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Externalistic derogation.


The question I will address in this paper is the following: is it possible for a speaker who does not belong to any particular discriminated group to use a slur in a non-derogatory way? I will understand the notion of derogation or of the derogatory character of an expression as the power that an (utterance of that) expression has to produce a range of effects, such as offending, insulting, denigrating, belittling, demeaning or ridiculing a certain subject or group. My consideration will be specifically restricted to racial, homophobic and sexist slurs, that is, terms that are typically used to insult, offend or denigrate a person or group only on the basis of factors like race, sexual orientation or gender. It is important that the slur is used by a speaker who does not belong to any of these targeted groups, otherwise the suspicion could arise that the use is appropriated, that is, that the slur has become part of the vocabulary of the target group itself, therefore losing its insulting charge (see Croom 2013). The question is therefore if there can be, borrowing Hom's words, "non-appropriated, non-derogatory uses" of certain slurs (Hom 2008, 2010). I will argue that there cannot be.

Here is how I will approach the matter: first of all, I will examine two sets of examples of alleged non-appropriated, non-derogatory uses of slurs and I will argue that, for different reasons, each set of examples is misguided. I will then concentrate on the failure of the second set of examples and offer a diagnosis of it: as I will suggest, the problem is that what may be called an Internalism about derogation is assumed, which is shown wrong once the examples are more carefully scrutinized. I will then advance the opposite idea, that I will dub Externalism about derogation.

1. Alleged Non-derogatory, Non-appropriated Uses of Slurs

1.1 Pedagogical cases. Some authors have recently contended that there can be non-derogatory, non-appropriated uses of slurs. Christopher Hom (2008) gives much emphasis to this kind of uses and provides a fairly long list of them, while arguing for a purely semantic account of the communicative import of slurs. Indeed, the fact that there can be non-appropriated, non-derogatory uses of slurs is one of the main motivations for Hom's proposal: if the racist or homophobic import can be encoded semantically, then it can be explained how these uses retain their racist or homophobic meaning without expressing any derogation. Let us take a closer look to some of these examples. Hom introduces them as uses of a slur that may serve for pedagogical purposes. We could imagine that these sentences were uttered by a school teacher to her pupils (I here take a selection of the sentences listed by Hom):

(1) Yao Ming is Chinese, but he's not a chink.

(2) Chinks are (supposedly) despicable because of their race, but Chinese people are not.

(3) There are no chinks; racists are wrong.

(4) Thinking that Chinese people are chinks is to be radically wrong about the world.

(5) Are Chinese people chinks?

(6) Is Yao Ming a chink?

(7) What is it to believe that Chinese people are chinks?

(8) Am I racist if I believe that Chinese people are chinks?

(Hom 2008: 429)

I agree with Hom that, in these sentences, the word "chink" does not derogate the target class. Yet I am not sure that the very same word in any of these sentences is really used. Here is why: although the written version of these sentences may appear acceptable even if the word "chink" is not between quotation marks, it is likely that that very word will be somehow prosodically marked in speech: the teacher may raise her tone of voice while uttering the word; or she may lower it; she may change her intonation; she may pause briefly before uttering the incriminated word; or she may accompany the utterance with a facial expression (for example, raising her eyebrows, wrinkling her nose). These may be signals that the speaker intends the word and its meaning to be isolated from the rest of her speech and there is reason to think that that is not only because the teacher wants to draw attention on them. Given that the word expresses a content associated with judgments or values that she does not wish to transmit to the pupils, it is reasonable to think that she does not wish her audience to take this as a genuine use of the word. So she alters the prosody of the sentence in order to signal that she is not seriously using the word, and in order to distance herself from the derogatory force carried by it.

It could be objected that it is perfectly possible that these sentences are uttered with no prosody alteration whatsoever (I doubt this will happen often; but sure it's a possibility). In these cases, I take it that what settles the question between a genuine and a non-genuine use is whether or not the speaker's purposes are manifest and mutually known: if they are, then even in the absence of any prosody change it will be sufficiently clear to the audience that the word should not be regarded as seriously used.

