A bulletin from Pejora, the land of derogation and insult

🐇 🐇 🐇 rabbit rabbit rabbit to inaugurate September, Labor Day weekend in my country, autumn in my hemisphere, and the 84th year of my life (I’m about to be — this coming Wednesday — 83, a nice prime number)

Meanwhile, a comment by Stewart Kramer on my 8/22 posting “The Jerk Fest” leads me to some reflections on where slurs — like jerk approximating asshole — come from. A slur like this use of jerk, or asshole itself,

— levels a culturally serious charge against its target (in the case of asshole, involving, among other things, arrogance, pretension, and rudeness)

— attributes this offense to a character flaw in the target (in Geoffrey Nunberg’s analysis of asshole, the flaw of culpable obtuseness — about their own importance, about the needs of others and the way they’re perceived by them)

— and insults the target.

The slur jerk developed from jerk referring to a fool or incompetent — what I’ll call a (mere) devaluation, meaning a term that refers to an identity regarded as of little worth. The examples that turn up in discussions of pejoration that I’ll cite involve terms referring to the devalued identities of fools and the inept (old-style jerk, dope, dummy); rustics and farm folk (hick, hillbilly, hayseed); and women (chick, dame, girl), but an extended discussion would take in (at least) terms referring to oddballs and nonconformists; foreigners; members of certain racioethnic groups; the aged; the disabled; and members of sexual minorities. (Bear in mind how astoundingly culture-specific all this material is.)

The route from devaluation to slur involves elevating cultural associations with the devalued identities to connotations of the devaluation and then to its semantic content: nasty metonymy, if you will. Fools and incompetents are seen as prone to egotistical interactions with others, so that foolish jerk begins to pick up the connotations of arrogance and rudeness, which can then become conventional aspects of meaning, leading to assholish jerk. The various stages in this progression can co-occur with one another for some time, as is certainly the case with jerk as described in the pieces quoted in my “Jerk Fest” posting.

Pejoratives and pejoration. The various stages along the way from devaluation to slur are often referred to as pejoratives, and the progression as pejoration. As intro, Stewart Kramer’s comment on my “Jerk Fest” posting and my response to it:

— SK: It reminds me of the different senses of rude (uncultured, then impolite, then insulting).

— AZ: Yes, and this probably merits a follow-up posting. Both are cases of pejoration (literally ‘worsening’) — a negatively tinged meaning becoming more negative in content. Which in cases like this would be better termed deprecation or derogation, with a mildly critical judgment elevated to a more serious (and more specific) charge. Seen also in the development of queer from a judgment of oddness, strangeness, or peculiarity to an insulting attribution of homosexuality (then ameliorated by the processes of reclaiming epithets).

Customary uses of some of these terms, from NOAD:

noun slur: 1 … [b] a derogatory or insulting term applied to particular group of people: a racial slur. …

noun derogation: … 2 the perception or treatment of someone or something as being of little worth [AZ: or significance]: the derogation of women.

adj. pejorative: expressing contempt or disapproval: permissiveness is used almost universally as a pejorative term. noun pejorative: a word expressing contempt or disapproval: most of what he said was inflammatory and filled with pejoratives.

Then from three big dictionaries of linguistic usages, in the order of their (original) publication:

— from the Routledge Dictionary of Language and Linguistics, 1996, compiled by Hadumod Bussmann; based on Bussmann’s Lexicon der Sprachwissenschaft (2nd ed., Kröner, 1990):

pejorative: Semantic characteristic of linguistic expressions wich invoke negative connotations: such derogatory meaning components can be created by new formations (e.g., wet-backs for ‘illegal Mexican immigrants’), by meaning change (e.g. dame, originally ‘(noble) lady’), as well as by prefixes such as mal -, pseudo-.

— from An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Language and Languages (Blackwell), 1992, by David Crystal:

pejoration A change of meaning in which a word develops a sense of disapproval. An example is notorious, which formerly meant ‘widely known’, but now means ‘widely and unfavourably known’.

pejorative Descriptve of a linguistic form which expresses a disparaging meaning. Examples include goodish, a youth, and … patois.

patois A popular label for a provincial dialect, especially one spoken by people considered to be primitive, illiterate, or outside society in some way (e.g. rustics, gypsies). It usually carries a disparaging connotation, and is not used in dialectology.

— from The Dictionary of Historical and Comparative Linguistics (Edinburgh Univ. Press in UK, Fitzroy Dearborn in US), 2000, by R. L. Trask:

pejoration (also degeneration) A type of semantic change in which a word comes to denote something more offensive than formerly. For example, all of English churl, villain and boor originally meant only ‘farm-worker’, but all have come to be insults, and much the same is now happening to peasant.


Leave a Reply