Definition and Examples of Orthophemism

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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The term orthophemism refers to a direct or neutral expression that isn't sweet-sounding, evasive, or overly polite (like a euphemism) or harsh, blunt, or offensive (like a dysphemism). Also known as straight talk.

The term orthophemism was coined by Keith Allan and Kate Burridge in Forbidden Words (2006). The word is derived from the Greek, "proper, straight, normal" plus "speaking."

"Both euphemism and orthophemism are typically polite," notes Keith Allen. "They differ in that an orthophemism makes bald-on-record reference to a topic, where a euphemism distances a speaker from it through figurative language" ("Benchmark for Politeness" in Interdisciplinary Studies in Pragmatics, Culture and Society, 2016).

Examples and Observations

"Orthophemisms are 'more formal and more direct (or literal)' than euphemisms. Defecate, because it literally means 'to shit,' is an orthophemism; poo is a euphemism, and shit is a dysphemism, the taboo word the others were created to avoid." (Melissa Mohr, Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing. Oxford University Press, 2013)

Orthophemisms and Euphemisms

"What is the difference between orthophemisms and euphemisms?... Both arise from conscious or unconscious self-censoring; they are used to avoid the speaker being embarrassed and/or ill thought of and, at the same time, to avoid embarrassing and/or offending the hearer or some third party. This coincides with the speaker being polite. Now to the difference between orthophemism and euphemism: Like euphemisms, dysphemisms are typically more colloquial and figurative than orthophemisms (but, for instance, to truthfully call someone fat is direct)." (Keith Allan and Kate Burridge, Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language. Cambridge University Press, 2006)

An orthophemism is typically more formal and more direct (or literal) than the corresponding euphemism.

A euphemism is typically more colloquial and figurative (or indirect) than the corresponding orthophemism.

Words in Context

"As alternatives to offensive expressions, orthophemisms, like euphemisms, will typically be preferred as desirable or appropriate terms. Examples of all three kinds of language expressions would be pass away (typically a euphemism), snuff it (typically a dysphemism), and die (typically an orthophemism). However, these descriptions are problematic, since what determines them is a set of social attitudes or convention that may vary considerably between dialect groups and even between individual members of the same community." (Keith Allan and Kate Burridge, Forbidden Words. Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Calling a Spade a Spade

"'Now, as you know,' he said slowly, looking up at the ceiling, 'we've had a spot of trouble round here. First, there was the business on the circus field; next, the performance at the Pigeons; third, this spot of bother at Viccary's farm.

"'Why don't you say murder?' asked Keith. The inspector stopped looking at the ceiling and looked at my brother instead.

"'I don't say murder because it isn't a nice word,' he replied. 'But, if you prefer it, I can use it.'

"'I do prefer it.'

"'Like to call a spade a spade?'

"'Well, that's preferable to calling it the grave-digger's toothpick,' said Keith." (Gladys Mitchell, The Rising of the Moon, Michael Joseph, 1945)

The Lighter Side of Orthophemism

"Let us all point an accusing finger at Mr. Latour.

Mr. Latour is an illiterate boor.
He watches horse racing, instead of the sport of kings, when at the track,
And to him first base is simply first base, instead of the initial sack.
He eats alligator pear, instead of avocado;
He says fan, or enthusiast, instead of aficionado. . . .

"He drinks his drinks in a saloon, instead of a tavern or grill,
And pronounces "know-how" "skill."
He calls poor people poor, instead of underprivileged,
Claiming that the English language is becoming overprivileged.
He says the English language ought to get out of the nursery and leave the toys room,
So he goes to the bathroom, instead of the little boys' room." (Ogden Nash, "Long Time No See, 'Bye Now," 1949)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Orthophemism." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Definition and Examples of Orthophemism. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Orthophemism." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).