Is there a term for when a word is co-opted and converted into a derogatory variant of the original term?

For instance, "OCD" is defined as:

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder characterized by intrusive thoughts that produce uneasiness, apprehension, fear, or worry; by repetitive behaviors aimed at reducing the associated anxiety; or by a combination of such obsessions and compulsions. Symptoms of the disorder include excessive washing or cleaning; repeated checking; extreme hoarding; preoccupation with sexual, violent or religious thoughts; relationship-related obsessions; aversion to particular numbers; and nervous rituals, such as opening and closing a door a certain number of times before entering or leaving a room.

But if you actually hear the term OCD it is almost always in a context similar to:

Lol, I always organize my library alphabetically. I'm so OCD...

I organize things by color. OCD, I guess.

This cultural redirection has very little to do with actual OCD but it is an incredibly popular usage.

The term I am looking for would fit into the following sentence:

OCD originally referred to a serious anxiety disorder but was [word] into a description roughly meaning "appreciates order and organization."

The reason I mention it being "derogatory" is because most of the time I hear this alternative usage it is a self-derogatory manner or somehow poking fun at a self-consciousness around the (not actually OCD) behavior.

Other terms I have heard get used this way:

  • retarded — originally a description of someone's IQ but now a blanket description for any foolish or stupid thing
  • ADD/ADHD — originally a diagnosis around having severe concentration problems but became a blanket description for anyone that could become distracted
  • dyslexia — originally a learning disorder focused on learning to read but became a description of isolated instances of spelling errors

This is somewhat related to How do words become derogatory or politically incorrect? but I'm looking for a very different word.

  • It seems that your question asks one thing and you examples are for a harsh medical categorizations that are used in a softer context. Commented Oct 14, 2013 at 14:06
  • @RyeBread: Medical categorizations are just the easiest examples to find.
    – MrHen
    Commented Oct 14, 2013 at 14:32
  • This also seems related to the euphemism treadmill. Commented Oct 15, 2013 at 2:36

4 Answers 4


I think you are referring to the phenomenon of semantic drift, a change in meaning of a word over the course of time.

In the particular examples you describe the semantic change would take the form of semantic broadening or generalization. This is of course the commonest type of change. So your blank could be filled with broadened or generalized.

There is a wikipedia article which lists the various types of semantic change. In a more convenient form I think the changes can be considered under the following categories:









  • From the link you provide, I found the word meiosis. Do you think this would be a good fit?
    – MrHen
    Commented Oct 22, 2013 at 14:59
  • I thought about that too but I doubt it. Meiosis in rhetoric has a very specific sense of deliberate understatement and is sometimes considered synonymous with litotes. Do you agree?
    – user49727
    Commented Oct 27, 2013 at 15:51

Of all of your examples, the word retarded is really the only one to have suffered the fate that's the gist of this sentence of yours:

OCD originally referred to a serious anxiety disorder but was [word] into a description roughly meaning "appreciates order and organization."

What's happened to it is termed:


1) The process or condition of worsening or degenerating.

2) Linguistics The process by which the meaning of a word becomes negative or less elevated over a period of time, as silly, which formerly meant "deserving sympathy, helpless or simple," has come to mean "showing a lack of good sense, frivolous."

OED features the verb too:

pejorate, v.tr.

To make worse, deteriorate, worsen.

OED's is the general sense of the verb, but you can work out the more specific, linguistic one, as well as feel free to derive the passive participle: pejorated. An examplar:

sanctimonious (adj.), sanctimony (n.) In the mid-sixteenth century the adjective meant "holy, saintly," but by the early seventeenth century it had come to mean both "holy" and "hypocritically holy," and today it has pejorated to mean only "affectedly saintly, falsely holy."

Regarding your other examples—OCD, ADD, dyslexia—the usage you're so peeved by is nothing but a hyperbole. I reach for a hyperbole at least a couple dozen times a day. (There comes another one). OCD, I guess. (And another one.) In such use OCD doesn't lose its meaning; it's just used in a different context. Put differently, your sentence is a false assertion. To my mind.

Nonetheless, sans the infelicitous examples, the question you've posed is perfectly suitable for ELU. Here are some more words (participles) to express the general idea of rendering something less worthy:








prostituted (Motion-picture craftsmen shouldn't be prostituted into making junk and trash. / Professor Clayton Christensen at Harvard Business School summarized my own frustrating experiences when he said, “There’s usually some process by which a potentially great idea gets prostituted into something lacklustre”.)



defiled (The Mortgage Arrears Resolution Process, lauded as a consumer protection device, has been defiled into a process designed to give banks intrusive and powerful control over Irish mortgage holders.)


scuzzed up (Slang.)

I'm sure many more can be thought of. (I leave it to you to find out whether those can be followed by into, or only by to, or by no preposition at all.)

  • WRT "In such use OCD doesn't lose its meaning..." that wasn't really what I was implying.
    – MrHen
    Commented Oct 22, 2013 at 14:54
  • You well might not have intended that implication, but in your most important sentence, the implication was definitely sneaked in, whether by you or on its own: OCD originally referred to [one thing] but [has pejorated] into a description roughly meaning [a different thing].
    – Talia Ford
    Commented Oct 22, 2013 at 17:13
  • I don't understand the distinction you are trying to make. If, for instance, the word was "morphed" it would not imply a loss of the original meaning. Would it?
    – MrHen
    Commented Oct 22, 2013 at 17:46
  • I actually believe it would. If something morphs, the origin remains, yes, but only as a memory of the past; a new identity comes to be acquired, and the old one is shed. Collins: "morph : to transform or be transformed completely in appearance or character: <he morphed from nerd into pop icon>"
    – Talia Ford
    Commented Oct 22, 2013 at 20:24

It is called a metaphor, or possibly hypocatastasis depending on the way it is written.

I organize my spice rack alphabetically; I am so OCD.

Is a metaphor.

My OCD organization system puts cumin next to cinammon.

Is hypocatastasis. In both cases they compare something to OCD, and the meaning is that the "something" bears some resemblance to the other in some aspects though not all. One cannot over emphasize the similarity. It is unlikely that your anal spice rack attitude requires medication as is the case with some people with real OCD.

I remember the three basic figures of speech of comparison, simile, metaphor and hypocatastasis with memories of my childhood discussions with my mother:

Fraser, your room is like a pigsty; clean it up. (Simile, compare with "like" or "as".)

Fraser, your room is a pigsty; clean it up. (Metaphor, compare with "to be".)

Fraser, clean up your pigsty! (Hypocatastasis, compare by replacement.)

With no disrespect to our porcine friends.

  • +1 for teaching me a new word—never heard of hypocatastasis before. I’d give it another +1 for “anal spice rack” (context? Who needs it?), but I suppose SE limitations mean you’ll have to make do with one. Commented Oct 14, 2013 at 17:04

While not a single word, the phrase hyperbolic self-deprecation seems to fit the concept

hyperbolic - deliberately exaggerated

self-deprecation - [the act of being] modest about or critical of oneself, especially humorously so

  • +1 for addressing the derogatory portion of the question.
    – MrHen
    Commented Oct 22, 2013 at 14:57

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