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Euphemism and Dysphemism Help

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Updated on Sep 28, 2011

Introduction to Euphemism and Dysphemism

Every time a message seems to grab us, and we think, 'I just might try it,' we are at the nexus of choice and persuasion that is advertising."

—Andrew Hacker, American political scientist (1929–)

Lesson Summary

The words people use can have a powerful effect on their listeners. By choosing certain words instead of others or by phrasing questions in a way that is meant to elicit a specific response, people may try to influence your thoughts or actions. This lesson will show you how to recognize this kind of subtle persuasion.

Your cousin likes to sky dive, mountain climb, and race cars. How would you describe him?

  • Reckless
  • Adventurous
  • Free-spirited

As different as these words are, each one can be used to describe someone who engages in the above activities. The word you choose, however, depends upon your opinion of these activities. Clearly, free-spirited is the word with the most positive slant; adventurous is more or less neutral; and reckless is negative. Your word choice will convey a particular image of your cousin—whether you intend it to or not.

Words are powerful, and they can influence us without us even realizing it. That's because they carry at least two layers of meaning: denotation and connotation. Denotation is a word's exact or dictionary meaning. Connotation is the implied or suggested meaning, the emotional impact that the word carries. For example, thin, slender, and lean all mean essentially the same thing—their denotation is the same—but they have different connotations. Slender suggests a gracefulness that thin and lean do not. Lean, on the other hand, suggests a hardness or scarcity that thin and slender do not.

Denotation: the dictionary meaning of a word

Connotation: the emotional impact or implied meaning of a word

Because words carry so much weight, advertisers, politicians, and anyone else who wants to convince you to believe one thing or another choose their words carefully. By using subtle persuasion techniques, they can often manipulate feelings and influence reactions so that viewers and listeners don't realize they're being swayed. The best way to prevent this kind of influence is to be aware of these techniques. If you can recognize them, they lose their power. It's like watching a magician on stage once you already know the secret behind his tricks. You appreciate his art, but you're no longer under his spell.

There are three different subtle persuasion techniques we'll discuss in this lesson: euphemisms, dysphemisms, and biased questions.

Euphemisms and Dysphemisms

Euphemisms are the most common of the subtle persuasion techniques. You've probably used them yourself many times without even realizing it. A euphemism is when a phrase—usually one that's harsh, negative, or offensive—is replaced with a milder or more positive expression.

For example, there are many ways to say that someone has died. Die itself is a neutral word—it expresses the fact of death straightforwardly without any real mood attached to it. However, this word is often softened by replacing it with a euphemism, such as one of the following:

  • Passed away
  • Passed on
  • Is no longer with us
  • Expired
  • Departed
  • Deceased

Just as we can say died in a softer or more positive way—a way that suggests movement to a better place, for example—we can also say it in a cruder or more negative way, like one of the following:

  • Croaked
  • Kicked the bucket
  • Bit the dust

When we replace a positive or neutral expression with one that is negative or unpleasant, we're using a dysphemism.

One way to remember the difference between these two terms is to imagine them mathematically:

Euphemism: a milder or more positive expression used to replace a negative or unpleasant one

Dysphemism: replacing a neutral or positive expression with a negative or unpleasant one

Euphemism: Positive replaces negative

Dysphemism: Negative replaces positive

Euphemisms and dysphemisms are used more than ever these days, especially in advertising, the media, and by politicians to influence our thoughts and feelings. Take, for example, the phrase used cars. Used car dealers used to sell used cars—now they sell previously owned vehicles. See the euphemism? The more pleasant phrase previously owned doesn't carry the suggestion of someone else usingjust owning.

Euphemisms are used a great deal in political and social issues. If you oppose abortion, for example, then you are pro-life. If you support the right to abort, on the other hand, you're pro-choice. See how important these euphemisms are? How could someone be against life? Against choice?

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