Words with nonpejorative technical uses and nontechnical pejorative uses

There are some words which have both a technical meaning in some field of study and a pejorative meaning that is more widely known.  A notorious example is “Negro,” which now tends to be used as a slur in colloquial English but which physical anthropologists still use because none of the alternatives captures the meaning they need to express.  Another example would be “cult.”  In the study of religion, “cult” is the rites and practices of a particular group.  A scholar of religion could refer to any faith group as having a “cult” in this sense and be confident that no one would take offense.  Of course, there’s also the pejorative sense of “cult,” a sect considered false or extreme. 

The word “essentialism” is at the head of a whole category of examples.  Some philosophers hold that each entity in the universe has a number of qualities, that some of these qualities are more important to the entity than others, and that human reason is capable of distinguishing the more important qualities from the less important ones.  This view is called essentialism.  Essentialism in this sense is a perfectly respectable philosophical position, and from the days of Plato and Aristotle down to the present it has consistently commanded the allegiance of many eminent thinkers.  Few would claim that these thinkers have proven beyond doubt that essentialism is true, but it is certainly plausible.  Indeed, while virtually anyone who has read a little Plato can put up a reasonable case for essentialism, it takes a considerable philosophical background to make a sensible case against it. 

The same word is used in a different, though related sense.  Many postmodernist thinkers use the word “essentialist” as a sort of curse word.  In their parlance, “essentialist” often seems to mean something like “stereotyped” or “inattentive to details.”  The “essentialism” they invoke seems to be an image of a person who slaps hasty definitions on categories, assigns other people to those categories, and proceeds to interact with the people as if the only qualities they had were those that defined the categories to which they were assigned.  So, someone who decides to equate “ukuleleist” with “weirdo who doesn’t want to grow up” might meet someone who plays the ukulele and insist on always and only treating that person as a weirdo who doesn’t want to grow up.  Sociologists among you will be reminded of the role of labeling in social relationships, but I think you can see that this use of the word “essentialism” is a gross caricature of the philosophical position I sketched above. 

The names of many philosophical schools and positions have been subjected to this kind of semantic shift.  So the ancient Epicureans argued that pleasure was a positive good; their opponents transformed their name into a synonym for “gourmand.”  The Stoics argued that a right understanding of nature’s laws would free the mind from fear; now we say “stoic” when we mean “unemotional.” 

Of the five words we’ve seen so far, “Negro” was a problematic word from its inception, but not simply a slur at the time it was adopted as a technical term.  The other four- cult, essentialism, Epicurean, and Stoic- began as non-pejorative technical terms and then acquired non-technical pejorative uses. 

Of course, we also have another category: words that began as non-technical pejorative terms, but which are now also used as non-pejorative technical terms.  “Queer theory” would be a prime example of this; so too, though in a different social setting and lexical register, would the pervasive use of “n****r” in music made by African-Americans for African Americans.  I’ve known people with mobility impairments who have taken a similar approach to the word “cripple,” wearing T-shirts or slapping bumper stickers on their wheelchairs using that often hurtful word as a confrontational tactic.  That use of “cripple” has not been institutionalized to the degree that rap has institutionalized the use of “n****r,” I don’t know if it has been institutionalized to the point where it could be thought of as a technical term.  Such an institutionalization may be on the horizon, however.  Comedienne Maysoon Zayid, who sometimes reminds me of what Richard Pryor would have been like if Richard Pryor had been born in New Jersey in 1977 as a Palestinian American woman with cerebral palsy (so you know, pretty much the same) goes so far as to call herself a “dancing gimp,” which is perhaps as shocking today as the title “That N****r is Crazy” was when Pryor put that comedy album out in 1974.  So for all I know she may be the forerunner (er, um, that is, fore-mover) of a similar movement to that which Pryor’s album helped start.    

I’d like to put together a list of words that are used alternatively in a non-pejorative technical sense and a non-technical pejorative sense.  If you can think of any, please add them in the comments.


  1. cymast

     /  December 31, 2008

    So we’re not allowed to type That Word here? That Word is probably the most powerful word in the English language. It’s like kryptonite within specific contexts. In other contexts it’s a friendly greeting. It is perhaps the only word that is worshipped and feared as a god.

    So why didn’t That Word evolve like the words “gay,” “fag,” “dyke,” and “queer” evolved? Those words started as perjoratives, but now they are fully embraced by the gay community and are words of pride and empowerment.

    Er, “queer theory”? Hadn’t heard of it. And I wasn’t aware that “epicurean” and “stoic” were pejoratives.

    Would “retard” or “retarded” make your list?

    “Untouchable” in the Indian caste system.

    Not sure about “midget” or “dwarf.”

    “Mongoloid” I’m pretty sure of.

    In the American wild west, a “prostitute” was a respected professional.

    “Gypsy” can go either way.

    “Hobo” might qualify.

    Also: bad, shit, sick, pimped, and jacked.

    Am I totally off-track here?

  2. acilius

     /  January 6, 2009

    Thanks for the suggestions.

    I don’t want to put many restrictions on the list as we start it. My thought is that words like this might fall into previously unrecognized categories. So I don’t want to start with a list of categories.

  3. acilius

     /  January 6, 2009

    Oh, as for n****r- I don’t know if WordPress allows it- but I’d rather do without it.

  4. cymast

     /  January 6, 2009

    Yes, let’s not restart Sharpton’s career.

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