Pretty harsh words
December 12, 2007 9:45 PM   Subscribe

Seeking a word: Is there a term other than "euphemism" for couching an insult in fancy-sounding words, so your insult sounds less harsh to the inattentive ear?

A student of mine is confused about what "euphemisms" are. The example we're looking at is "Mr. Jones is a notorious zealot". To my student, those words are unfamiliar, so he feels like they are cloaking the speaker's true insult in $10 words. Now, "notorious zealot" isn't a euphemism. In fact it's a harsh thing to say. But is there a word for what my student is getting at -- dressing up one's insults?
posted by LobsterMitten to Grab Bag (63 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Innuendo?
posted by twiggy at 9:46 PM on December 12, 2007


Left-handed compliment?
posted by maudlin at 9:49 PM on December 12, 2007


I always thought innuendo meant anything oblique, not necessarily disparaging. That said, it usually is used to describe statements that are either negative or sexual, I guess. Not an answer, sorry. But a contribution at the least.
posted by sneakin at 9:50 PM on December 12, 2007


Loaded.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:50 PM on December 12, 2007


I think a left handed compliment is something that is at once complimentary and insulting ie "You're pretty good at this for someone who doesn't know what's going on."
posted by sneakin at 9:52 PM on December 12, 2007


I finally have a contribution that is not just dismissing other people's contributions: I always think of the word pointed as what you're describing. Ex: "Francine had some pointed words about Beth's outfit." It's like a politer way of saying that someone was snarky or nasty. At least to me.
posted by sneakin at 9:56 PM on December 12, 2007


I tend to think of "euphemism" as something like "an expression that makes an impolite topic acceptable for polite company": "streetwalker" for "whore", etc.

This is the opposite, yes? Saying something impolite, but in a fancy way? Something mean, with a smile? How about "veiled insult"?
posted by thehmsbeagle at 9:56 PM on December 12, 2007


Yeah, these are all sort of in the general area, but not quite on target... I've been writing a comment on this student's paper but have been stalled for 1/2 hour now, trying to figure out how to explain what he's thinking of when he's mistakenly using the word "euphemism". Argh.

Would also accept pithy multi-word phrases.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:57 PM on December 12, 2007


I know what you mean. Like in the movie Studio 54 when the kid is called a troglodyte he accepts it as a compliment, not knowing what the word means.

Other than "behaving like a conceited prick", I've got nothing.

Left-handed compliment?
heh, I've never heard that. I've always heard back-handed compliment

posted by kisch mokusch at 10:00 PM on December 12, 2007


Backhanded compliment? Veiled insult? Damning with faint praise?
posted by konolia at 10:01 PM on December 12, 2007


Obfuscated insult?
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:04 PM on December 12, 2007


Circumlocution?
posted by Maxwell_Smart at 10:10 PM on December 12, 2007


I don't think any of the suggestions describe the sentence in question. But I don't really understand what we're trying to describe. "Mr. Jones is a notorious zealot" is a straightforward statement. I don't see anything being cloaked or obfuscated there at all. Are you trying to get at what kisch mokusch is saying -- insulting someone with a word they don't understand? Maybe this student is confused not because he was thinking of some other term besides "euphemism," but because he doesn't know the meaning of notorious and/or zealot.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:11 PM on December 12, 2007


Hmm. "Mr. Jones is a notorious zealot" doesn't fit the euphemism bill because a zealot is by definition something of a fanatic who could be notorious.

A euphemism is: Dad passed on; Grandma went to a better place (aka dead).

Back-handed compliment: That looks so fabulous on someone like you.

Not sure how to define, but hilarious (from Stephen Fry, sic): "What a lovely little white [wine]! I wonder how they got the cat to crouch over the bottle."
posted by sfkiddo at 10:19 PM on December 12, 2007


diplomacy
posted by idiotfactory at 10:20 PM on December 12, 2007


Second ludwig_van. I don't feel like the example and the description match. The description sounds like a veiled insult, but the example is plain old description—a bit forceful, certainly distinct, lots of character in the style. But no, as near as I can learn, the audience's failing to understand does not constitute a figure of rhetoric on the speaker's part.
posted by eritain at 10:23 PM on December 12, 2007


Right - the student feels like "notorious" and "zealot" are very fancy words because he has a limited vocabulary. He says, the person using these words is trying to insult Mr Jones without having it be obvious that he's insulting him. The person is choosing these fancy words to make it sound more respectable, and less harsh, but really it's still harsh.

