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Cacemphaton

30 Apr 2015

Earlier this month, UK Labour Party leader Ed Miliband made headlines (as well as a new Labour Party slogan) by exclaiming that “Hell, yes!” he was tough enough to be the next Prime Minister. Then, earlier this week, David Cameron likewise made headlines when he admitted to feeling “bloody lively” about the upcoming election. Well, somebody has to.

 

But no matter how rousing, how convincing, or how appropriate you might think the two leaders’ sweary outbursts were (and if they think this is swearing, they should really try standing at a bar in Newcastle on a Friday night), their use of tongue-worms nevertheless brings to mind two brilliant terms from the murky world of rhetoric.

 

The first, cacemphaton, is the rhetorical use of bad language. It literally means “bad show” or “bad appearance” in Greek, the –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 me in! 

 

(By the way, asking a rhetorical question and then answering it yourself? That’s called anthypophora.) 

 

Quintilian, unsurprisingly, wasn’t a big fan of bad language—in fact he labelled it “objectionable”, “corrupt”, and “unbecoming” [PDF]. 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 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 “interruption” or “interval”, which he advised against using because its final two syllables sound remarkably like 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, is now 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 the second word on our list: 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. So while the initial lalo– is a derivative of the Greek word for “speech”lalia (as in glossolalia, the proper name for speaking in tongues), the –chezia part is a derivative of the Greek verb chezo—which means “to defecate”, and is a not-so-distant ancestor of the English word shit. So, etymologically speaking at least, lalochezia is literally “shitting out of your mouth”. 


Quintilian would have been horrified.

 

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