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Slurs, Stereotypes and Insults


This paper is about paradigmatic slurs, i.e. expressions that are prima facie associated with the expression of a contemptuous attitude concerning a group of people identified in terms of its origin or descent (‘spic’), race (‘nigger’), sexual orientation (‘faggot’), ethnia or religion (‘kike’), gender (‘whore’), etc. Our purpose is twofold: (i) explaining their expressive meaning dimension in terms of a version of stereotype semantics and (ii) analysing their original and most typical uses as insults, which will be called with a neologism ‘insultive’, in terms of a speech act theory.

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  1. We put together what Jeshion (2013b) calls ‘group-referring’ (‘commie’, ‘T-bagger’, ‘faggot’, ‘dyke’) and ‘personal’ (‘fatso’, ‘druggie’, ‘whore’, ‘wino’, ‘pimp’) slurring terms because we think that there is no significant difference between them: in both cases, there is prima facie a group of people that is the target of a contemptuous attitude.

  2. Even if the slurs that appear in this paper are never used but always mentioned, we apologise in advance for the sentences chosen to exemplify their different uses, in case someone finds them offensive.

  3. See, for instance, the formal proposals advanced by Potts (2003, 2005), McCready (2010), Predelli (2013) and Gutzmann (2015).

  4. Other dualist proposals have conceived of the expressive dimension in different terms: a presupposition (Schlenker 2007), a conventional implicature (Potts 2003, 2005; Williamson 2009; McCready 2010; Whiting 2013), a rule of use (Jeshion 2013b), a bias (Predelli 2013) or a set of register features (Díaz Legaspe et al. 2019).

  5. The Identity Thesis is the core of the so-called Neutral Counterpart Theories, such as Jeshion’s (2013a, 2013b), Predelli’s (2013) and Whiting’s (2013), among others. For objections to that thesis, see Hom (2008, 2010), Croom (2015) and Ashwell (2016). See also Díaz Legaspe (2018) for considerations in favor of restricting the thesis in the case of some kind of slurs, the so-called ‘normalising’ ones. For a general defence, see Caso and Lo Guercio (2016).

  6. See, for instance, Potts (2005), McCready (2010) and Schlenker (2007).

  7. The famous passage of Philosophical Investigations concerning the word ‘game’ is clear on this particular point: ‘Consider for example the proceedings that we call ‘games’. […] Look, for example, at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now, pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. […] And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and crisscrossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail’ (Wittgenstein 1953: pf. 66, pp. 31–32). As must be recalled, the notion in play is the one of family resemblance.

  8. In Putnam’s own terms: ‘The fact that a feature (e.g. stripes) is included in the stereotype associated with a word X does not mean that it is an analytic truth that all Xs have that feature, not that most Xs have that feature, not that all normal Xs have that feature, not that some Xs have that feature. Three-legged tigers and albino tigers are not logically contradictory entities. Discovering that our stereotype has been based on non-normal or unrepresentative members of a natural kind is not discovering a logical contradiction. If tigers lost their stripes they would not thereby cease to be tigers, not would butterflies necessarily cease to be butterflies if they lost their wings’ (1975: 250).

  9. In this respect, our proposal is different from the one advanced by Croom (2011), for whom the stereotype, though conceived of along similar lines, constitutes (what we have called) the representational meaning of the slur, namely, what is contributed to the truth-conditions of the statements in which it occurs. See Sect. 1.4. for more discussion.

  10. As is common, we use capital letters to designate concepts.

  11. We do not intend to endorse any particular conception of concepts: the proposal is meant to be compatible with whatever concepts might be thought to be (mental representations, abstract entities, etc.).

  12. According to the centrality of the concepts being grasped, it might be possible to establish different degrees of competence. As an example, a speaker who, in relation to ‘spic’, only grasped HARD WORKER and GOOD DANCER might be said to be less competent with the word than another one who grasped the most central concepts. This is similar to the phenomenon that Burge (1979) has called ‘partial understanding’.

  13. For instance, UGLY and its opposite BEAUTIFUL are purely evaluative concepts that might be part of (different) slur stereotypes.

  14. For the distinction and its role in ethics, see Williams (1985: chapter 8). For more on thick concepts, see Väyrynen (2011).

  15. The debate has opposed cognitivists (McDowell 1981; Kirchin 2017, among others) and non-cognitivists (such as Gibbard 1992 and Blackburn 1992).

