently taken up by grammarians to signify the substitution of a less for a more offensive word.”

“Its opposite, dysphemism,” Ayto continues, means “use of a more offensive word,” and was a modern coinage using the Greek prefix dus– (bad, difficult).

The noun “dysphemism” was first recorded, as far as we can tell, in the April 1873 issue of Macmillan’s Magazine, in an article by Lionel A. Tollemache:

“The great system which Comte, and other assailants, call by the euphemism, or dysphemism, of Catholicism.”

(Tollemache’s article was reprinted in the digest Every Saturday in May 1873. In addition, it appeared in the 1884 book Safe Studies, a collection of essays and poems by him and his wife, Beatrix L. Tollemache, a citation that’s listed in the OED.)

We also found this example from the other side of the Atlantic, in an 1876 issue of Transactions of the American Philological Association:

“The accuser, even when driven into the last corner, can still say: ‘Oh, I am quite sure that he was angry, though he did not show it’; then this is confessed to be a mere adventurous dysphemism for what, when strictly defined, is only a ‘dissatisfaction at not being answered.’ ” (From an article by William Dwight Whitney, a professor of linguistics at Yale.)

The word is not part of everyday English (when found, it’s usually alongside “euphemism”), but the OED does have these later examples:

“A minor species of dysphemism is the pejorative suffix, as in ‘robustious.’ ” (From a piece by Eric H. Partridge, published in 1940 by the Society for Pure English.)

“ ‘Robber’ may also be one of those political dysphemisms used to discredit a nationalist rebel.” (From a June 1962 issue of the British weekly John O’London’s.)

Although the term “dysphemism” isn’t common (most of the examples we’ve found are in lexical discussions about it), the use of dysphemisms is not all that uncommon.

Some examples that readily come to mind are “death panels” for “end-of-life counseling,” “tree hugger” for “environmentalist,” “partial-birth abortion” for “late-term abortion,” “reactionary” for “conservative,” “bleeding heart” for “liberal,” “bureaucrat” for “official,” “do-gooder” for “altruist,” “regime” for “administration,” and “big brother” for “government.”

As for euphemisms, we’ve discussed examples of them many times over the years, but we haven’t written much about the development of the word itself. So what better time?

“Euphemism” was first recorded in English, according to OED citations, in the mid-1600s.

Originally it was a term for a rhetorical device, the method of substituting a favorable word or expression for a harsher or more offensive one that might be more precise.

In this sense, the OED says, the word was first recorded in 1656 in Thomas Blount’s Glossographia: “Euphemism, a good or favourable interpretation of a bad word.”

In the following century, the meaning of “euphemism” evolved from a rhetorical device to the word itself, the modern sense of the term. These 19th-century citations in the OED are good illustrations:

“A shorn crown … a euphemism for decapitation.” (From James Anthony Froude’s History of England From the Fall of Wolsey to the Death of Elizabeth, 2nd ed., 1860.)

“The Skunk yields a handsome fur, lately become fashionable, under the euphemism of ‘Alaska Sable.’ ” (From Elliott Coues’s monograph Fur-bearing Animals, 1877.)

After those headless and furless examples, we’re wordless.

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