April 12, 2007


dysphemism n. The substitution of an unpleasant or derogatory word or expression for a pleasant or inoffensive one; also, a word or expression so used; the opposite of euphemism. Hence dysphemistic adj.: of the nature of or containing such an expression.
—The Oxford English Dictionary of The English Language

dysphemism versus euphemism
  • A euphemism is a mild word chosen so as not to shock or offend someone; its motive is kindness.
  • A dysphemism, however, is a strong word chosen because it is intended to be disagreeable, unpleasant, disparaging.—J. N. Hook. The Grand Panjandrum. New York: MacMillan, 1991.

[The term mixed] is also part of a euphemism chosen by pet lovers (the most avid of whom call themselves “companion animal” lovers) to substitute for the word mongrel; that word, from the Old English gemang, “mixed,” has a bad connotation, perhaps influenced by its growling gr. Dog breeders have taken up mixed breed (not to mention designer breed) as a euphemism just as the human population in general has put down half-breed as a dysphemism.—William Safire. The New York Times Magazine. On Language, titled "Varments," April 22, 2007.

It is April 4, 2007, and television and radio talk-show host Don Imus is on the air doing his simultaneous tv-radio program "Imus in the Morning." With his white producer Bernard McGurk, he is bantering in
a faux hip-hop-styled improvisation about what they are watching on a TV video. They are into a free floating one-upping performance, playing the roles--with no little presumption--of two black "dudes" (no other way to say it) rapping on about a team of predominantly young black women from Rutgers University battling against Tennesse U.for the 2007 NCAA women's basketball championship.

Members of Rutgers' Women's Basketball Team
at press conference following the Imus remark.

• IMUS SAYS: “That’s some rough girls from Rutgers, Man, they got tattoos ...
MCGURK : “Some
hardcore hos."
• IMUS: That’s some
nappy headed hos there, I’m going to tell you that,” Imus said.
—The Associated Press 2007 and MSNB (http://www.msnbc.msn.

With that dysphemism, "nappy headed hos," the Iman, as he is known, soon lost his jobs at NBC television and CBS radio and prompted a nation-wide conversation about acceptable talk. On April 23, 2007, we saw on the cover of Time magazine an image of the Iman, a Post-it note taped across his mouth asking, "WHO CAN SAY WHAT?"

The May 7, 2007, edition demonstrated that the national dialogue on sensitive language was still in strong swing by publishing in its "Inbox" 10 letters from thoughtful readers taking a variety of positions on Who can say what"

This writer—an avid follower of news on TV cable networks,—has noted, not a few times in recent weeks, that politicians, talking heads, and commentators of all sorts are marking the "Imus affair" as a qatershed of awakening about the extent and the hurtful effects of language that disparages and offends.

The headline below the Time logo invites its readers to read, think, and talk about the word-choices they make in public and private discourse. At issue is "What the Imus implosion tells us about boundaries of acceptable talk."


The offensiveness quotient—OQ—is tool used by dictionary editors at Random House to measure hurtful language in terms of
degrees of offensiveness O
degrees of disparagement D.

Here's how the OQ works. It asks the team of evaluators first to rank the term in question on two scales—the D Scale and the O Scale— each calibrated 0 to 5, with 0 representing a lowest degree of hurtfullness, and 5 the highest degree of hurtfulness.

The D, or Disparagement, Scale aims to determine "degree of intent to offend." If at this moment in the United States, six speakers, each in a different State, disparaged another person with the word "faggot," there would be for each speaker a unique mixture of personal motives and for the immediate speech community some variability in the degree of negativity attached to this particular word, faggot. Despite those variables, a team of "word experts" could reach close if not absolute agreement about the degree of "intent to offend" that is loaded into the word faggot. In point of fact, the word evaluators at Random House came to the agreement that speakers who use the word "intended to offend and hurt" the person spoken to and thus using the Disparagement Chart (below) as their guide accorded the word the degree of 5 on the D Scale.

Here is the D = Disparagement Scale, with descriptive language for each level (0 to 5) of hurtfulness, and sample words for each level. (I suggest reading the word samples thoughfully, asking yourself whether you agree with the ranking each word has received by the folks at Random House.)

