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To romanticize is

to deal with or describe in an idealized or unrealistic fashion; to make (something) seem better or more appealing than it really is

I am looking for a word that describes a similar exaggeration, but in the opposite direction: to make something seem worse or less appealing than it really is.

I would not accept words like "understate" or "downplay". Though they do work as antonyms for "romanticize", they denote a lack of exaggeration, rather than exaggeration in a negative direction.

The word "vilify" is close to what I am looking for (perhaps a bit too malicious), but its usage feels restricted to persons. I would prefer a word that can be applied to both animate and inanimate concepts, as in "romanticize the past".

"Slander" is also close to what I mean, but it is a purely dynamic verb and suggests an action. I would prefer a word with a usage that leans stative, like "romanticize". You can "romanticize the past" solely within your own head, but if you "slander the past" it suggests talking or writing about it.

Some example sentences might be:

He _____ the city as a filthy, over-crowded and dangerous place.

After the bitter breakup, she retroactively _____ the relationship with her ex.

While Arthurian myth typically romanticizes the Middle Ages, Monty Python's Holy Grail _____ the period instead.


Apologies in advance to all the British English users who would prefer "romanticise" throughout this post

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4 Answers 4

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If you’re looking for exaggeration in the opposite direction, how about making something seem worse than it is? Try:

demonize, v.
b. transitive. To portray (a person or thing) as wicked and threatening, (now) esp. in an inaccurate or misrepresentative way. (Now the usual sense.)
Source: Oxford English Dictionary (login required)

Compare:

romanticize, v.
1. transitive. To make romantic or idealized in character; to make (something) seem better or more appealing than it really is; to describe, portray, or view in a romantic manner.
Source: Oxford English Dictionary (login required)

Here are some examples from the corpus:

Western society tends to either romanticize or demonize mental illness.
“Unravelling the threads of prejudice” — Canadian Medical Association Journal

As the first messenger’s realism challenges the absolutes of English courage and honor, the play as a whole undermines the human propensity to romanticize and demonize events and characters, exposing simplifications of the heroic, political, and erotic.
Shakespeare’s Early History Plays

In doing so, the book reveals the earliest origins of familiar legends which at once demonize and romanticize the Vikings . . .
Heirs of the Vikings description

Find more at Google: "demonize" "romanticize".

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OED traduce

4.a. transitive. To speak ill of, esp. (now always) falsely or maliciously; to defame, malign, vilify, slander.

1965 L. Trilling Beyond Culture (1967) 13 In its ivory towers reality was alternately ignored and traduced.

2001 A. Sayle Dog Catcher 84 The work of his heroes, the architects Mies van de Rohe and le Corbusier, had been unfairly traduced by the enemies of progress.

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While Arthurian myth typically romanticizes the Middle Ages, Monty Python's Holy Grail bad-mouths the period instead.

Bad-mouth (v.)

Transitive. To abuse or deprecate verbally; to criticize, slander, or gossip maliciously about (a person or thing); to disparage, ‘run down’. OED


Thankfully, I hold back from bad-mouthing's partner: romanticizing the good ol' days—my knowledge of history won't let me. I once got chastised by an elementary school principal at a school assembly in Atlanta for snapping at a fourth grader because of my refusal to romanticize. Cora Daniels and John Jackson; Impolite Conversations: On Race, Politics, Sex, Money and Religion (2014)

Bad-mouth has, to me, a down-to-earth tartness that contrasts nicely with the dreaminess that the lofty romanticize evokes. Perhaps this could be part of the "opposite polarity" you are looking for.

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  • How does that relate to exaggeration, though? May 26, 2023 at 22:21
  • @TinfoilHat Like romanticizing, it's exaggerating or going too far, but in the opposite direction ("maliciously"), just as demonization usually does.
    – DjinTonic
    May 27, 2023 at 0:22
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Stigmatise usually carries the 'unwarranted' tone:

stigmatise [verb] [transitive; often passive] (US usually stigmatize):

to treat someone or something unfairly by disapproving of him, her, or it

  • People should not be stigmatized on the basis of race.

[Cambridge Dictionary]

As the definition implies, it is not just people that can be stigmatised. Human behaviours:

  • These results appear to indicate that the diphthongs are no longer stigmatized for the younger generation.

  • Although rural speech is stigmatized, it is not obvious that people who always live in a rural environment ever wish to speak like urbanites.

  • What is more, it is this use of 'hopefully' that is stigmatized by traditional grammarians, and it has been resisted all along.

  • That her novel articulates a story in which the pursuit of self-interest is not stigmatized or considered vulgar is significant in historical terms.

[Cambridge English Corpus]

other life forms:

  • These animals, particularly snakes are highly and unfairly stigmatised.

[London Wildlife Trust]

and even inanimate entities

  • Dessert wine: so much more than just stigmatised sherry.

Christian Holthausen; The Guardian; Sep 2014

may all be stigmatised.

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