  16. At this point, it may be worth making the following clarification point. On the one hand, purely descriptive terms (‘Hispanic-American’) have only a representational meaning (an intension and/or an extension); on the other, mixed terms (‘spic’) have both a representational and an expressive meaning (a stereotype). But that expressive meaning is constituted by different kinds of concepts, namely, purely descriptive concepts (WITH A SPANISH ACCENT), thick concepts (ILLEGAL) and purely evaluative ones (UGLY). Therefore, the mixed term ‘spic’ has (i) a representational meaning, that is, it represents the property of having a Hispanic-American origin or descent (intension), and it applies to the set of Hispanic-Americans (extension), and (ii) an expressive meaning, namely, it expresses an evaluative stereotype; this one is in turn constituted by an open list of concepts, some of which are purely descriptive concepts (WITH A SPANISH ACCENT, namely, it represents the property of speaking English with a Spanish accent), whereas others are mixed or thick concepts (ILLEGAL, which not only represents the property of not being authorised to live or work in a certain country but also encodes a negative global value).

  17. On the other hand, the above-emphasised independence between the representational and the expressive components of slurs implies that sentences such as “My dog is a spic”, “That banana is a spic”, “St. Paul’s Cathedral is a spic” and “The square root of 606 is a spic” would turn out to be expressively correct if uttered in a context in which the ‘spic’ stereotype is in force. Of course, they would also be not only false but absurd (categorial mistakes). We think this does not involve any problem, since the expressive correctness (or lack of it) of absurd statements is an idle point.

  18. We would like to thank an anonymous referee for emphasising the need of making those contrasts explicit.

  19. The stereotype account rejected by Saka (2007) seems to be of the same kind: ‘It has been suggested that pejoratives apply to those and only those who conform to suitable stereotype (personal communications from Alistair Isaac, Steven Todd, and Evan Dukofsky). Under this view, “Hitler was a kraut” would be true because Hitler was authoritarian, an Aryan supremacist, and bent on conquest, while “Einstein was a kraut” would be false’ (2007: 125). But, as we explained above, from our perspective, the ‘kraut’ stereotype is part not of the representational or truth-conditional content but of the expressive content of statements containing the term, and, hence, it involves neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for their truth or falsity.

  20. In this respect, our proposal is more akin to the one presented in Camp (2013), according to which stereotypes are also constitutive of a non-truth-conditional meaning dimension. Our notion of stereotype is, however, much more directly inspired in Wittgenstein’s reflections on meaning and Putnam’s conception of natural kind stereotypes.

  21. This final paragraph has been included in attention to a useful suggestion of an anonymous referee.

  22. Angular brackets are conventionally used to designate propositions or propositional contents; in fact, some people would say that there are two propositions in play, a truth-conditional and a use-conditional one (see, for instance, Gutzmann 2015). As in the present essay, we do not model expressive meanings in terms of propositions; we will not say anything more specific on this point.

  23. Finally, a sentence like the following:

    1. i.

      Diego is Hispanic-American but he is not a spic.

    could also be thought to be self-contradictory, on the assumption that the Identity Thesis is in play. From our perspective, though, (i) can be interpreted in two alternative ways. One interpretation follows the lines of the interpretation proposed for (10): although (i) is literally false (self-contradictory), it conveys the true content that Diego is Hispanic-American but does not have the features represented in the ‘spic’ stereotype. The other interpretation takes the negation contained in (i) to be metalinguistic: what is negated is that Diego should be called ‘a spic’, as shown but its more natural reformulation:

    1. ii.

      Diego is not ‘a spic’, he is Hispanic-American.

    in parallel to

    1. iii.

      This is not a ‘bunny’, this is a rabbit.

  24. For the classic taxonomies of speech acts, see Austin (1962) and Searle (1969).

  25. These correspond to what Jeshion (2013b) calls ‘non-weapon uses’. The examples are also similar to the ones mentioned by Camp (2013: 332-333). See, for example, the following paragraph from Technau: ‘The success of a non-pejorative use is not always dependent on the speaker’s group membership, it is always dependent, however, on the speaker’s friendly bonds with his audience and the hearers’ knowledge of his friendly intentions and attitudes’ (2018: 36).