But what does it mean that the word is not "really" or "seriously" or "genuinely" used? It does not simply mean that the slur is used but it is not accompanied by the intention to derogate. My suggestion is that the word's use is merely mimicked. Mimicked use does not give rise to certain commitments to which a real use does give rise, even if with that use the speaker has no intention to derogate. To see this difference, we could imagine a Racist Teacher who believes in there being "chinks" (associated with a bad stereotype and contemptible) and "Chinese" (associated with a good stereotype and respectable). With a pedagogical intent and with no intention to derogate, she could utter (1) "Yao Ming is Chinese, but he's not a chink," or any other sentence among (2)-(8)--with the only exception of (3). This, I take, would count as a real use of the word "chink" to the extent that it presupposes that there are chinks. With this use, even if the Racist Teacher does not intend to derogate, she commits herself to the existence of chinks. By contrast, we want the Antiracist Teacher not to give rise to any of these presuppositions and to take no commitments as to the existence of chinks. The mere absence of an intention to derogate is not enough, because the presupposition and commitments as to the existence of chinks could be still in place. What is needed is a mere mimicry of use, to which the teacher might appeal in order to distance herself from the suspect that her use is presupposing and hence committing herself to the existence of chinks. The mimicked use could be signaled prosodically, as suggested earlier, with variations in the volume of her voice, intonation, rhythm; or with a change in facial expression.

I am aware that idea of a mimicked use has just been coined "from the armchair," as it were (note that a similar idea may have been already been captured by the notion of "echoic use," cf. Recanati 2010). Consequently, I would not predict that the teacher would explain herself by invoking the fact that she was "merely mimicking" the use of "chink." Yet, if we understand mimicked use as simply "utterance that does not give rise to any presupposition/commitment associated with typical uses," we may see that speakers could indeed invoke this notion when explaining or justifying their speech acts. Thus, the Antiracist Teacher could defend her use of the word "chink" in the classroom by explicitly denying presupposition of or commitment to the existence of chinks. She could say: "Yes, I said 'chink' but I didn't mean that there are any chinks;" or "Yes, I said that Yao is not a chink, and I do not think that there are any chinks!."

The conclusion is the following: in Hom's examples, there is no non-derogatory, non-appropriated use of the slur "chink," because there is no real use, but only what I have called a mimicked use, that is, an utterance that does not give rise to any of the typical presuppositions and commitments of real uses. Mimicked use could be considered a middle-way between use and mention, because (like use) it does not need quotation marks, but at the same time (like mention) it is not associated with specific conversational consequences like the generation of presuppositions, or various commitments to which the speaker becomes answerable. (1)

It could be pointed out that even when a slur is not used--for example, when it is merely mentioned--it turns out as derogatory (Anderson and Lepore 2013a, b). So, I cannot really concede that the utterance is non-derogatory because it does not involve use, if even mentionings can derogate! Mention of a slur can sure be problematic: but I think this is just because slurs are bad words, to an extent that even mentioning them is perceived as dirty and unacceptable. Yet, it seems to me that, insofar as it is clear enough to the audience that the speaker is merely mentioning the slur, there will be no derogation. Something similar happens with mimicked use: as long as it is clear enough to the audience that the speaker is not endorsing racism and so she is only mimicking use, there will be no derogation, even though, admittedly, even mimicked use may cause a sense of squeamishness and dirtiness because the involved word cannot but be perceived as bad.

1.2 Praising with slurs. Let us now move to the second set of alleged examples of non-appropriated, non-derogatory uses. I will resume some examples from a recent article by Elizabeth Camp (2013), even though I should emphasize that Camp does not take them as non-derogatory. My arguments will therefore not be directed at Camp's views. Still, I believe her examples are worthy of attention insofar as they are revealing of a popular way of thinking about slurs. To my knowledge, no author has ever endorsed this view officially. We should take it as a "folk view" of the derogatory import of slurs, which may probably be more widespread than we expect and that also implicitly enables the racist perspective. We may call this the Just-Words view. The Just-Words view states something along these lines: "Slurs are just words. If you do not have disparaging intentions, if you use them without contempt, they will not offend anyone." The defendant of the Just-Words view could therefore take the sentences enlisted by Camp as non-derogatory.

