Philosophy Slurs, Pejoratives, and Hate Speech
Mihaela Popa-Wyatt
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 May 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0403


Slurring is a type of hate speech meant to harm individuals simply because of their group membership. It not only offends but also causes oppression. Slurs have some strange properties. Target groups can reclaim slurs, so as to express solidarity and pride. Slurs are noted for their “offensive autonomy” (they offend regardless of speakers’ intentions, attitudes, and beliefs) and for their “offensive persistence,” as well as for their resistance to cancellation (they offend across a range of contexts and utterances). They are also noted for their “offense variation” (not all slurs offend equally) and for the complicity they may induce in listeners. Slurs signal identity affiliations; they cue and re-entrench ideologies. They subordinate and silence target members and are sometimes used non-derogatorily. Slurs raise interesting issues in the philosophy of language and linguistics, social and political philosophy, moral psychology, and social epistemology. The literature on slurs also connects to socio-psychological theory, critical race theory, and legal philosophy. There are two main types of questions: those of a social nature and those of a linguistic nature. In the first category are questions such as, “What social and psychological effects do slurs create and how do they create them?” In the second category we ask, “What sort of linguistic properties do slurs have and what do those properties tell us about theories of language, reference and meaning?” Researchers also try to accommodate the answers to these questions with a unified theory (i.e., to explain how the linguistic properties of slurs bring about harm). Others are concerned with the social significance of slurs, their relation to harm and discrimination, and how to remedy them. One related question is whether slurring utterances are constitutive of (or cause) harm. This underpins debates on free speech and specifically the legal question of whether slurs should be regulated speech. Other linguistic problems are definitional. How do slurs differ from pejoratives, insults, swear words, and offensive behavior? Within the realm of evaluative language, how do slurs compare to Fregean “coloring” and hybrid terms such as moral, “thick,” and evaluative terms?

General Overviews

Sosa 2018 is a wide-ranging collection of contributions on slurs and offensive terms more generally. Other useful resources are Symposium on Slurs, Special Issue on Slurs, and a section on “Emotions, Language, and Hate Speech” in Forlè and Songhorian 2016. Further papers on slurs and non-derogatory uses are collected in Cepollaro and Zeman 2020. Finkbeiner, et al. 2016 is a collection of contributions on various linguistic features of pejoratives and slurs. McGowan 2019 is a book-length monograph examining the mechanisms underpinning racist hate speech, sexist speech, pornography, and micro-aggressions and makes the case that oppressive speech not only causes but also constitutes harm. Kennedy 2002 is a monograph dedicated to the N-word, highlighting its variety of uses in a multitude of contexts, including in the courtroom, on campus, in appropriated uses in-group, in the arts and entertainment fields, and as an argument against abandoning the N-word. Allen 1983 is a book-length sociological analysis of the origins and evolution of slurs in the context of the social relations conducive to ethnic conflict. Anderson, et al. 2013 offers a general overview discussing racial slurs, hate speech, and generics in the context of the relationship between language and race. Hom 2010, Anderson and Lepore 2013, DiFranco 2014, and Bianchi 2013 provide surveys and overviews of general features of slurs and their relationship to pejoratives.

  • Allen, Irving L. The Language of Ethnic Conflict: Social Organisation and Lexical Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

    DOI: 10.7312/alle91760Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A sociological and historical survey of ethnic slurs in American slang. Explains their origins as rooted in cultural conflict between groups. Some slurs derive from loaned words between groups in conflict and others from an in-group use by inverting the original meaning. Argues that there is a correlation between the number of slurs, the historical population size of a group, and the group’s contact and conflict with other groups.

  • Anderson, Luvell, and Ernie Lepore. “A Brief Essay on Slurs.” In Perspectives in Pragmatics, Philosophy and Psychology. Edited by Alessandro Capone, Franco Lo Piparo, Marco Carapezza, 507–514. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2013.

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    A brief and accessible description of notable problems that slurs raise and their argument as to how prohibitionism solves these problems. Among these are variable offense, use of slurs in reports or by speakers not having contempt for targets, and restrictions on appropriation.

  • Anderson, Luvell, Sally Haslanger, and Rae Langton. “Language and Race.” In The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Language. Edited by Gillian Russell and Delia Graff Fara, 753–767. New York: Routledge, 2013.