His idea is that the diction, the word choice, is meant to give the speaker respectability and maybe some remove from the mean things he's saying. Now, this is a phenomenon I recognize, and can describe wordily (as in the preceding sentence) but I have the sense that there's a term/phrase for this kind of rhetorical move.

(I'm a little burnt-out right now, so am having a hard time coming up with an example that works for people with better vocabularies. Suggestions welcome on that front too.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:32 PM on December 12, 2007


aspersions?
posted by parmanparman at 10:32 PM on December 12, 2007


That is, the specific example is really just a plain insult/openly negative description. The student feels like it is high-falutin' because those words are unfamiliar to him. Setting aside the merits of the specific example, the phenomenon the student is getting at is a real one.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:34 PM on December 12, 2007


There should be a good word for "veiled insult" but it's not coming to me. Barb, implication, innuendo all seem 50% right...

Do you mean subtly implying an insult? As in "subtext?" Or do you simply mean dressing an insult in flowery language? It's one thing to say "she's a messy lay" versus "her carnal enthusiasm far outstrips her talent in its application."
posted by scarabic at 10:55 PM on December 12, 2007


Talking over his head?
posted by occhiblu at 10:56 PM on December 12, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'd call it being a prick. It's just showing off that you're smarter than the person you're insulting.

I do this sometimes. And when I do, I'm a prick.
posted by PhatLobley at 10:57 PM on December 12, 2007


Misdirection? (Echoes of Maxwell_Smart's circumlocution, above.)
posted by mosk at 11:04 PM on December 12, 2007


ad hominem attack? lying between one's teeth? hyperbole? pleonasm? parrhesia?

these and many more here!

(hope it helps.)
posted by Flamingo at 11:04 PM on December 12, 2007


Other words coming to mind that might jog something, or work instead:

mocking
scorn
disdain
pretension
taunting
sneering
boastful
self-aggrandizing
posted by occhiblu at 11:07 PM on December 12, 2007


Something like Shakespearean insults.
posted by inconsequentialist at 11:26 PM on December 12, 2007


I call it Metafilter.

--

"Reverend Phelps is a notorious zealot." That sentence isn't softened, made diplomatic, obfuscated or at all shaded by the choice of vocabulary. It's perfectly accurate and true.

As such, I'm not sure which phenomena he's attempting to refer to:

1) The use of unnecessarily grand language to attempt to speak over somebody else's head. (note: this can also be done with jargon.)

2) The use of seemingly neutral or positive words as pejoratives, like describing a horrifically flawed idea as being "fascinating", "creative" or "original".
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 11:54 PM on December 12, 2007


grandiloquent sniping?
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:04 AM on December 13, 2007


Your student wouldn't say this, but insofar as he believes that the speaker's word choice is obscuring their meaning, "sesquipedalian charientism" might just describe it. Or perhaps simply asteism.
posted by mumkin at 12:05 AM on December 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


snark
posted by Rumple at 12:10 AM on December 13, 2007


ostentatiousness? grandiloquence?
posted by onoclea at 12:11 AM on December 13, 2007


Uh... tryin'... not quite there... gotta go to bed... Assuming I understand you, here's what I have so far:

"This isn't exactly a euphemism, which usually involves vague or indirect words. ___"

He just dressed up his disdain with ten-dollar words.
This is just an insult polished for polite company.
He delivers a direct and clear insult. He just costumed it in fancy verbiage.
This is a direct insult, just delivered with rhetorical flourishes.
He just insulted him with words from some cocktail party.

high falutin', courtly, gentlemanly, polite, civil, etc., etc.
insult, aspersion, contumely, disdain, contempt, disregard, etc.
vocabularly, cant, jargon, diction, wording, etc., etc.
posted by salvia at 12:18 AM on December 13, 2007


(ah, Ambrosia Voyeur, I should've previewed. Neat word...)
posted by onoclea at 12:21 AM on December 13, 2007


I think mumkin's got it with charientism and asteism. The Superior Person's Book of Words refers to this kind of thing as "The Insult Concealed."
posted by fermion at 12:27 AM on December 13, 2007


Hmm, on second read, you had phrases shorter than the ones I was playing around with. Time for bed!

