Linguistics Euphemisms and Dysphemisms
by
Kate Burridge
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0210

Introduction

From the earliest periods in history, and in all human societies, themes such as “private parts,” bodily functions, sex, incest, lust, notions of social status, hate, dishonesty, drunkenness, madness, disease, death, dangerous animals, fear, and God have inspired taboos and inhibitions. Thus, this has led to a considerable impact on languages by censoring discussion of these topics. Euphemism and dysphemism are frequently the result of these taboos. In its conception, the Tongan word taboo refers to forbidden behavior, forbidden because it is believed that such behavior is dangerous to certain individuals or to the society as a whole. To violate such taboos automatically causes harm (even death) to the violator and perhaps his or her fellows. In this context, euphemism (avoidance language and evasive expression) can be quite literally a matter of life or death. However, taboos do not always involve the possibility of physical or metaphysical injury. Old Polynesia supplied evidence of the sorts of taboos on bad manners akin to those of contemporary societies; these taboos are merely social sanctions placed on behavior regarded as distasteful or impolite within a given social context. In this context, euphemism is the polite thing to do, and dysphemism (offensive language) breaks social convention. These expressions are not merely a response to taboo, however; they can function when people simply avoid using, or alternatively decide to use, a distasteful or infelicitous style of language. Euphemism (Greek eu “good, well”; phēmē “speaking”) and dysphemism (Greek dys “bad, unfavorable”) are obverse sides of the same coin. The concepts imply the presence of direct terms that are neither sweet-sounding, evasive, or overly polite (euphemistic), nor harsh, blunt, or offensive (dysphemistic). To fill this gap, linguist Keith Allan created orthophemism (Greek ortho- “proper, straight, normal”). Orthophemisms are alternatives to offensive expressions and, like euphemisms, are typically preferred as desirable or appropriate terms. Examples of all three kinds of “phemistic” language might be pass away (euphemism), snuff it (dysphemism), and die (orthophemism). However, “X-phemism” (the union set of “phemisms”) is primarily determined by evaluating expressions within the particular context in which they are uttered. What determines the X-phemistic value are social attitudes or conventions; these can vary considerably between dialect groups and even between individual members of the same community. The empirical and theoretical literature on X-phemism crosses a number of discipline areas, being comprised not only of contributions made by linguists, but also of research in sociology, anthropology, psychology, literature, and related areas. In contrast to many other subjects, however, this one has received comparatively little scholarly attention, an effect perhaps of the perceived sensitivity and informality of the taboos that so often motivate X-phemistic expression.

General Overviews of X-phemism

One early work that highlights a range of social, linguistic, and historical aspects of euphemism is Enright 1985. Allan and Burridge 1991 is a pioneering linguistic treatment. Later works, such as Allan and Burridge 2006, advance different theoretical perspectives, and Casas Gómez 2009 and Chamizo-Domínguez 2005 discuss the cognitive dimensions of the euphemistic–dysphemistic phenomenon. Other treatments of euphemism, such as Slovenko 2005, either tend to be rather brief descriptive accounts or highlight specific aspects of the linguistic, social, and psychological life of X-phemisms and are dealt with elsewhere in this article (see, e.g., X-phemism and Politeness and X-phemism and Language Change). The literature on dysphemism focuses overwhelmingly on swearing. Timothy Jay’s works are among the first serious and extensive examinations of profanity from both a linguistic and psychological point of view (e.g., Jay 1992); McEnery 2009 uses corpus data to shed light on the typology and sociolinguistics of swearing. Dewaele 2010 gives the multilingual perspective on swear words and taboos. Bergen 2016 reflects the growing academic interest in the cognitive aspects of cursing.

  • Allan, K., and K. Burridge. 1991. Euphemism & dysphemism: Language used as shield and weapon. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    The first serious linguistic exploration into taboo language and its role in everyday life.

  • Allan, K., and K. Burridge. 2006. Forbidden words: Taboo and the censoring of language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511617881E-mail Citation »

    An expansion and refinement of ideas on X-phemism contained in Allan and Burridge 1991, but with a greater emphasis on taboo and censorship (both the institutionalized and self-imposed censoring of language).

  • Bergen, B. K. 2016. What the f: What swearing reveals about our language, our brains, and ourselves. New York: Basic Books.

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    A book for academics and the wider community; its focus is on how swearing changes across languages and across time and on what swearing can reveal about how human brains process language.

  • Casas Gómez, M. 2009. Towards a new approach to the linguistic definition of euphemism. Language Sciences 31.6: 725–739.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.langsci.2009.05.001E-mail Citation »

    A critical analysis of different definitions of euphemism that delivers a new theoretical proposal, beginning with a classification of euphemism into word taboo and concept taboo.

  • Chamizo-Domínguez, P. J. 2005. Some theses on euphemisms and dysphemisms. Studia Anglica Resoviensia 3:9–16.

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    A study that emphasizes the linguistic and cognitive features shared between X-phemism and metaphor.

  • Dewaele, J.-M. 2010. Emotions in multiple languages. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230289505E-mail Citation »

    The first large-scale project on the experiences of multilingual users in their communication of positive and negative emotions in different languages. Chapter 8 (pp. 132–166) deals with the variables that affect the multilinguals ́ perception of swearing.

  • Enright, D. J. 1985. Fair of speech: The uses of euphemism. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    A collection of sixteen essays that explore very different aspects of the phenomenon of euphemism (and its flip side, dysphemism). Topics include general reflections on euphemism and its history; specific taboo areas, such as sex, death, and other natural bodily functions; the euphemistic language of literature (including religious texts); and the jargon of politics, the law, medicine, office life, and the military.

  • Jay, T. 1992. Cursing in America: A psycholinguistic study of dirty language in the courts, in the movies, in the schoolyards and on the streets. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    DOI: 10.1075/z.57E-mail Citation »

    The first of its kind to address the relationship between swearing and language acquisition, gender stereotypes, anger expression, and offensiveness (using data from field studies and laboratory-based experiments).

  • McEnery, T. 2009. Swearing in English: Bad language, purity and power from 1586 to the present. London: Routledge.

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    A sociohistorical approach to explaining how modern attitudes to bad language have evolved (using the spoken section of the British National Corpus (London: South Bank University, 1996).

  • Slovenko, R. 2005. Euphemisms. The Journal of Psychiatry & Law 33.4: 533–548.

    DOI: 10.1177/009318530503300411E-mail Citation »

    A concise exploration of some expressions of euphemism and dysphemism.

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