Dysphemism – euphemism’s impolite older brother
Euphemism is one of those rhetorical terms that most people would be able to define. We all use euphemisms in polite conversation, frequently relating to our bodily functions. Telling our colleagues that “I need to excrete some bodily wastes” is generally held to be Too Much Information. So we say, “I need to spend a penny”, or “I need to powder my nose”. Some euphemisms are more elaborate and more colourful than the phrase they’re replacing. My grandmother used to talk about her need to “visit the smallest room in the house”, while a term we used in sixth form was “I need to drain the lizard”. Not too sure about the etymology of that one, unless it was some kind of rhyming slang for “I’m off to see the Wizard”. Boys will be boys, and Dorothy would be blushing.
Dysphemism is euphemism’s older brother, the one who left school under a cloud after setting fire to the chemistry teacher’s beard. Instead of substituting a polite and neutral phrase, dysphemism does the opposite. It inserts a pithy, usually pejorative and quite often obscene word in its place. Examples are “snail mail” instead of the conventional postal service, or “dead tree version” for a printed publication that can also be found online. Calling someone out for their “bullshit”, doesn’t actually mean they’ve scattered bovine excrement all over your lawn. And the next time you take the children to a football match, instead of trying to clamp your two hands over four young ears when the guy next to you starts calling the bespectacled referee a “f*****g w****r” and a “four-eyed f*****t”, don’t panic. Turn to the goggle-eyed mites and use the examples so liberally provided as a discourse on the use of dysphemism in sporting commentary.
Joking aside, most racist and minority-insensitive language has its roots in dysphemism, terms like wetback, jungle bunny, and raghead. Calling someone with mental disabilities a “moron” is dysphemistic. Times change. “Retarded” was once a polite term for mental disability, clinically meaning “of retarded mental development”, but it has become dysphemistic. Certain terms are dysphemistic to one sector of the population, but not to another; after all, one man’s “terrorist” is another man’s “freedom fighter”.