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    An introduction to the moral and epistemic harms done with racial slurs, hate speech, and racial generics. Has the advantage of bringing together disparate phenomena, but the methodology and theoretical frameworks—prohibitionism, speech-act theory, generics semantics—are only partially connected.

  • Bianchi, Claudia. “Slurs: Un’Introduzione.” In Senso e Sensibile: Prospettive tra Estetica e Filosofia del Linguaggio. Vol. 17. Edited by Paolo Leonardi and Claudio Paolucci, 41–46. Rome: Edizioni Nuova Cultura, 2013.

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    A general introduction to slurs, surveying three approaches: semantic, pragmatic, and the non-linguistic theory of prohibitionism. Written in Italian.

  • Cepollaro, Bianca, and Dan Zeman. Special Issue: Non-Derogatory Uses of Slurs. Grazer Philosophische Studien 97 (2020).

    DOI: 10.1163/18756735-09701002Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A collection of articles focused on non-derogatory uses of slurs. Some focus more specifically on the outcome and/or process of how slur words are reclaimed by target group members. Others offer more general accounts, focusing on the instability of slurs, the difficulty in blocking them, and other controversial cases. Editors’ Introduction: “The Challenge from Non-Derogatory Uses of Slurs” (pp 1–10).

  • DiFranco, Ralph. “Pejorative Language.” In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by James Fieser and Bradley Dowden, 2014.

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    A general survey of the theories about and the main characteristics of slurs and pejoratives.

  • Finkbeiner, Rita, Jörg Meibauer, and Heike Wiese, eds. Pejoration. Linguistics Today 228. The Netherlands. 2016.

    DOI: 10.1075/la.228Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A collection of articles covering the state of the art in the linguistic research on pejorative constructions. Some papers are concerned with identifying pejoration in different linguistic domains. Others are concerned with the question of what types of speech acts and uses are made with slurs.

  • Forlè, Francesca, and Sarah Songhorian. “Emotions, Language, and Hate Speech.” In Special Issue: Emotions, Normativity, and Social Life. Phenomenology and Mind 11 (2016).

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    A collection of short papers on various properties (e.g., the evolution of slurs, their offense variation, their behavior under negation, and their relation to evaluative language and generics.

  • Hom, Cristopher. “Pejoratives.” Philosophy Compass 5.2 (2010): 164–185.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2009.00274.xSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A survey of the linguistic features of pejoratives, and the major theories—nominalism, contextualism, inferentialism, presupposition, conventional implicature, and thick semantic externalism.

  • Kennedy, Randall. Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. New York: Vintage, 2002.

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    Argues for the currency of the N-word in terms of a pragmatic difference in meaning depending on who says the word in what context. Traditionally used as insult, the N-word can also be appropriated or used non-derogatorily in arts and entertainment. Discusses the effects of using the N-word on jurors’ verdicts, the risks and benefits of hate speech regulations on campus, and weighting arguments about whether to preserve or abandon the word.

  • McGowan, Mary Kate. Just Words: On Speech and Hidden Harm. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198829706.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Explains how harm occurs in oppressive acts involving subordination, domination, discrimination, harassment, and marginalization via a mechanism of “covert exercitives.” Exercitives enact changes to what is subsequently permissible both in conversational game and the social game in which it is embedded. Exercitives are covert when they do not rely on the speaker’s authority to introduce norms or intentions to do so. Thus, oppressive speech can alter norms in a given practice or activity to be ones that prescribe oppressive behaviors.

  • Sosa, David, ed. Bad Words: Philosophical Perspectives on Slurs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198758655.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A collection of articles covering the state of art in the philosophical research on slurs. Some papers address the question of whether slurs’ offense derives from their meaning and whether this is a semantic or pragmatic meaning. Others address the question of how slurs relate to swear words, taboo words, and pejoratives.

  • Croom M. Adam. (ed). Special Issue on Slurs. Language Sciences 52 (2015): 1–260.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.langsci.2015.08.001Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A collection of articles, some on the linguistic nature of slurs, in particular on their semantic and pragmatic properties. Other articles are on their social and psychological nature.

  • Hom, Christopher. (ed). Symposium on Slurs. Analytic Philosophy 54.3 (2013): 293–377.

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    A collection of articles that brings together a range of theoretical positions on the linguistic and social nature of slurs, with a focus on semantics versus pragmatics.

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