If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, Try a Dysphemism

From The Wall Street Journal:

Dysphemism is a useful word. It’s the reverse of euphemism. H.W. Fowler’s brief entry on euphemism in his excellent “Modern English Usage” reads: a “mild or vague or periphrastic expression as a substitute for blunt precision or disagreeable truth.” Needing to use the toilet, one takes a pass on the precise words available and supplies one of the many euphemisms at hand, among them “going to the loo,” “inspecting the plumbing,” “visiting the House of Commons.” I had a friend, now long gone, whose speech was larded with dysphemisms. Of Jewish academics, some among them famous, who attempted to pass themselves off as gentiles, he would say “At least X has never taken advantage of being Jewish.”

Euphemists fancy themselves polite, dysphemists fancy themselves precise. Dysphemists wear their linguistic trousers high up and tight, euphemists don’t mind donning baggy pants. Euphemists often come off prissy, dysphemists brutal.

Certain subjects bring out the differences between the two. For euphemists abortion is designated “women’s reproductive rights,” for dysphemists it is “the remedy for careless copulation,” or, darker, “killing babies.” For a euphemist death is “passing away” or “heading to the beyond”; for a dysphemist death is “kicking the bucket,” “buying the ranch,” “case closed,” “fini.” I have of late been availing myself of a euphemism for death of my own devising—“departing the planet”—which suggests the possibility of a later life on another planet.

Whether you are a euphemist or dysphemist has much to do with temperament. Euphemisms tend to be optimistic and uplifiting, dysphemisms sometimes amusing but often dark. The euphemist through his choice of language generally wants to make life seem less stark, more agreeable; the dysphemist wants above all to be accurate in his descriptions and depictions of life. The former fancies he travels under the banner of pleasantry, the latter under that of unadorned truthfulness.

Euphemism can of course have its political uses. Political correctness has brought with it a number of new euphemisms, “differently abled” for disabled, “children at risk” for juvenile delinquents, “unhoused” for homeless and scores of others. More recently, Harvard University called its then president Claudine Gay’s plagiarism “duplicative language,” thereby attempting to blur if not demote the seriousness of copying the work of others without attribution. A dysphemist might call Ms. Gay, with the large salary she will retain even though no longer president of Harvard, an “affirmative action heiress.”

Using euphemisms one can feel both elegant and (if need be) artfully deceptive. Dysphemisms cut through the nonsense supplied by—you will have guessed it—euphemisms. The novelist Kingsley Amis remarked of the euphemism “workshop” to describe classes in creative writing that, “If there’s one word that sums up everything that’s gone wrong since the war, it’s Workshop.” Think of the sad euphemism of “collateral damage” in war to describe civilian deaths. Yet not all euphemisms are nonsense. Many are necessary; some are useful; others make life seem less coarse. Better, I suppose, to have “a negative cash-flow problem” than to be broke.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal