Slurs are terms, such as slut, nigger or bitch, that are typically used to offend members of certain groups. They are largely considered as the most taboo and offensive of all linguistic expressions.
In his article exploring their use, Adam Croom firstly distinguishes between three types of terms: those that are descriptive, those that are expressive and lastly, those that are slurring. A descriptive term is used to objectively identify some feature of an individual or group. For example, in the utterance ‘S is an African American’ the term is neutral and shows no opinion on the speaker’s part. Expressive terms, on the other hand, express the speaker’s own heightened emotional state. So, a speaker may say ‘S is a fucker’ and express anger towards S for some reason but not by targeting a particular descriptive feature. However, if a speaker says ‘S is a nigger’ this is a slurring term as a certain descriptive feature has been picked out and the individual put down on that basis, in this case on their race.
Croom refers to the concept of ‘face’, which is the desire for respect from other speakers within your linguistic community. ‘Face’ is a type of social currency as, just like money, you can get more things done with the more positive ‘face’ or respect you have. Offending people threatens their ‘face’ and complimenting people adds to their ‘face’, with slurring terms often used in this bargaining process. In fact, the use of racial slurs can be extremely destructive to the actual character of their targets and speakers who use them are contributing to a history of derogation that harms their social identities.
Croom quotes the example of how slaves were treated like domestic animals by their masters. Although it is clear that humans and livestock are in no way alike, the easiest way for the slave owners to deal with their own behaviour was to dehumanize the slaves in their minds and think of them as animals. The slave owners’ language closely reflected this way of thinking, hence the term ‘nigger’ which for them encompassed the meaning of ‘emotionally shallow, simple-minded, sexually licentious and prone to laziness’ and is clearly a negative and derogatory term for an African American. Interestingly slurs are also sometimes used to belittle targets who are not typically associated with the original slur. Croom quotes research carried out by M. MacDonald* in 2000 amongst African American communities where he reported that the term ‘white nigger’ was sometimes used by black speakers to refer to white people who were thought of as being beneath the speaker socially.
Intriguingly, slurs may sometimes be used by the very members of the group they were originally aimed at. In this case, groups of speakers seem to have adopted slurs that were historically used against them and somehow claimed them for their own, giving them positive connotations. At first glance this is a puzzling phenomenon; however traditionally minority groups will often distinguish themselves by turning standard society’s norms on their heads. So, for example, many black inner-city residents may feel that the wider white society has abandoned them and disrespects them. In response, an oppositional culture develops and spreads within these groups. Anything associated with conventional white society is seen as square and the cool things are the opposite things: untied trainers, low slung trousers, caps worn backwards, etc. Running alongside this, such groups will adapt their speech styles too and adopt words traditionally used against them, reversing their original intention in a way, which is exactly what has been seen to have happened with the word ‘nigger’. Amongst young black people, the word now has positive connotations and this has extended to some extent to young white fans of hip-hop. ‘Nigger’ is an oft-used term in the hip-hop culture and young white fans usually have no previous knowledge of the word’s history and will therefore also use it as a positive term. The concept of ‘face’ is reversed as speakers use slurs to actually compliment each other and signal respect.
Croom makes the point that this is not only true of racial terms but also of sexist ones such as slut and bitch and homosexual terms such as queer. It is a fascinating field of study and one which merits a lot more research.
*MacDonald, M., 2000. All Souls: A Family Story from Southie. Ballantine, New York.
Croom, Adam M. (2013) How to do things with slurs: Studies in the way of derogatory words. Language and Communication 33: 177-204.
This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle