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Dysphemism , also cacophemism, is a technical term from linguistics for a linguistic expression that contains a (often strong) negative evaluation of people, things or facts or arouses negative associations with them. It's an antonym to euphemism .

With a dysphemism, what is designated is - often in a drastic way - belittled and disregard expressed. Such a derogatory expression is often used deliberately instead of a neutral one, especially in public political discussion. Example: " Hartzer " for the unemployed or "Value West" derogatory for Western values ​​or for the Western world as a whole.


The word Dysphemism derived from the Latinized form of ancient Greek δυσφημία dysphēmía , German , words of evil omen diatribe ' end and goes back to the prefix δυς- that something Unhappy or retardant called (this corresponds to the German prefix, mis- 'or' un- ') and φημί phēmí ' I say '. The variant formed with κακός kakós means 'bad, bad, unhappy'.

Dysphemisms in public language

In public usage, dysphemism - like its semantic counterpart, euphemism - is used as a stylistic device , especially in political rhetoric . While a euphemism arouses positive attendant feelings and is useful for naming (as a rule) one's own affairs, a dysphemism is used to deliberately devalue the opposing position. In the case of controversial issues in the competition between political parties, the situation can arise in which two semantically contradicting expressions are available to designate the same thing. A classic example of this is the semantic opposition in the designation of rebels against a system of rule that is not popular: while those in power use highly negative connotations such as terrorist , traitor , etc., expressions such as freedom fighters , resistance fighters, armed ones are used Opposition or the like as naming the same group of people on the part of the rebels. In Germany, in the 1970s, the Red Army faction was referred to by the state / political side as the "Baader-Meinhof gang ". People who spoke neutrally about the Baader Meinhof Group were suspected of being sympathizers.

Dysphemism can largely or even completely lose its pejorative connotation (s) over time; it then becomes weaker or even neutral in value. For example, the term scandal is less received today than it was decades ago. In the meantime, the terms scandal and affair have become roughly equivalent synonyms.

If such a case of a loss of the negative connotation occurs and a strongly derogatory expression is to be used to designate the object or the facts, this can be done with a new designation. Such a process is - analogous to the same process of the loss of the positive semantic content in a euphemism, where it is called euphemism treadmill - called a dysphemism treadmill .

Differences to pejorative and swear words

The term dysphemism is very similar in meaning to the terms pejorative and swear word . The meanings of these three words partially overlap, so that one term is often used synonymously for another. However, there are certain differences:

A pejorative is a generally derogatory term in linguistics. This term names the matter from the point of view of vocabulary research and word formation . (For example, so-called pejorative suffixes are described by means of which words are given a negative content almost “automatically”.) Accordingly, pejorative also means swear words. With the word dysphemism, however, the matter is viewed more from the point of view of pragmatics , and the speech act itself - i.e. the devaluation of a person or matter - is more in the foreground than the nature of the word.

The terms dysphemism and swear word are often equated. Swear words are mostly related to people and are partly available in the vocabulary as a fixed stock (e.g. all kinds of animal names such as ox , cow or goat for any person or - mainly in Germany - bull for a police officer, as well as words from the sexual or Fecal area etc.). What counts as dysphemism, on the other hand, is often very dependent on the current speech situation and on the speech intention. Existing, neutral expressions can, depending on the situation, become dysphemisms. For example, it was only with the corresponding technical development that the dysphemistic term pirated copy (and the associated derivatives pirate and pirated copy ) came about for a copy of digital data media that is not permitted by copyright: The use of the word robbery is based on the intention of unifying the thing and its creation ascribed to criminal character. At the same time, the word pirated copy can only be used for this one thing. With a certain swear word, however, can not only be referred to a certain individual person, but it can be applied to a whole specific group of people (all women, all police officers, etc.).

Supposedly similar process: pejoration

The deliberate use of dysphemisms and the loss of the negative connotations of a linguistic expression that may result in the course of time should not be confused with the process of so-called pejoration (also: pejoration). Pejorization is a seemingly “self-evident” deterioration in the meaning of a word over time. (Typical examples are the words woman and priest , which used to be neutral, but today are in most cases and irrespective of the current situation as degrading terms.) A dysphemism, on the other hand, represents an intended "deterioration" of a person or thing and requires no specific time span within which the effect occurs.

Formation of dysphemisms

What is assessed as dysphemism by the members of a speaker community depends on various linguistic and extra-linguistic factors. Since the terms dysphemism and swear word have the same meaning to a large extent on a linguistic level , certain word formation mechanisms that are typical for swear words are also used to describe dysphemisms. Typical linguistic strategies are:

  • using words that already have a negative meaning, for example
    • Regime and ruler for government
    • gather together for oneself
    • make a deal and collaborate to work together
    • Parasite for a (even supposedly) economically dependent person
    • Troublemaker for an active opposition politician or committed citizen
    • Masterminds and backers for those responsible .
  • associating one word with another that is inherently negative; so z. B. with bastard as in bastard . The combination of a derogatory expression with a word with very high connotations is felt to be particularly expressive. Such is about a native of politically right-wing circles Terminus public enemy , in which the word nation has a high ideological content, so that pest is experienced as particularly blatant interference element.
  • the formation of neologisms , which can also arise from the combination of already existing words, but the words used for this can also be connotation-free or neutral in value; something like in
    • Wood class for the most uncomfortable class of transport in public transport (nowadays only rarely equipped with wooden benches)
    • Economic refugee for a person who does not leave their home country for reasons of political persecution or because of famine or war and is therefore not entitled to legal asylum.
  • The use of diminutive - suffixes , such as in lad , buddy or cant . However, since diminutive syllables simultaneously have the opposite positive meaning of caress ( little sister , omilein ), the act of devaluation is at the same time withdrawn to a certain extent in such expressions and the expressive power of the word is defused.
  • Reinterpret individual words or words that appear as part of a composition . As part of this strategy, a new meaning is assigned to an existing expression, for example in
  • Use of ethnophaulisms (derogatory terms for a people) and other references to ethnicity. So z. B. in the form of
    • Use of the common name itself in a derogatory way with additional application to other peoples such as Kanaks ,
    • Corruption of folk names or denominations of ethnicity such as B. at Caraway Turk for a Turk, Itaker for Italians and Poles in Poland,
    • Using a word element from another language that is typical for it, such as in (Austrian) Tschusch (using čuješ or ćuš , two commonly used words in Serbo-Croatian ) or as (mainly in Germany) in Radikalinski for radicals . The latter word has the same effect as with diminutive syllables: A derogatory moment ( radical ) is combined with a jokingly understood part of the word, here a foreign language ( -inski as the ending of Slavic surnames), and thus causes a weakening of the verbal attack.


  • Keith Allen, Kate Burridge: Euphemism & Dysphemism. Oxford University Press, New York / Oxford 1991, ISBN 0-19-506622-7 .

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Wilhelm Gemoll : Greek-German school and hand dictionary . G. Freytag Verlag / Hölder-Pichler-Tempsky, Munich / Vienna 1965.
  2. ^ Poster "Anarchist violent criminals Baader / Meinhof gang"
  3. The intellectual elite and terror
  4. For example, in the 1970s in Austria a certain political offense by members of the ruling party was described in the media and by the political opposition as an AKH scandal and this name could cause indignation; the side concerned tried to downplay the matter as a minor AKH affair . Source: Keyword AKH scandal , in: Oswald Panagl / Peter Gerlich (ed.): Dictionary of political language in Austria. Österreichischer Bundesverlag, Vienna 2007.
  5. ^ Keyword Freunderlwirtschaft , in: ibid.