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Dysphemism is a figure of speech that occurs when one uses offensive language rather than inoffensive or positive language.

If the writer, or a character in their short story, novel, narrative poem, play, or other literary work chooses to use negative language to degrade a character or person then they’re using dysphemism. There are several different types, those related to animal names, expressions that are generally inoffensive, those targeted at ethnicities, sexuality, and cultures. They are all defined below. Whether or not someone finds an insult offensive is entirely subjective. Readers should consider a speaker’s intentions in addition to how the word or phrase is received. These two things can help define someone’s character.

Dysphemism pronunciation: dis-fuh-miz-uhm

Dysphemism definition and examples


Definition of Dysphemism

Dysphemism comes from the Greek meaning “miss” or “none” and “reputation” or “speech.” When someone, such as a writer, character, or a person in the real world, uses dysphemism, they substitute something inoffensive for something offensive. This is done in order to anger or insult someone, to show one’s irritation, prejudice, or in other more light-hearted cases, to simply tease or mock a friend.

There are varying levels of dysphemism and through its categories, some types are going to be more offensive to one person than another. It is subjective depending on who is speaking and who the term or phrase is aimed at. Sometimes authors use it to humiliate one character, to show concern for a character’s actions, or to disapprove of what a character has done. It can be used colloquially, in text, in speeches, and as the result of fear and prejudice.


Types of Dysphemism

  • Synecdoche: used when a whole is used to represent a part or a part is used to represent a whole. For example, “Hey, glasses!”
  • Homophobic Dysphemism: negative words used in homosexual insults. For example, “faggot.”
  • Dysphemistic Epithets: used of animal names as insults, like “pig” or “dog.”
  • Non-verbal Dysphemism: when only gestures are used.
  • Cross-cultural Dysphemism: slang terms are used in one culture that have a different meaning in another.
  • Name Dysphemism: used when a proper name is inappropriate but used anyway. For example, calling one’s mother by her first name rather than “mom.”
  • “ist” Dysphemism: used to insult a particular ethnicity.
  • Dysphemistic Euphemism: used between friends. A joking/mocking tone is used without any real animosity.
  • Euphemistic Dysphemism: a softer expression is used rather than one that would be more insulting.


Examples of Dysphemism in Literature

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Joyce’s works are noted for the numerous examples of dysphemism that can be found within them. It’s a device that’s quite easy to work into dialogue, especially intense, emotionally rich moments. Consider the following lines and see if you can spot the examples of dysphemism:

— Sons of bitches! cried Mr.Daedalus. When he was down they turned on him to betray him and rend him like rats in a sewer. Low–lived dogs! And they look it! By Christ, they look it! They behaved rightly, cried Dante. They obeyed their bishops and their priests. Honour to them!

In this passage, Mr. Daedalus uses names like “Sons of bitches,” “Low-lived dogs,” and “rats in a sewer.” These are all animal-based insults or dysphemistic epithets. Using animal names as insults is a common practice. It’s easy to find contemporary examples as well as examples dating back to the Elizabethan period.

There are many more examples in Joyce’s writing. For instance, “Whatever else is unsure in this stinking dunghill of a world a mother’s love is not […]” from the name novel. In this quote, Joyce’s speaker, Stephen Daedalus, is comparing the world to a “stinking dunghill” and contrasting it to a “mother’s love.” One is “unsure” and terrible while the other is wonderful and certain.

Discover James Joyce’s poems.


Macbeth by William Shakespeare

In Macbeth, there are several very memorable examples of dysphemism. In Act V Scene 3 Macbeth uses the following lines while speaking to a servant.

Go prick thy face, and over-red thy fear,

Thou lily-liver’d boy. What soldiers, patch?

Death of thy soul! those linen cheeks of thine

Are counsellors to fear. What soldiers, whey-face?

In this passage, he’s telling the young servant to “prick” his face in order to make it look like he’s been injured and therefore cover up his fear. He’s “lily-livered” or cowardly and white as a lily. He’s also called “whey-face” in order to emphasize how white he is, another jab at what Macbeth sees as cowardly behaviour.

Before these lines, Macbeth uses several more insults. The lines read:

The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon!

Where got’st thou that goose look?

Here, while speaking to the same servant boy, Macbeth calls him a “loon,” or worthless and ignorant. He also uses “cream,” another reference to the colour of the boy’s pale, white skin.

Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry.


Why Do Writers Use Dysphemism?

Writers use dysphemism as a means of disapproving of, condemning, insulting, and degrading characters. One person in a story, novel, narrative poem, or play might insult another with any of the above types of dysphemism. These will vary in their level of cruelty and intimidation. Once this happens, readers will learn a bit about how that character considers another, or a group, as well as the moral compass that person possesses.

Dysphemism allows characters, or the writer, to express anger and put down someone or a group of people with who they disagree in some way. It’s easy to find examples in stories, political speeches, and in everyday conversations on the street.


Related Literary Terms

  • Euphemism: an indirect expression used to replace that something that is deemed inappropriate or crude.
  • Comedy: a humorous and entertaining genre of literature, film, and television.
  • Prose: a written and spoken language form that does not make use of a metrical pattern or rhyme scheme.
  • Novel: a long, written, fictional narrative that includes some amount of realism.
  • Nonce Word: a made-up word, or lexeme, created by a writer in poetry or fiction.


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