D = Disparagement
(degrees of intent to offend)

O Not intended to offend, even though it may

(Oriental, welsh (welsh on a deal), lady)

1 Intended to show mild disapproval

mn(egghead, nerd, gind)

2 Rarely intended to offend, but indicates a lack of sensitivity
(the little woman, harelip, cripple)

3 Sometimes intended to offend, sometimes not, but there is a more neutral word that is better to use.
mn(haole, Canuck, goy)

4 Intended to offend or show contempt
mn(spaz, honky, pansy)

5 Intended to offend and hurt
mn(faggot, nigger, ofay)

Imus's "nappy headed hos"
in my view would correspond to 3: sometimes intended to offend, sometimes not, but there is a more neutral word that is better to use.

On the day of the verbal disaster, Imus was in the bubble of his macho-talk program, trying to mimic black male hip-hop argot, the language of guys who throw the word "ho" around as if it meant something like "chick" or "broad," both being pejorative enough, of course, but not as toxic as "ho." Imus has bought into these rappers' insensitivity and doesn't take the word very seriously. He has even jokingly referred his admirable, white, public-servant, pro-environmentist wife Diedre as "green-headed ho," apparently without public reprisals from Diedre. In short he had an explosive word in his hand, with no inkling that it could explode.

When he uttered the epithet he didn't think ahead to the possibility (duh!) that an audio or video tape of his words could and probably would somehow wend its way to the ears of the women athletes at Rutgers as a proxy, and at the moment of their hearing the words, take them as "offensive and hurtful," the term Random House levels a 5 on the Offensivness Scale, the scale that registers the "degree of offense taken."

Here is the entire Offensiveness Scale, the scale that attempts to measure the degree of offense taken. You will note that a 5 indicates words "taken as offensive and hurtful" and that the sample level 5 epithets given are cunt, Hebe, and gook—to which I would add, "nappy headed hos."

D = Disparagement
(degrees of intent to offend)

So if I were asked to reckon an Offensiveness Quotient on the "nappy headed ho" remark—which extends in time from the utterance of the epithet in the studio to the moments the women heard the words and which includes Imus's insensitivity and addle-pated judgement—I'd render it an OQ of 4.5. Translating that number into words, Imus's remark was less disparaging (3) than it was offensive (5)


—Randomhouse.com, WORDS@RANDOM, "Sensitive Language."}

In dealing with sensitive language they are challenged to employ precise lanuage to describe a given word in terms of what they label "degree of hurtfulness."

Following are their reckonings for the terms cracker, nigger, boy toy,

Term: cracker
How Used: Used to show contempt for a poor white person, especially in the southeastern U.S.
Comment: This term, although also a neutral slang term for a native of Florida or Georgia, is usually meant as offensive and taken as such.
Term: nigger
How Used: Used with contempt and deliberate intent to hurt and insult.
Comment: Now the most offensive word in English, its use is rooted in a long history of mistreatment of people of African descent.

Extremely Disparaging
Extremely Offensivem].MO=5
Term: boy toy
How Used: Intended to show contempt.
Comment: This term is used with intent to offend, but it is most often used about a young man rather than being used to his face.

Disparaging D=4

Term: pickaninny
How Used: Those who still use this term to refer to a child of African descent usually do not intend it to be insulting. Very broadly speaking, the older the user, the less likely the intent to offend.
Comment: This term is extremely offensive to people of African descent, and is an example of a group of terms, such as "to Jew," that often are not recognized as offensive by the people using them.
Extremely Offensive NO=5
|||||||||||||||||||||| OQ=3.5

Term: gyp
How Used:
Intended as an informal word for swindling or cheating.
Although this term is not used deliberately as a slur, it is derived from "Gypsy", and is sometimes taken to be offensive to Gypsies.
Sometimes Offensive 0=2




Disparaging and Offensive D=4 0=4

it is used to describe) and how disparaging a word is (the degree to which the person who uses the word intends for it to be hurtful)."

We will

The way we decide how to label an offensive word has to do with how offensive a word is (the degree to which a word offends the person it is used to describe) and how disparaging a word is (the degree to which the person who uses the word intends for it to be hurtful).

we call it the O.Q. or Offensiveness Quotation (modeled after the I.Q. Intelligence Quotient)

To decide how to label a word, we go through a process that is something like the chart we give below. We call it the O.Q., or "offensiveness quotient"--modeled after the more familiar I.Q. (Intelligence Quotient). This is only a rough guide, designed to help dictionary users understand what the labels mean.
Basically, the O.Q. is the average of a term's rank on the scales of Disparagement and Offensiveness. To see how this works on specific words, go to Examples of How the O.Q. Works.

