Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

Politeness, Orthophemism, Euphemism and Dysphemism

Keith Allan.

This discussion arises from a more general work on taboo and the censoring of language. In this paper I consider the interaction of politeness and impoliteness with orthophemism (straight talking), euphemism (sweet talking) and dysphemism (speaking offensively). Politeness is defined in terms of inoffensiveness and orthophemism and euphemism align with it in contrast to their negative counterparts impoliteness and dysphemism. (In)offensiveness is definable in terms of face which, Anglo-centrically, is described as ‘public self-image’. All these categories of language and behaviour are wedded to context, time, and place. They are therefore necessarily variable and malleable such that no two groups and perhaps no two individuals (or even no single individual acting on different occasions or under dissimilar circumstances) will be certain to make the same judgements as to the offensiveness, politeness, or the X-phemism of a given language expression. The picture is further complicated by the existence of euphemistic dysphemisms and dysphemistic euphemisms, even though these occur in quite small numbers. I explain the phrase dirty words and point to the saliency of obscene terms – and of dysphemism more generally. I review many examples of taboo terms smothering non-taboo homonyms. This looks like a triumph of the offensive over the inoffensive, of dysphemism over euphemism, of impoliteness over politeness. In fact the tabooed, the offensive, the dysphemistic, and the impolite only seem more powerful forces because each of them identifies the marked behaviour. By default we are polite, euphemistic, orthophemistic and inoffensive; and we censor our language use to eschew tabooed topics. They are censored out as we pursue well-being for ourselves and for others.


Keith Allan
Reader in Linguistics
Linguistics Program
Monash University

  • Politeness
  • Euphemism
  • Orthophemism
  • Dysphemism
  • Taboo
  • Offensiveness
  • Face
  • Censoring of language

(Virtual Presentation, English)