(9) I'm glad we have so many spics at our school: they always bring the best food to our fund-raising functions.

(10) I wonder whether Japs like to cuddle their babies as much as Chinks seem to.

(11) I have nothing but admiration for spics. I mean, they sure do look out for each other, and they know how to work hard and have a good time. You know, some of my best friends are spics.

(Camp 2013: 332-3)

The sentences above are supposed to be uttered by a person who feels no contempt for the target group and in fact feels affection or admiration; by uttering these sentences, the speaker wishes to praise the group, or some aspects (the food) or activities associated with it (cuddling their babies, looking out for each other, etc.). Against the "Just-Words" view, I wish to argue that uses of these sentences are derogatory. The reason is that the slurring word retains a derogatory force, which is likely to be noticed by hearers. Some perfectly reasonable reactions which the audience is likely to have suggest that the word maintains a derogatory power.

Listening to someone uttering a slurring word is likely to trigger some opposing reaction, unless the listeners share and endorse the values and standards underlying the word, and provided the circumstances do not discourage reacting: for example, listeners are not shy; they are not afraid of or intimidated by the speaker; or they don't fail to care. I will describe three of these reactions and argue that the best way of accounting for them is that the term still retains a derogatory force, irrespectively of the speaker's intentions.

The first reaction is questioning the speaker as to why, if she admires, respects or anyway has nothing against Hispanics or Chinese, she uses words like "spic" or "chink." If we put ourselves in the shoes of someone who hears this utterance, it seems we would be entirely justified in our reacting with questions like the following: "I understand that you do not mean to disrespect Hispanics; but then, why do you call them spics?". The best way to explain this request of clarification is that the terms "spic" and "chink" still retain a derogatory force, no matter the kind intents of the utterer.

The second reaction is criticism or reproach: once again, if we put ourselves in the shoes of the listener, it seems we would be entitled to criticizing the speaker for her use of the slurs. In fact, reproach seems in place precisely because the exhibited attitude is so kind and benevolent. It therefore appears to me legitimate to manifest one's disapproval to the speaker by saying something along these lines: "I think you should not be using these words, especially since you express respect for these communities." Once again, the best explanation for a similar criticism or reproach strikes me as being that the word retains its slurring potential, no matter the intentions of the speaker.

The third reaction is distancing. From the hearer's perspective, it might be perfectly justified to endorse the positive or neutral contents expressed by the speaker but reject the slurring expressions she has used. So, for instance, I take it that the following comments would be fully appropriate: "Yes, Hispanics do bring the best food, but I would not call them like you did;" "Yes, I too wonder if Japanese cuddle their babies as much as Chinese do... well, without using epithets;" and so on. Once again, I take it that the best explanation for the success of this distancing move is that the slurs retain their offensive charge, even though the speaker has no offensive attitudes or intentions (and the hearer recognizes that by endorsing the positive or neutral contents expressed by the utterer).

It could seem that these considerations merely beg the question against the "Just-Words" view, but really they do not. The arguments employed above share the same structure, which is the following: first, it seems that there can be non-derogatory (non-appropriated) uses of a slur. But some reactions, such as questioning, reproaching or distancing, seem to be perfectly reasonable if we consider the point of view of the hearer. The best explanation for these reactions is that the word retains its derogatory force no matter the intentions of the speaker. So, the use is not non-derogatory. The reasonableness of the three reactions listed above is something we appreciate pre-theoretically or intuitively if we put ourselves in the hearer's perspective; it does not depend on previously accepting that the use is derogatory no matter the intentions of the speakers.

It could be objected that in the cases just analyzed, even though the term maintains its disposition to derogate, there is no occurrent derogation. Yet this distinction appears to me overly artificial and hardly testable. What predictions would this distinction allow to make? How could one test them? Perhaps one way to test the presence of an occurrent as opposed to merely dispositional derogation is to reproduce the whole scenarios of sentences (9)-(11) in front of a member of the targeted group and see what her reactions are. Supposedly, if the derogation is merely dispositional, the listener should not complain about the use and not declare herself offended. Provided there is no way to predict whether every, most, a few or none of the targeted subjects would fail to have these reactions, I think we should look at whether the reaction itself (complaining and declaring oneself offended) would be intuitively justified or not. My hunch is that in the cases of (9)-(11) the target subject would be justified in complaining about the term's use and in declaring herself offended. This seems enough to show that, even if there is a merely dispositional derogation, this does not differ from occurrent derogation when it comes to its conversational consequences and effects on the targeted group. So, the distinction does not help the proponent of non-derogatory, non-appropriated uses of slurs.

