What Is the Meaning of the Grammar Term Cacophemism?

You Don't Want to Use This in Polite Company

The slang expression grease monkey is a cacophemistic term for a garage mechanic. The term can be used in either a pejorative or an affectionate sense. (ScottTalent/Getty Images)

Cacophemism is a word or expression that's generally perceived as harsh, impolite, or offensive, although it may be used in a humorous context. It is similar to dysphemism, and a contrast with euphemism. Etymology is from the Greek, "bad" plus "speech".

Cacophemism, says Brian Mott, "is a deliberate reaction against euphemism and involves intentional use of strong words, very often with the aim of shocking the audience or the person to whom they are addressed" ("Semantics and Translation for Spanish Learners of English", 2011).

Examples and Observations

"A cruel or offensive dysphemism is a cacophemism (from Greek kakos bad), such as using 'it' for a person: Is it coming again tonight?"
(Tom McArthur, "The Oxford Companion to the English Language". Oxford University Press, 1992)

How Neutral Terms Become Cacophemisms
"When we use cacophemisms,....we do not necessarily speak ill of anything. Cacophemistic language is a rough and raw, blunt and vulgar way of saying anything — good, evil, or neutral — of a thing. Not all of it is obscene by any means; witness 'grub' and 'duds' for example. Some are extremely vulgar, but not quite obscene (that is, not quite categorically tabooed in polite society), likely to offend but not to shock, like 'puke,' 'guts,' 'fart,' 'stink,' 'belly,' 'croak,' and 'burp.' A genuinely obscene word, in virtue of the taboo its utterance violates, is as cacophemistic as a word can be. . . .
"People naturally find some perfectly accurate descriptive terms unflattering and displeasing. It is therefore considered good manners for others to avoid these terms as much as possible, and when one cannot avoid speaking the unpleasant truth, to find descriptive synonyms that strike the ear as less blunt, though they say the same thing as the unflattering term. In this way, we generate a stream of euphemisms, in comparison to which the original descriptive term seems ever more coarse, until that term, originally neutral, becomes a cacophemism. The words 'fat' and 'old' are good examples of this process. It is now considered to be blunt almost to the point of uncouthness to refer to a fat person as 'fat.' And while there are a few dysphemistic ways of saying the same thing ('potbellied,' 'fat-assed,' 'lard-assed,' 'gross'), there are few other terms that are as cacophemistic now as the straightforward unadorned 'fat.'"
(Joel Feinberg, "Offense to Others". Oxford University Press, 1988)

Rationalizing With Euphemisms and Cacophemism
"Euphemism and cacophemism play a central role in rationalization. When we call someone a 'terrorist,' we may be using a cacophemism — making an activity seem worse than it actually is. When we call the same person a 'freedom fighter,' we may be using a euphemism — making the activity sound better than it really is. Either way, by using these words, we set ourselves up for rationalizing the harming of others."
(Ronald A. Howard and Clinton D. Korver, "Ethics for the Real World". Harvard Business Press, 2008)

Cacophemisms and Humor
"A euphemism is generally no more than the triumph of squeamishness over reality: little person for dwarf, senior citizen for old man, disturbed for crazy, etc. Cacophemisms, on the other hand, tend to reflect an attitude of rough-and-ready good humor toward the person or object in question: egghead, grease monkey, quack, etc. A further difference between the two 'isms' is that cacophemisms are more readily recognized for what they are; euphemisms tend to have acquired a wider currency in normal parlance and hence to be accepted more unthinkingly by the listener."
(Peter Bowler, "The Superior Person's Book of Words". David R. Godine, 1985)

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is the Meaning of the Grammar Term Cacophemism?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-cacophemism-words-1689819. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). What Is the Meaning of the Grammar Term Cacophemism? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-cacophemism-words-1689819 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is the Meaning of the Grammar Term Cacophemism?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-cacophemism-words-1689819 (accessed March 24, 2023).