The Linguistics of Name Calling

Saturday, January 19, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

Our topic this week is the linguistics of name-calling.  This episode is sort of the linguistic companion of our episode on Forbidden Words.  On that one, we talked to a philosopher about the semantics of slurs that are so offensive that decent people just shouldn’t use them.  On this episode,  we’re going to look more at words like ass-hole, that are offensive enough to pack a punch, but aren’t offensive enough to be always inappropriate.

But let’s start at the beginning, with name calling in general.  Name-calling is widely regarded as a bad thing.  But from a linguistic perspective,  it is an utterly fascinating phenomenon.   And it’s begun to capture the attention of lots of linguists and philosophers partly for that reason.  Now you might say that name-calling is regarded as a bad thing, because it is a bad thing!   And I certainly admit, as I have already said, that decent people shouldn’t use words like the infamous N-word or the K-word as applied to Jewish people.   But it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bath water.  Take the word ‘asshole’ – such a marvelous little word, a true linguistic wonder.   And it’s far less offensive than the mostly unspeakable N-word.   The N-word is a terrible and ugly word.  To call somebody the N-word is to imply they are inferior because of their race and therefore worthy of contempt.  It’s to say something both false and uncalled-for.  On the other hand, some people really are assholes. They deserve to be called what they are.

 Of course,  though  ‘asshole  isn’t as harsh  name to call someone as the N-word, it probably still shouldn’t be used in polite speech.  Suppose Barack Obama found himself thinking that Mitt Romney was being an asshole during one of their debates.  Obama wouldn’t have dared call Romney an asshole  in that context, even if Romney really was being one.   Still, despite its impoliteness,  ‘asshole’ is sometimes a perfectly apt word.  That alone makes it different from the N-word – which is never apt, in any context. 

It might help to distinguish three different things – three different ways words of soft derogation, as I will call them,  like the word  ‘asshole’  differ from more harshly derogatory terms -- like the N-word.  First,  a statement like “Jones is a real asshole” can be flat-out true or flat-out false.  That alone already distinguishes ‘asshole’  from the N-word. You can’t ever apply the N-word to anyone truly.  That's because to be truly an N, a person would have to be contemptible solely because of their race.  But no one is ever contemptible because of their race.  So, when you call somebody the N-word, you're always saying something false. Or so I maintain.   To be sure,  someone who utters  'S is such an N' may genuinely express their felt contempt for the target of the slur and so may feel the slur to be appropriate.  But that does not mean that the speaker has manage to say something true, to report on a fact about the target of the slur.  Moreover, if I don't share your contempt for the target of your slur,  you  and I have what philosophers sometimes call a disagreement in attitude, not a disagreement over facts.  

Now I maintain that  the very act of calling someone the N-word is not just factually incorrect but deeply morally problematic.  That's because  to call someone the N-word isn't just to express one's individual contempt for that person, but also  to buy into certain racists practices and stereotypes.  Indeed, in the very calling one further perpetuates and endorses those practices and stereotypes. That’s part of why being called an N, stings so much -- because it's backed not just by the contempt of one person for another -- but by a whole institutionalized history of opression.   (Notice I am setting aside appropriated uses of the N-word, which we talk about a great deal during our episode on Forbidden Words.)  By contrast, though   being called an asshole may certainly sting, it’s  a different sort of sting.  It's a sting entirely tied to another's assessment of your own character as an individual.  For better or for worse, there is no  history of institutionalized and socially sanctioned oppression against assholes.  Moreover,  unlike the sting of being called an N, the sting of being called an asshole, may be well-deserved.  The sting of being called the N-word is, I think, never deserved.  

Finally, there is the curious fact that even if it’s true that someone is in general or is just being on this occasion an asshole,  it’s often just plain impolite to call someone an asshole.  Apparently, some perfectly true things just shouldn't be said, at least not in every circumstance.  This takes us back to an earlier point.  The fact that  ‘asshole’ is not a polite word, that can be uttered in any old context, is part of what gives it such power.  Suppose you’re mistreating a student or an employee.  Your wife pulls you aside and tells you face to face, in a firm but loving tone, to stop being such an asshole.  You shouldn’t be offended; you should be grateful.  Of course, if she said that same thing openly and in public, in front of all the people to whom you were being such an asshole, you might feel a bit differently. 

That's because it’s one thing to lovingly admonish someone you care about, in private,  with that word; it’s another thing to openly hurl it at somebody in the heat of an argument or in front of others.  That’s likely to make things worse, not better. But that just shows how flexible, powerful and useful the word ‘asshole’  and other expressions of soft derogation can be.  They are words that for good or ill, get people’s attention.  They are really marvelous bits of language.  They can be dangerous and coarsening, though.  Rush Limbaugh habitually calls feminists “Femi-Nazis.”  Some democrats habitually call republicans “Repugnants.”  Who would deny that the  use of such words has greatly coarsened  our public discourse.  The more we think and talk about each other in such terms, the less we’re prone to listen to each other respectfully.   Unfortunately, though,  the barrier between impolite speech and public discourse came tumbling down a long, long time ago. There’s probably no way to put it back again.