Of course, there is always the possibility that the speaker is engaging in some sort of non-literal use. For example, the utterances in (9)-(11) could be cases of irony. Yet, as far as I can see it, this would not help the idea that the use is non-derogatory in any interesting sense. We have two ways of explaining this. The first option is to subscribe to a Grice-style conception of irony as pretence of use, which leads us back to talking about "mimicked use." The speaker is merely pretending to use the word, but this (if the speaker's intentions are correctly interpreted) is not meant to generate any dangerous presuppositions or commitments within the conversation. The second option is to consider those in (9)-(11) as real uses which somehow manage to "not offend anyone" due to the fact that the hearer is so charitable as to interpret the word as not insulting. How could this possibly happen? Here is a possible reconstruction: the hearer understands the word and is aware of its derogatory potential, but manages to "screen off" any derogatory effect out of charity considerations. Unfortunately, this does not mean that the slur's use is non-derogatory "from the start," which I guess would be the interesting claim at stake here. It means only that it can be understood as neutral as a result of the interpreter's carrying out certain pragmatic inferences (be they conscious or merely sub-personal). This is a much more humdrum claim that anyone would likely be ready to subscribe.

A further, different possibility is that in the speaker's circle (friends, family, church or neighborhood), these words are used as neutral or even as terms of affection. Yet, it would be misguided to think that in these circumstances we face standard uses of the slur. In fact, it is likely that what these people are using is a different idiolect, in which it is in some sense a convention that the word may be used in a "non-slur" modality.

2. Internalism and Externalism about Derogation

We are now in a position to attempt a diagnosis of what is wrong with examples (9)-(11): the problem may be identified with a background assumption that seems to sustain them, which might be called Internalism about derogation. This may be spelled out as the idea that whether a word turns out as derogatory or not is a matter that can be determined by the feelings, attitudes and intentions with which the speaker performs an utterance of it. Thus, what seems to me wrong about examples (9)-(11) is that the "Just-Word" defender somehow supposes that, in virtue of the speaker's feelings of admiration and desire to praise, the slurs "spic" or "chink" can loose their derogating power. As we have seen, at least three reactions that the audience might have (questioning, reproaching and distancing) strongly suggest that the slur instead retains this derogating power, irrespective of the speaker's intentions.

In light of these considerations, exactly the opposite idea seems to hold: the derogatory force of a slur remains in place irrespectively of the speaker's feelings, attitudes or intentions. We may dub this Externalism about derogation. It is important that the thesis be understood as being about derogation itself: that is, very roughly, the power that a term has to produce certain effects, such as humiliating, denigrating, demeaning or ridiculing a group or an individual.

Very tentatively, the explanation for an Externalism about derogation may be spelled out as follows: slurs are, at a social and cultural level, tools with the clear function of producing effects like those previously listed: humiliating, insulting, denigrating, belittling, demeaning or ridiculing. As a consequence of slurs' acquiring this function at a collective level, particular uses are most easily and spontaneously interpreted as giving rise to any of these derogatory effects, even though the feelings and intentions of the utterer are in fact divergent. In other words, since the derogatory function of slurs is, so to speak, institutionalized, uses of these words not accompanied by non-derogatory intentions are not immediately recognized by hearers who do not share the values that underlie use of a slur.

An important warning: This proposal is neutral with respect to a theory about the semantics of slurs, in that it only confines itself to assuming, non-controversially I hope, that slurs are normally used to derogate (and that they in some sense "perform this function" at a social-cultural level) and, on this basis, it states that derogation effects are externalistically established. It is a separate question whether the derogatory aspects associated with slurs are part of their semantics proper, whether they are part of what uses of slurs pragmatically convey, whether they are a mere expression of attitudes like contempt or hatred, or whether they are simply a consequence of slurs being prohibited or taboo.