I'm still not sure that "notorious zealot" couldn't be considered a euphemism if what was meant was "FBI Most Wanted convicted terrorist pscyho crazed assassin." Depending on what is really meant, saying someone is known negatively as a fervent proponent of something could be a mild gloss over a harsh topic. Google's second result for zealot is "zealot.com, for people who are zealous about their hobby." So that word seems to have a fairly ambiguous connotation. But the general question is interesting.
posted by salvia at 12:39 AM on December 13, 2007


Is verbal condescension too broad for what you are trying to get at?

If not, I'd say: sophisticated, high-minded, polite, or skillful insult, take your pick. Or something expressing verbal mastery, such as artful abuse.
posted by melissa may at 12:42 AM on December 13, 2007


nice-nelly is a synonym of euphemism.

however:

euphemism: n., a mild or less direct word substituted for one that is harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing.

unpleasant or embarrassing != insulting
i.e similar to what ludwig_van and eritain said.

what is the student's first language? what else does he/she speak?
one of us might have an idiom or a proverb that hits home.

how about the latin 'suaviter in modo, fortiter in re' or 'an iron fist in a velvet glove'?

you could get your student to play with the always amusing euphemism generator.
posted by sushiwiththejury at 1:02 AM on December 13, 2007


Disingenuous?
posted by flod logic at 1:04 AM on December 13, 2007


what is the student's first language?

English, just not very well read. He's especially fluent in sports cliches.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:18 AM on December 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


Well, I still think asteism is where it's at, but unfortunately it's gone and become fairly archaic. Are you wanting a word in common use today? It's time to light up the hatsignal.
posted by mumkin at 2:05 AM on December 13, 2007


So the sentences you want to write, LobsterMitten, are something like, "What you, student, are calling a euphemism isn't one. A euphemism replaces harsh words to sound more polite: piss becomes make water. You are talking about [insert word or phrase here], which is when a person uses unfamiliar vocabulary to hide their disrespect." Am I understanding why you want a specific word or phrase correctly?
posted by cgc373 at 4:17 AM on December 13, 2007


Someone asked earlier what the opposite of a euphemism is. It's a dysphemism, where an unpleasant term is substituted for a neutral one. Example: asking for "bovine mammary excretion" instead of milk.
posted by ubiquity at 4:50 AM on December 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'd need to see more context to agree that this is a case of "a person us[ing] unfamiliar vocabulary to hide their disrespect". Where I shop those are really only $2.99 words, not $10 words.

"Student, this isn't a euphemism, they are just words you are not familiar with."
posted by Meatbomb at 4:55 AM on December 13, 2007


The words used are "over his head."
posted by Carol Anne at 5:08 AM on December 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


I think condescension is actually a pretty good choice here. It's reasonably accurate without breaking the bank with more specific archaic terms.

It's not just students who have problems with the concept of euphamisms. I had a sociology teacher who swore blind that "friendly fire" was a euphamism.
posted by Skorgu at 5:10 AM on December 13, 2007


It's a "Couched Compliment" on one hand, a straight-forward insult on the other.

"$10 words" doesn't change what it is, just the way it's said, no?
posted by DrtyBlvd at 5:14 AM on December 13, 2007


I had a teacher who claimed having accomplished this by calling one of his not-so-smart jock classmates a cretin. Said jock considered this a compliment until he found out and likely beat up my teacher.

However, he never had a specific term for this. I might consider it "clever."
posted by that girl at 5:27 AM on December 13, 2007


Throwing shade.
posted by hermitosis at 5:29 AM on December 13, 2007


I'm coming in very late. When you go to teach this to your student Lobstermitten...make sure to find examples that involve sports.
posted by filmgeek at 6:00 AM on December 13, 2007


Right - the student feels like "notorious" and "zealot" are very fancy words because he has a limited vocabulary. He says, the person using these words is trying to insult Mr Jones without having it be obvious that he's insulting him. The person is choosing these fancy words to make it sound more respectable, and less harsh, but really it's still harsh.

