dysphemism (words)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

"If a euphemism is a shield to protect our sensibilities," say Barber and Berdan in The Emperor's Mirror (1998), "a dysphemism is a sword to wound them.". (Hero Images/Getty Images)


Dysphemism is the substitution of a more offensive or disparaging word or phrase for one considered less offensive, such as the use of the slang term "shrink" for "psychiatrist." Dysphemism is the opposite of euphemism. Adjective: dysphemistic.

Though often meant to shock or offend, dysphemisms may also serve as in-group markers to signal closeness.

Linguist Geoffrey Hughes points out that "[a]lthough this linguistic mode has been established for centuries and the term dysphemism was first recorded in 1884, it has only recently acquired even a specialist currency, being unlisted in many general dictionaries and reference books" (An Encyclopedia of Swearing, 2006).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

From the Greek, "a non word"

Examples and Observations

  • When applied to people, animal names are usually dysphemisms: coot, old bat, pig, chicken, snake, skunk, and bitch, for example.
  • Euphemisms and Dysphemisms for Death
    "There is virtually no aspect of human experience free from dysphemism. . . .

    "Death generates such typical euphemisms as to pass away, to pass on, to depart this life, go to one's Maker, and so on. Parallel dysphemisms would be to snuff it, to croak, and to push up daisies, since these allude graphically and cruelly to the physical aspect of death, down to breathing one's last, the death rattle, and being reincorporated into the cycle of nature."
    (Geoffrey Hughes, An Encyclopedia of Swearing. Routledge, 2006)

  • Dysphemisms and Stylistic Discord
    "Speakers resort to dysphemism to talk about people and things that frustrate and annoy them, that they disapprove of and wish to disparage, humiliate and degrade. Curses, name-calling and any sort of derogatory comment directed towards others in order to insult or to wound them are all examples of dysphemism. Exclamatory swear words that release frustration or anger are dysphemisms. Like euphemism, dysphemism interacts with style and has the potential to produce stylistic discord; if someone at a formal dinner party were to publicly announce I'm off for a piss, rather than saying Excuse me for a moment, the effect would be dysphemistic."
    (Keith Allan and Kate Burridge, Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language. Cambridge University Press, 2006)
  • Gratuity and Tip
    "I used to think gratuity was a euphemism for tip until I discovered that I had got it the wrong way round, and that tip was a dysphemism for gratuity. . . . Gratuity is much older than tip, and originally meant a gift made to anyone, including an equal."
    (Nicholas Bagnall, "Words." The Independent, December 3, 1995)
  • Dysphemisms and Slang
    "When we think of euphemisms, we think of words that are substituted because their connotations are less distressing than the words they replace. In slang you frequently have the opposite phenomenon, dysphemism, where a relatively neutral word is replaced with a harsher, more offensive one. Such as calling a cemetery a 'boneyard.' Referring to electrocution as 'taking the hot seat' would be another. . . . Even more dysphemistic would be 'to fry.'"
    (Interview with J. E. Lighter, American Heritage, October 2003)
  • Dysphemisms in Context
    "A jocular approach to death is only dysphemistic if the Hearer can be expected to regard it as offensive. For instance, if a doctor were to inform close family that their loved one has pegged out during the night, it would normally be inappropriate, insensitive, and unprofessional (i.e., dysphemistic). Yet given another context with quite a different set of interlocutors, the same expression could just as well be described as cheerfully euphemistic."
    (Keith Allan and Kate Burridge, Euphemism and Dysphemism. Oxford University Press, 1991)

    Pronunciation: DIS-fuh-miz-im

    Also Known As: cacophemism