Euphemism and Dysphemism Help (page 2)
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–)
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?
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
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:
- 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 using—just 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?
Imagine someone stops you on the street and asks you to participate in a survey about tax cuts. You agree, and she asks you the following questions:
- Do you support tax cuts that benefit only the wealthy and neglect the needs of those with low incomes?
- Do you think the government should be allowed to make tax cuts that exclude the poor and uneducated?
No matter how you feel about tax cuts, chances are you can't answer anything but no to these questions. Why? Because if you say yes, it sounds like you are not empathetic to the needs of those who are helpless. These questions are phrased unfairly, making it difficult for you to give a fair answer. In other words, inherent in the questions is a certain attitude toward tax cuts—in this case, a negative one—that prejudices the questions. In short, the questions aren't fair—they're biased.
Notice how these particular questions use dysphemisms to bias the questions and pressure you to answer them a certain way. In this example, tax cuts become equivalent to negative terms such as neglect and exclude.
Here is how euphemisms might be used to bias the questions toward the opposing point of view:
- Do you support tax cuts that will benefit all socioeconomic levels of society and help improve the economy?
- Do you think the government should be allowed to make tax cuts that give people's hard-earned money back to them?
This time, notice how saying yes is much easier than saying no. If you say no to the first question, it sounds like you are indifferent to what happens to you and your society. If you say no to the second question, it sounds like you are without compassion and don't believe that people deserve to keep what they earn.
Here are the questions revised once again so that you can answer yes or no fairly:
- Do you support tax cuts?
- Do you think the government should be allowed to decide when to make tax cuts?
Professional surveys will be careful to ask fair questions, but when political organizations, advertisers, and other groups or individuals have an agenda, they may use biased questions to elicit specific results. Similarly, anyone who wants to influence you may use biased questions to get you to respond in a certain way. That's why it's important for you to recognize when a question is fair and when it's biased.
Have you ever gone online and created your own survey? It can be fun—but how hard is it to create questions that are completely free of your own personal bias or perspective? It takes skill to create a list of questions that are free of prejudice so beware of any surveys you might take, quote, or use.
Euphemism and Dysphemism In Short
Euphemisms, dysphemisms, and biased questions can have a powerful influence on readers and listeners. Euphemisms replace negative expressions with ones that are neutral or positive. Dysphemisms do the opposite: They replace neutral or positive expressions with ones that are harsh or negative. Biased questions make it difficult for us to answer questions fairly. Learning to recognize these subtle persuasion techniques promotes independent thinking and lets people come to their own conclusions, rather than the conclusions others want them to reach.
Skill Building until Next Time
- Listen carefully to conversations, to the news, to what people say to you and ask of you. Do you notice any euphemisms, dysphemisms, or biased questions? Do you catch yourself using any of these techniques yourself?
- You can improve your ability to recognize subtle persuasion techniques by practicing them yourself. Come up with euphemisms, dysphemisms, and biased questions throughout the day.
Exercises for this concept can be found at Euphemism and Dysphemism Practice.
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