Educated incivility.
posted by ersatz at 6:08 AM on December 13, 2007


Disingenuous is a good word for what the student is describing, even if what he is describing isn't an example of it.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 6:13 AM on December 13, 2007


Another vote for asteism ("a polite and ingenious manner of deriding another" seems to describe this, though it's not really all that ingenious). In my daily life, though, I'd classify this phenomenon as an Erudite Dis.
posted by GrammarMoses at 6:19 AM on December 13, 2007


Snootiness is a possibility.

(I'm a little burnt-out right now, so am having a hard time coming up with an example that works for people with better vocabularies. Suggestions welcome on that front too.)

Many of the posters in this thread are transadorian ungulates.
posted by tkolar at 6:27 AM on December 13, 2007


Now, "notorious zealot" isn't a euphemism. In fact it's a harsh thing to say. But is there a word for what my student is getting at -- dressing up one's insults?

In the absence of a really accurate term to describe this, I think it's important that you just impress upon your student that this is really just how educated people talk; a greater vocabulary gives one a wider palette to express oneself from, whether one is building someone up or tearing them down.

"Notorious" and "zealot" are both very specific words and they combine to form a very succinct description. Using more colloquial language to express the same thought would result in either a longer or more vague description. Thus, these are not "$10 words" as people tend to use them. They are probably just the sharpest, quickest point from A to Z.
posted by hermitosis at 6:30 AM on December 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


'Veiled insult' comes closest, for my money, at least insofar as it will help the student better understand why this isn't a euphemism. However, I think an exact word for this would likely have less explanatory power than a full sentence, just as 'charientism' and 'asteism' tell us nothing without a copy of the OED nearby.

on preview: I'm liking the erudite dis. Eruditis?
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:35 AM on December 13, 2007


Asteism - that looks like pretty much the perfect word. You learn something every day!
posted by scarabic at 7:12 AM on December 13, 2007


Another vote for "erudite diss". Maybe dumbed-down to "educated diss" if your student isn't even at the level of erudite.

"Diss" should be spelled with 2 s's. Because I say so.
posted by Quietgal at 7:31 AM on December 13, 2007


Probably not what you are looking for exactly, but perhaps related. An "iron fist in a velvet glove" can be used to deliver severe judgment with apparent delicacy.
posted by cairnish at 9:00 AM on December 13, 2007


"sugar-coating"
posted by Aquaman at 9:46 AM on December 13, 2007


erudiss!
posted by Rumple at 9:56 AM on December 13, 2007


One--possibly familiar to a sports-oriented student--euphemism that I hear frequently while watching professional sports is "extracurricular activity". This is used when, say, members of opposing (US) football teams get into a shoving match after the play is whistled dead.

The phrase conveys the concept to the viewer what is going on (as long as the viewer is either familiar with the euphemism or can make the required cognitive leap) with out literally or really even metaphorically describing what is going on.
posted by speedo at 12:34 PM on December 13, 2007


cgc373: yes.

filmgeek, believe me, I have made up more sports examples, analogies, logic exercises, and paper topics this semester than I ever would have thought possible. Every time I think it's reached the level of grossly patronizing, they ask for more. It's been a very interesting cultural change from the all academics all the time lifestyle.

Thank you all for giving this a shot. I'm suspecting there isn't a word for it, which is a bit surprising.
Veiled insult, iron fist in velvet glove are close
Asteism seems close based on that definition, I still need to grab my OED and see if there are examples. But a fantastic word that I'd never heard before, so thank you mumkin!
I'll still be checking, will mark best answers in a day or so...
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:34 PM on December 13, 2007


A couple of months ago ferociouskitty Asked a similar question, with similarly vague results.

I wondered whether affectation might describe it, so maybe your student would understand such activity as putting on airs, or as fronting. (A great deal of what happens here at MetaFilter would probably grate this student's cheese.) It's a lot harder to think of a pithy way to put this than I expected it would be, but it's also kind of fun to think about.
posted by cgc373 at 4:52 PM on December 13, 2007


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