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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) the rhetorical use of foul language

an old accident sign swearing for safety

Cacemphaton is the rhetorical use of bad language. It literally means ‘bad show’ or ‘bad appearance’ in Greek, that –phaton suffix being a distant relative of words like phantom and epiphany.

It was coined by the Roman rhetorician Quintilian in the first century AD, in his enormous guide to speech-making, Institutio Oratoria, or “The Institutes of Oratory”. Twelve volumes of rhetorical treatises, you say? Count us in!

(Asking a rhetorical question and then answering it yourself like that? That’s called anthypophora, incidenetally.)

Quintilian, unsurprisingly, wasn’t a big fan of bad language—in fact he labelled it “objectionable”, “corrupt”, and “unbecoming”. So when it came to actually writing about the expletives he had in mind, he neatly dodged the issue by writing instead that, “it would be tedious to specify them, and in doing so I should dwell upon the very fault which I say should be avoided.” He’s got a fucking point.

But the bad language Quintilian was referring to wasn’t the same bad language we use today. Instead, he used the term cacemphaton to refer to a clumsy or ill-advised choice words, and in particular a chance combination of words that could be misinterpreted or misheard as something vulgar. By means of an example, he singled out the Latin word intercapedo, meaning an interruption or interval, which he advised against using because its final two syllables sound remarkably like pedo, the Latin word for ‘I fart’.

So originally cacemphaton referred to the unintentional use of bad or vulgar language—like when the F word suddenly appears in the middle of your polite request to “pass a fork and knife”, or when you tell someone to “catch it!”, and instead it sounds like a warning not to step in a used litter tray. But over time Quintilian’s definition broadened, so that today cacemphaton generally refers to any rhetorical use of coarse or vulgar language, particularly for emphasis or effect. The unintentional ‘bad’ language that Quintilian identified, meanwhile, now tends to be termed cacosyntheton—literally ‘badly put together’ language.

If you are going to swear, though, there should always be a good reason for it—which brings us to lalochezia. It describes the use of foul language to relieve stress, pain or frustration. So those words that rush through your mind (and out of your mouth) when you miss your train, stub your toe, or accidentally brush against a hot iron? That’s lalochezia.

Appropriately enough for a word concerning foul language, lalochezia itself has a pretty foul etymology. The initial ‘lalo–’ is just a derivative of the Greek word for speech, lalia, but the ‘–chezia’ part comes from the Greek verb chezo, meaning ‘to defecate’ (and is a none-too distant ancestor of the English word shit). So, etymologically at least, lalochezia is literally ‘shitting out of your mouth’. Quintilian would have been fucking horrified.

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