Be that as it may, whatever theory one may favor, it seems to me one should be ready to take on board this form of externalism, and reject Internalism on derogation. Evidence suggesting that Internalism about derogation is false comes, as we have seen, from the failure of alleged cases of non-derogatory, non-appropriated uses in which the speaker manifests praising intentions. Yet, I am inclined to think that it comes also from other considerations already advanced in the literature, as to the impossibility or extreme difficulty to avoid the slur's derogating effects in certain linguistic forms (Anderson and Lepore 2013a, b). I will devote the last paragraphs of this section to these phenomena.

The first case is that of belief reports where the slur appears in subject position in the reported clause. This type of case is telling because, generally, when a speaker reports someone else's thoughts, she needs not be answerable to the implications of uttering the words that occur embedded in the "believes that ..." clause. This happens even if the reported words have the power to offend or hurt. For instance, suppose Mary utters "Jenny thinks black people have horrible taste for fashion." Jenny's thought is in some sense derogatory, in that it consists of a racially based generalization, completely ungrounded and most probably false (see Haslanger 2011); but there is no way Mary can appear as derogating black people by merely reporting Jenny's belief. Yet, if Mary were to utter: "Jenny thinks that niggers have a horrible taste for fashion," she would definitely count as endorsing the racist and derogatory perspective imparted by the term "nigger," despite the linguistic mechanism of belief report.

Something similar happens with indirect speech reports where the slur appears in subject position in the reported sentence. Again, if Mary uttered "Jenny said that black people have a horrible taste for fashion," she would not be answerable for having used the words "black people;" instead, if she uttered "Jenny said that niggers have a horrible taste for fashion," she would be answerable for having used the word "nigger" and, what is more, this would hold independently of whether Jenny used the word "nigger" in her original assertion (Anderson and Lepore 2013b: 30). Both phenomena are best explained with the idea that the derogatory power of the word "nigger" holds independently of the feelings, attitudes or intentions of the speaker, which we can assume as being neutral (at least towards the target group) in the above cases of belief and indirect speech reports.

Even uses that might appear at first sight "safer" carry the risk of making the speaker look complicit with the racist perspective expressed by the slur. The first set of cases is formed by speech or belief reports where the slur appears in predicate position. Suppose Mary utters "Jenny said/thinks that Craig is a nigger." The fact that the word "nigger" appears in predicate position seems to make the speaker's use slightly less risky than in the case where the same word appears in subject position. The reason is perhaps that, if used in subject position, it is easier to interpret the word as carrying a presupposition of existence. If the same word is in predicate position, the presupposition of existence may not arise, unless it is mutually known that the speaker believes in there being niggers. Here the case seems parallel to that of the Racist and Antiracist teachers in the pedagogical context: if it is common knowledge that the teacher is racist, her uses of "chink" will be judged as presupposing the associated discriminatory perspective. If it is common knowledge that she is not a racist, the uses might be fine, even thought I have contended they would be only mimicked. One could make a case that, if it is mutual knowledge that the reporter is not a racist, her uses of "nigger" are mimicked as well. Be that as it may, even though the use might not give rise to any presupposition of existence, it could still make either the speaker or her audience extremely uncomfortable.

A similar phenomenon may be observed with direct quotation: even direct quotations of slurs like "kike" or "nigger" might sound compromising and implicitly indicating a commitment to derogation, and might therefore be either unpleasant to hear or unspeakable. As mentioned in section 1.1, in my view quotations would not be strictly speaking derogatory: if it is clear enough that the speaker is merely mentioning a slur, no one should really get offended. Yet, it will be hard to avoid a sense of squeamishness, dirtiness or unacceptability even in the face of an evident instance of slur-mention. Once again, I am persuaded that the best explanation for the discomfort caused by both reports with slurs in predicate position and direct quotation is that derogation obtains as a matter of socially or culturally established conventions, to an extent that it almost infects even the most aseptic linguistic environments. Overall, this evidence pushes us in the direction of an Externalism on derogation.

