Political dysphemisms

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Mon Aug 17 14:13:52 UTC 2009

Sez eu.

My understanding of "dysphemism" may be too narrow, but I think of it as an
deprecatory or insulting name for some thing that is essentially neutral.  I
suppose "offensive" could be added as a possibility, but to me that would
seem to broaden the domain much too much.

E.g., suppose I prefer "African-American" (adj.) and find "Afro-American"
(adj.) theoretically "offensive."

That wouldn't make "Afro-American" a dysphemism in my book, because it is
not patently demeaning or insulting.

The referent of "Astroturf" in the current context is a some kind of
"factitious grass-roots support; partisan propaganda disguised as broad
public concern."

Leaving aside the political question of whether such a characterization as
"Astroturf" is accurate in any specific case, the referent is not
conceptually neutral. The idea of falsity and deception is right there.
Obviously the designation "Astroturf" is intended as wit, sarcasm, etc., but
it is not in itself demeaning or insuting to the phenomenon it describes.
What is truly artificial and deceptive is characterized as artificial and
deceptive in the novel designation.

"Public option," on the other hand, does have a euphemistic quality,
especially if it is used to *avoid* the transparency of "government-owned
insurance company."  But is that phrase entirely neutral semantically?  I
think not, but it comes close.  A "G-OIC" is indeed a form of "public
option," at least so long as there are "private options."  On the other
hand, is "G-OIC" in and of itself as profoundly upsetting as other terms for
which undoubtedly euphemistic synonyms exist? Cf. "die" and "pass (away)."

Whether  the concept of a "G-OIC" is as inherently disturbing as that of
"death" is, I suppose, a personal matter.

"Collateral damage":  undoubtedly euphemistic when used specifically to
avoid uttering the words and suggesting the ideas of "civilian maiming and
death."  But not quite so undoubtedly when used as a straightforward
technical term, "destruction of civilians lives and property that we can't
avoid while carrying out this operation, which has another purpose
entirely."  (I'm talking, of course, solely of the semantics involved and
not of the ethical component of such missions.)

Like so much else, "euphemism" and "dysphemism," while theoretically
distinct, are fuzzy categories.  Identifying them must be based very largely
on context and perception rater than reference to a list.


On Mon, Aug 17, 2009 at 1:14 AM, Geoffrey S. Nathan <an6993 at wayne.edu>wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Geoffrey S. Nathan" <an6993 at WAYNE.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: Political dysphemisms
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> And for those of us on other sides of the political 'spectrum', there's
> also 'Astroturf' and 'Public Option' for government-owned health insurance
> company.  One dys and one eu.
> Geoffrey S. Nathan
> Faculty Liaison, C&IT
> and Associate Professor, Linguistics Program
> +1 (313) 577-1259 (C&IT)
> +1 (313) 577-8621 (English/Linguistics)
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