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A while back, the US Congress passed a bill called the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act”. The bill quickly became known as “Obamacare”. During the time prior to when cannabis was made illegal in the United States, proponents of its prohibition called it “marijuana”.

In both cases, a thing with a proper name became known by a pejorative to the extent that many people wouldn't even recognize the proper term for the thing.

Is there a word or expression in the English language for describing the situation where a thing becomes best known by a pejorative term?

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I wouldn’t call “Obamacare” a pejorative. It’s just simpler than “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” and nicer-looking than “PPACA”. The mere fact that people deride the bill using that nickname does not make it a derisive one. –  Jon Purdy Mar 8 '12 at 16:24
    
In mathematics, the term abstract nonsense, which clearly started being a pejorative, is now used often for a technique in category theory with no negative overtones. The name Big Bang Theory may also have started out being pejorative. –  Peter Shor Mar 8 '12 at 16:41
    
Obamacare is a political hate word, because it uses Obama, whom many love to hate. This is not true of most such words, so it's a poor example. –  John Lawler Mar 8 '12 at 16:52
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If you think that "ObamaCare" is a poor example of a perjorative, please suggest a better example and I will improve my question. –  Rice Flour Cookies Mar 8 '12 at 17:28
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@Lawler Hmm, I'd think almost every law or policy enacted by the government (a) tends to get a short name ("Obamacare", "Bush tax cuts", "Star Wars", "flat tax", "Marshall Plan", etc etc), and (b) has some people who like it and some who hate it. I don't think that makes every such term a "pejorative". I'm not sure that there are clear criteria for when a term does become a pejorative, but as long as people on both sides of the debate use it, I don't think it qualifies. –  Jay Mar 12 '12 at 18:15
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5 Answers

I'm not sure OP's two specific examples are particularly good ones, but it seems to me what we're talking about is:

Dysphemism the usage of an intentionally harsh (rather than polite) word or expression; roughly the opposite of euphemism.

Better examples (taken from the Wikipedia article in the first link above) of word triplets illustrating Dysphemism / Orthophemism (neutral) / Euphemism are:

  • terrorist / rebel / freedom fighter

  • dorky / quirky / original

  • fat / obese / chunky

But of course any originally "neutral" term can acquire negative connotations in either the population at large, or some subset thereof, simply because of the attitudes of speakers to the referent itself. For example, many people today perceive some words like banker, capitalist, management, wealthy, politician etc. as inherently "pejorative". If they needed to reference such concepts in a context where they didn't want the negative overtones, they'd find some "euphemistic" circumlocution ("My husband works in financial services").

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+1 for Dysphemism. I often find that one man's euphemism is another's insult- chunky, big-boned, plus-sized, rotund... –  Jim Mar 8 '12 at 22:38
    
@Jim: Precisely. I was only suggesting that one man's "ordinary word" is another man's insult, but you've taken it to another level (my ceiling is indeed your floor :). So what else can I say but "Well done, you bastard, well done." –  FumbleFingers Mar 8 '12 at 22:49
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Like the man who was asked if getting rich had changed him, and he said, "Yes, in some ways. I'm now eccentric when I used to be weird, and delightfully witty where I used to be rude." –  Jay Mar 12 '12 at 18:18
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I think that in answer to previous questions like this, suggestions have included parody and caricature (somewhat non-specific to mocking names) as well as dysphemism. But also consider calumniation, aspersion, malignity, defamation, travesty, mockery, lampoon, japery. Terms infamity and defamity might be suitable, if they were words. Nomen dubium (Latin for "doubtful name") is a technical term meaning a scientific name that is of unknown or doubtful application.

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I don't know of a word or phrase which exactly describes the situation you propose. There are a variety of reasons why certain names for anything become more popular than other names, and sometimes a term does not become perceived as pejorative until some time after it is coined. While Obamacare is currently a favorite term of its opponents, The Atlantic blog notes that its origins are not so starkly negative: it may owe its popularity to newspaper headline writers trying to save space. Given the initial popularity both of the president and the bill, it might have become a positive sobriquet.

We could make a case then that what happened here is appropriation, the adoption of a word and shifting its meaning or perception. Obamacare may have started relatively neutral, but became a term of diminution because it was the name preferred by its opponents, like Reaganomics or Thatcherism. A related term we tend to hear more about is re-appropriation, where members of a stigmatized group adopt a label as a matter of pride and identity. Textbook examples are sans-culottes, queer, and redneck— the blog post suggests Congressional Democrats have no interest in reclaiming Obamacare, however.

Another sociological term is labeling, whereby some non-conforming group is assigned a label and excluded. Although not applicable to this example, it is a related concept.

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Metonymy — (from Merriam Webster) a figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated


The replacement word isn't necessarily a pejorative. An example is calling the United States federal government simply Washington.

I also thought of sobriquet, which according to Wikipedia is a nickname that can be used in place of a real name without the need of explanation ... and can become more familiar than the original name ... The term can apply to a specific person, group of people, or even a place (like The Big Apple for New York). But I don't know if it can apply to a bill.

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It's news to me if “marijuana” is an example of metonomy. –  FumbleFingers Mar 8 '12 at 17:37
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could it be that it's a (wait for it) Dummet inferentialist pejorative (by Boche-elimination)

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