Take Care with Dysphemisms

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You probably know what a euphemism is: putting lipstick on a pig, as in using the expression “pass away” in place of the word die, or “enhanced interrogation” instead of torture. Is dysphemism — essentially, the opposite concept — any more problematic?

Just as a euphemism cloaks a disagreeable or offensive concept with an innocuous or vague label, dysphemism assigns a mildly or scathingly pejorative term to a concept or person that may be considered neutral or positive or may already have a negative connotation or reputation.

For example, doctors are sometimes called quacks, and psychiatrists and psychologists are often referred to as shrinks. (Quack derives from quacksalver, from a Dutch word meaning “seller of salves,” or ointments; quack is equivalent to hawk, a verb meaning “to sell by calling out.” Shrink is a truncation of “head shrinker,” from the idea that mental health professionals are no more knowledgeable about the mind than witch doctors who shrink human heads for ritualistic purposes.) Shrink is often used inoffensively, even by psychiatric patients or by psychiatrists themselves. But quack denotes an unscrupulous doctor or someone posing as a doctor or otherwise fraudulently offering to heal others and is rarely used jocularly.

Because of the variable connotations among dysphemisms, writers should take care when considering whether to use them. Such terms are unlikely to appear in formal writing, but they may show up in more casual prose, especially in opinionated comments. An accountant might, in jest, refer to himself as a bean counter, but the connotation is of an excessively meticulous person unable to focus on anything other than saving money, and the term is generally offensive. An attorney, on the other hand, would never call herself a shyster, even in a moment of levity, and the word is provocative.

“City slicker”? I’m a relative newcomer to a rural area from a metropolitan one, and I might jokingly self-identify as such, but for anyone else who might think of calling me that, as the (mis)quote from a Gary Cooper movie goes, “Mister, smile when you call me that.” The same policy applies to tree-hugger or redneck, bookworm or “frat boy,” “pencil pusher” or “talking head”: Use with caution.

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8 thoughts on “Take Care with Dysphemisms”

  1. I was once preaching and ‘innocently’ referred to the ‘journalistic hounds’. It was a positive reference, but I was verbally lambasted by a local hack…er, I mean, journalist. ‘How dare you call me and colleagues dogs!’

  2. I’m curious about the use of italics vs. quotation marks in the last paragraph of your post. Why is tree-hugger italicized, while pencil pusher gets quotes??

  3. Ian:

    That was an overreaction, to be sure, but newshounds, if you meant “energetic or assertive journalists,” would have been a better choice.

  4. Danny:

    Good question. Words written in reference to them as words (for example, in “the word book”) are italicized, and phrases written for that purpose are enclosed in quotation marks. Hyphenated compounds are a gray area, but because the words are not separated by a letter space, I treat them as a single word.

  5. Thank you so much for the value info. I share this with my children so they are able to do well in their writing.

    Keep up the good work and KUDOS for a well inform site.

  6. Words written in reference to them as words (for example, in “the word book“) are italicized, and phrases written for that purpose are enclosed in quotation marks.

    Really? Good question indeed. Never encountered that; helpful and interesting, MN. Thanks!

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