Pejorative Language

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The term pejorative language refers to words and phrases that hurt, insult, or disparage someone or something. Also called a derogatory term or a term of abuse.

The label pejorative (or derogatory) is sometimes used in dictionaries and glossaries to identify expressions that offend or belittle a subject. Nonetheless, a word that's regarded as pejorative in one context may have a non-pejorative function or effect in a different context.

Examples and Observations of Pejorative Language

  • "It is often ... the case that pejorative terms are stronger when applied to women: bitch is seldom a compliment, whereas bastard (especially old bastard) can under some circumstances be intended as a term of respect or affection. Of similar positive status when masculine is dog (as in you old dog!, admiring a roué); when feminine in reference in AmE it means an ugly woman. Witch is almost always pejorative, whereas wizard is often a compliment."
    (Tom McArthur, Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press, 2005)
  • "[T]here is a tendency to select our pejorative epithets with a view not to their accuracy but to their power of hurting...
    "The best protection against this is to remind ourselves again and again what the proper function of pejorative words is. The ultimate, simplest and most abstract, is bad itself. The only good purpose for ever departing from that monosyllable when we condemn anything is to be more specific, to answer the question 'Bad in what way?' Pejorative words are rightly used only when they do this. Swine, as a term of abuse, is now a bad pejorative word, because it brings no one accusation rather than another against the person it vilifies; coward and liar are good ones because they charge a man with a particular fault--of which he might be proved guilty or innocent." (C. S. Lewis, Studies in Words. Cambridge University Press, 1960)

Pejorative Language As a Persuasive Strategy

  • "One important feature of a narratio is that of characterization of the major players. The use of pejorative language was in order to dispose the audience in a particular direction toward one's own viewpoint and against that of others. Hence we hear [in the epistles of St. Paul] about 'false brothers' 'secretly brought in' who 'spy things out,' or about 'those reputed to be pillars,' or about Peter's and Barnabas' 'hypocrisy.' This use of pejorative and emotional language is not accidental. It is meant to raise animus against the opposing viewpoint and sympathy for the speaker's case." (Ben Witherington, III, Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on Paul's Letter to the Galatians. T&T Clark Ltd., 1998)

Euphemisms and Lexical Change

  • "There are cases of euphemisms leading to lexical change in the past. For instance, imbecile originally meant 'weak' and idiot meant 'non-expert, layperson.' When these words had their meanings extended to soften the blow of saying that someone had very limited intellectual powers, the original meanings were obscured and eventually got lost. Unfortunately, when we use euphemisms, the unpleasant associations eventually catch up with the new word. Then it is time to find another one. (Surely, a more effective solution to the problem of reducing the hurt caused by using pejorative language is to change the attitudes of people who consciously or unconsciously use such language. Not an easy task.)"
    (Francis Katamba, English Words: Structure, History, Usage, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2005)

Rhetoric As a Pejorative Term

  • "The art of rhetoric was held in high regard from ancient Greece until late in the 19th century, occupying a prominent position in the paideia, which signified both education and culture. . . .
    "Towards the end of the 19th century, rhetoric fell into disrepute and was no longer taught in the various educational institutions. The word 'rhetoric' received a pejorative meaning, suggesting the use of underhanded tricks, fraud, and deceit, or the stringing together of hollow words, hackneyed expressions and mere platitudes. To be rhetorical was to be bombastic."
    (Samuel Ijsseling, Rhetoric and Philosophy in Conflict: An Historical Survey, 1975. Trans. from the Dutch by Paul Dunphy. Martinus Nijhoff, 1976)
  • "Rhetoric is not a term to embrace lightly; it is too pockmarked by a century in which it has been deemed to be associated merely with sophistication (in the less positive sense of that word), cant and emptiness. It has seemed to suggest a state in which language floats free of its context and thus becomes deracinated, superfluous--perhaps inflated--and ultimately meaningless. This palsied view of rhetoric is not new, however. The earliest recorded pejorative reference to rhetoric in English, according to the OED, dates from the mid-sixteenth century. Plato was fiercely critical of it. It seems that the epithetic phrase 'sweet rhetoric' has been particularly far from people's mouths in the last hundred years or so."
    (Richard Andrews, "Introduction." Rebirth of Rhetoric: Essays in Language, Culture and Education. Routledge, 1992)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Pejorative Language." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Pejorative Language. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Pejorative Language." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).