  26. The account that follows have some points of contact with Liu’s (2018) Force Indicator account, according to which slur words are derogatory because they are illocutionary force indicators for derogation. However, as will be clear below, there are many differences between both accounts, given, among other aspects, that Liu’s account (i) does not include stereotypes and (ii) does not define the illocutionary force characteristic of (what we call) insultive uses in terms of the presence of a derogatory communicative intention along Gricean lines.

  27. From this, he derives what he calls ‘the essential rule’, according to which ‘the utterance of Pr counts as the undertaking of an obligation to do A’ (1969: 63).

  28. Notice that the speaker may be making a mistake, namely, she may take the hearer to belong in the target group even if that is not the case. In other terms, the first part of the statement (“You are a spic”) may be false.

  29. In the following subsection, we will expand on the difference between insulting and offending.

  30. Following Searle (1975), one may also wonder what the direction of fit of the kind of insultive acts under study could be; more specifically, for instance, whether in that subkind of insultive acts the propositional content adjusts to the world (descending force, characteristic of assertive speech acts) or, on the contrary, the world adjusts to the propositional content (ascending force, characteristic of directive speech acts). The concept of direction of fit alludes to the relation between the propositional content of a statement and a fact in the world. Therefore, when the propositional content does not adjust to a world fact or vice versa, as is the case with expressive speech acts, Searle takes the direction of fit to be empty or null. Now, as we have seen, our insultive acts introduce a different kind of expressive dimension, which is not at all representational, constituted by what we have called ‘their negative evaluative charge’. We will then claim that they inherit the direction of fit of the other, more basic illocutionary force being involved: if it is an assertion, as in (1) and (19) above, the direction of fit will be descending; if, on the contrary, the insultive act involves a sentence such as “You, spics, form a separate line to be interrogated!”, it will be ascending, as it happens with orders and promises.

  31. This proposal is different from Tenchini and Frigerio’s (2016), since they seem to think that there are two different speech acts that are correlated with two different truth-conditional propositions expressed by the corresponding sentence. We do not agree: there is only one truth-conditional proposition, as in the warning case. But there are expressive aspects of that proposition that determine the presence of an insultive act. An alternative would be thinking that those expressive aspects give rise to an independent, use-conditional proposition (as in Gutzman 2015).

  32. It is worth taking into account that merely understanding the corresponding slur is not sufficient for this effect to come about, since contempt is not part of the expressive meaning of the term but a pragmatic expressive factor.

  33. Moreover, it is worth pointing out that this first-order belief is a classificatory belief: it involves the classification of a person into a group, which is known to be conventionally linked to certain stereotypical features. But, as stated in the first section of the paper, it does not involve the belief that the person at stake has, as a matter of fact, those features.

  34. Liu makes the same distinction on completely different grounds—cf. ‘Although offensive utterances are usually conflated with derogatory utterances in the literature, I believe there is a distinction between them; derogation is an illocutionary act, whereas offending is a perlocutionary effect’ (Liu 2018: 17).

  35. The fact that the speaker does not have the intention to classify the hearer or a third person in a certain group does not imply that the slur does not have its normal extension; that is why, as we will explain below, the speaker is saying something false, that is, she applies the slur to someone who does not belong in its extension.

  36. The kind of use at stake is what Jeshion (2013b) calls ‘a G-extending use’, namely, a non-literal use in which the slurring term is applied to an individual the speaker knows not to belong to the target group. It is also an instance of what Croom characterises as ‘meaningful and felicitous uses of racial slurs that need not target an individual belonging to the race typically associated with that racial slur’ (Croom 2011: 252).

  37. Of course, other theories of figurative language could be applied to the kind of use under study. In this paper, we show how it may be thought to work within a Gricean framework.

  38. A further example is provided by an utterance of the following sentence when addressed to a man: ‘You are a girl!’. In saying that her addressee is a girl, the speaker is intending not to include him in the stereotyped group of women but to ascribe him the properties of being superficial, vain, dependent, etc., namely, some psychological traits constitutive of the ‘girl’ stereotype with a concomitant negative global value.


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Correspondence to Eleonora Orlando.

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Orlando, E., Saab, A. Slurs, Stereotypes and Insults. Acta Anal 35, 599–621 (2020).

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  • Expressive meaning
  • Slurs
  • Stereotypes
  • Speech act theory