Although using the O.Q. is a rough
D = Disparagement
(degree of intent to offend)
Not intended to offend, 0
even though it may
(Oriental, welsh [welsh on
a deal], lady)
Intended to show mild 1
(egghead, nerd, grind
Rarely intended to offend, 2
but indicates a lack of
(the little woman, harelip,
Sometimes intended to 3
offend, sometimes not,
but there is a more neutral
word that is better to use
(haole, Canuck, goy)
Intended to offend or 4
show contempt
(spaz, honky, pansy)
Intended to offend and 5
(faggot, nigger, ofay)

O = Offensiveness
(degrees of offense taken)
Rarely taken as offensive 0
(guys [when used to refer
to women], Moslem
[instead of Muslim], cover
Taken as showing mild 1
disapproval or lack of
(housewife, Miss [instead
of Ms.], old maid)


Without a thought of what he was saying, Don Imus, in a bout of badniage with his producer Bernard McGurck, Imus tried to one-up Bernard's attempted quip "[Those are] [s]ome hardcore hos" with "That’s some nappy headed hos there." the three-word epithet that was widely perceived as disparaging and offensive on March 3, 2007; by April 12, he had apologized face to face with the young women of the Rutgers basketball team, the young women women had consitently deported themselves under media lights with honesty and grace gaining general admiration; Imus had been fired in disgrace by his radio and television network superiors; and Americans had launched into a collective dialogue on the question of how one person's words can so easily and so profoudly disparage, offend, and hurt other people.

Cable news people, politicians, and average Americans of all stripes agreed that the meanings or lessons of the episode are unresolved and highly complex. In this post,
using some of the categories of linguistic study and classical rhetoric to disambiguate as best we can some the motivations and meanings bound into what may some day come to be called "The Imus Incident."

There are many linguistic and rhetorical categories one can use to try to explain the dynamics and implications of the assertion, "nappy headed hos"--far to many to list here. I have selected six that seem somewhat helpful in understanding the contexts surrounding the years preceeding the remark, the day of the remark, and the time following the remark.

Not intended to offend, even though it may
(Oriental, welsh [welsh on a deal], lady) 0
Rarely taken as offensive
(guys [when used to refer to women], Moslem [instead of Muslim], cover girl) 0

Intended to show mild disapproval
(egghead, nerd, grind) 1
Taken as showing mild disapproval or lack of respect
(housewife, Miss [instead of Ms.], old maid) 1

Rarely intended to offend, but indicates a lack of sensitivity
(the little woman, harelip, cripple) 2
Usually taken as insensitive, rather than as completely offensive
(Eskimo, deaf-and-dumb, dame) 2

Sometimes intended to offend, sometimes not, but there is a more neutral word that is better to use
(haole, Canuck, goy) 3
Easily taken as offensive
(Indian giver, baby [when used to address a woman], redskin) 3

Intended to offend or show contempt
(spaz, honky, pansy) 4
Usually taken as offensive
(dyke, Okie, wetback) 4

Intended to offend and hurt
(faggot, nigger, ofay) 5


dysphemism n. The substitution of an unpleasant or derogatory word or expression for a pleasant or inoffensive one; also, a word or expression so used; the opposite of euphemism.[1] Hence dysphemistic a., of the nature of or containing such an expression.---oed

[1] euphemism: “mild, agreeable, or roundabout words used in place of coarse, painful, or offensive ones. The term comes from the Greek eu, meaning "well" or "sounding good," and pheme "speech.—Hugh Rawson.




  1. As grammar, an appositive phrase that restates the earlier, "some rough girls from Rutgers . . . they got tattoos"
  2. A transposition into slanguage of "tough whores with unkept hair"
  3. Example of hip argot
  4. Example of hip-hop slang
  5. Example of a hip-hop catch phrase;
  6. Example of a failed joke
  7. Example of an ironic statement
  8. Example of a disphemism
  9. Example of lapsis linguae
  10. Example of a sobriquet
  11. Example of a maledition or slur against African American women
  12. Example of an ad hominem attack;
  13. Instance of insensitive language--specifically, a desparaging, offensive, hurtful epithet, thoughtlessly spoken April 15, 2007, on a nationally simulcast radio and television program titled "Imus in the Morning," by the 65 year old influential, white, male talk-show host, as an ironic "joke" describing 10 talented, highly successful college women athletes innocent of the description and not present at its pronouncement

"racial epithet," "sexist slur," hip-hop slang," but not once the term "dysphemism."


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