Lastly, let me make clear that what is not possible, according to my proposal, are isolated non-derogatory, non-appropriated uses of a slur. These isolated uses differ from the phenomenon of accumulated uses of a derogatory word that, as a result of social and cultural changes, gradually loose their offensive charge. I certainly do not think that such phenomena are impossible. It is known for a fact that terms like "gay" or "queer," for instance, have gone from derogatory to neutral as a result of social, cultural and political changes. Let me say, however, that from the present perspective such a development seems implausible for other slurs, such as for instance "nigger." In this respect, I side with a remark made by Hornsby: "When words--racist words, say--have been used too often in a way that purports to validate the attitudes they impart, there is nothing to be done except to find different words. [...] The choice of new words can signal our shunning of what we'd like them to supplant." (Hornsby 2001: 133-4)

Slow, gradual, collective transitions of a word from derogatory to non-derogatory may be less attractive and convenient than the dismissal of the compromised, derogatory term in favour of a non-derogatory new word.


It seems misguided to think that one can use a slurring word without somehow derogating anybody. Seeming examples of non-derogatory, non-appropriated uses of slurs have been shown mistaken in one way or another. In some cases (Hom's examples), there is reason to think they are not genuine uses, but what I have called "mimicked uses." In some other cases (borrowed from Camp and associated with the "Just-Words" folk view), from legitimate potential reactions we learn that the word most likely retains its derogatory force despite the kind intentions of the speaker. The second set of examples seems to presuppose an Internalism about derogation. I have tried to convince the reader that the opposite holds: whether a slur is derogatory cannot be determined by the feelings and intentions of the speaker. This is tantamount to advocate an Externalism about derogation. Epithets can offend even if we have the best intentions in this world. This is yet another reason to weight our words before speaking them.


Work on this article was possible thanks to the funding provided by project CONACyT CCB 2011 166 502 at the Instituto de Investigaciones Filosoficas at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in 2014. I am grateful to the people that discussed this work with me at UNAM, especially Andrea Onofri.


Anderson, L., and Lepore, E. (2013a), "What Did You Call Me? Slurs as Prohibited Words," Analytic Philosophy 54(3): 350-363.

Anderson, L., and Lepore, E, (2013b), "Slurring Words," Nous 47(1): 25-48.

Camp, E. (2013), "Slurring Perspectives," Analytic Philosophy 54(3): 330-349.

Croom, A. (2013), "How to Do Things with Slurs: Studies in the Way of Derogatory Words," Language and Communication 33: 177-204.

Haslanger, S. (2011), "Ideology, Generics and Common Ground," in Charlotte Witt (ed.), Feminist Metaphysics. Dordrecht: Springer, 179-207.

Hom, C. (2008), "The Semantics of Racial Epithets," The Journal of Philosophy 105(8): 416-440.

Hom, C. (2010), "Pejoratives," Philosophy Compass 5(2): 164-185.

Hornsby, J. (2001), "Meaning and Uselessness: How to Think about Derogatory Words," Midwest Studies in Philosophy 25(1): 128-141.

Kaplan, D. (1969), "Quantifying In," Synthese 19: 178-214.

Recanati, F. (2010), Truth-Conditional Pragmatics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Williamson, T. (2009), "Reference, Inference and the Semantics of Pejoratives," in Almog J. and Leonardi P. (eds.) The Philosophy of David Kaplan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 137-159.


University of Barcelona


(1.) Following a cursory remark by Williamson (2009), one could suggest that the teacher's uses of "chink" in (1)-(8) are an instance of sense quotation, where the word at issue denotes its own meaning (the idea is familiar from Frege and is revived by Kaplan 1969). The problem of sense quotation for "chink" is that it may still give rise to presuppositions concerning the existence of chinks. The presupposition may certainly arise in the following contexts where supposedly one has switched to sense quotation: "The word 'chink' means chink;" "Jenny believes chinks live in China". We need something substantially weaker than even sense quotation, which is compatible with the disavowal of any presupposition of existence. I believe the notion of mimicked use could suit this purpose.
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Author:Belleri, Delia
Publication:Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations
Article Type:Essay
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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