 From a philosophical and linguistic standpoint, though, that may not be such a terrible thing.  For it gives us a lot more to talk and think about here.  Name-calling is clearly a fascinating thing, philosophically,  linguistically, socially, morally,  and politically.   We’d love to know what you think about it.  But do express your views in a civil way. No name calling please.  That is,  don't be an asshole about it!  Okay? 

 

 

 

Comments (21)


Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, January 20, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

"On the other hand, some

"On the other hand, some people really are assholes. They deserve to be called what they are." This is why I love this show ;) lol!
But on the topic, these two words are very well contrasted by Prof. Taylor!
one word tied to your own character as an individual, the other, is tied to a history of institutionalized and socially sanctioned oppression!

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, January 20, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

In honor of Martin Luther

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and All those who have fought and died for freedom, I would call mankind no matter its color or greed Equal and the Lion as is his tail as is the Universe simply and most beautifully just One.
=

Fred Griswold's picture

Fred Griswold

Monday, January 21, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

As far as I know, no one's

As far as I know, no one's ever proven that the name-calling KT talks about has ever actually damaged anyone, in the sense of keeping anyone from getting housing, or getting a job, etc. I doubt if it ever has, and as a matter of fact, I don't see how it could. So I don't think that any convincing scientific case will ever be made against it. To me, the real question here is, if these epithets are in fact so harmless, then why do they draw such a strong reaction?
Still, it's pretty hard for any decent person to accept such offensive words, no matter what the arguments are, pro or con. So maybe this should be added to Nathan's list of things not covered by science.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, January 21, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

The oft-spoken abbreviated

The oft-spoken abbreviated version of the A-Word was too much for some listeners on KUCR, or maybe just one UC administrator. Your show today (Jan 22) was cut off 5 minutes after its start, and replaced by a musical interlude.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, January 21, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

Ernie is right; Michael lost

Ernie is right; Michael lost me after his first sentence; and Fred should do more some more research. "As far as I know" and "I doubt if it ever has" are unconvincing statements in any discourse where some level of enlightenment is at least a hope; if not an expectation. Derogation, whether it is profane (he is an asshole) or more benign (your mother was a chimpanzee), is essentially a tactic of distraction---used when the detractor has run out of relevant input and/or neutral witticism. Name-calling is probably about as old as language itself: detractors have always ran out of relevant input, etc. It is, further, linguistic artifice, intended to elicit reaction: the object of derogation must decide how he will respond to the asshole confronting him: walk away (asshole wins); deliver a snappy retort (50-50, or better for the object); or, beat the detractor senseless (positive outcome

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, January 22, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

Though Joe was getting on in

Though Joe was getting on in age, he had never given up the recklessness of his youth. He ate the wrong foods, smoked, had no use for exercise, liked to spend his time in bars and, still being single, continued to chase after young women who long ago had become far too fast for him to catch. Increasingly frequently some body part or other of Joe's rebelled, but when that happened Joe simply went his doctor and got a pill or, in more serious insurrections, a shot, and the troublesome body part was zonked into quietude.
One night, while Joe was asleep, his body parts held a meeting. Noting how disastrously Joe was neglecting them, they quickly agreed that drastic action was urgent. They all agreed that they would all do their individual utmost to keep Joe functioning. They also agreed that they should make someone the boss to ensure that no body part was slacking off while the others were toiling, and they agreed that the body part with the most important function should be the boss.
Then the body parts began to make the case why they should be boss. The right hand made a particularly good case but then the heart spoke up and made an even stronger one. But then the brain spoke up and pointed out that it was the communication center of the body and sent out the messages that kept the hand and heart and other body parts operating in harmony.
Just when it seemed the brain was certain to be the boss, the rear end, who had been fuming because it had been ignored, piped up with, "I'll show you who's boss!" With that it plugged up so that nothing at all would pass.
Within a few days the right hand was swollen and unable to work; the heart was beating faintly and irregularly; and the brains messages were going astray or being largely ignored. An emergency meeting was held and the rear end was made boss.
Moral: You don't have to be a brain to be the boss; you just have to be an asshole.
And might not that say much about the state of the world today?

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, January 22, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

One of my favorites is

One of my favorites is "Pusillanimous Pile Of Protoplasm."
)))((((((
(·)...(-)
....u....
[____]

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, January 22, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

Oh yeah, I always attempt to

Oh yeah, I always attempt to replace "Ass-hole" with "Hemorrhoid" for were we denied having an anus we would soon sorely miss that biol-feature. An ass-hole is quite important.
I also use, rather than "I don't give a rat's ass-hole," ...a muridaes' sphincter.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, January 22, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

Thanks Arvo. I had forgotten

Thanks Arvo. I had forgotten that story. And, it is as true now as it was before.
Respects,
The Carpenter.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, January 23, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

I only heard the last few

I only heard the last few minutes of the show but it seems something important was skipped over. Language is self-expression and it is through expressing ourselves in any manner that we form our self-concept or identity. So if we use the F-word, the A-word, the c-s-word, the s-b-word often, what are we saying about ourselves? That we are s-heads? Rather than raise our consciousness to moral, empathetic, feeling people, we stay as neanderthals, because what we express reciprocally affects how we behave and think-or don't think if we are so limited in our self-expression.
It is also an issue of semantics. If we resort to name calling or a regular use of vulgar langage, we do not really articulate anything. Yeah, we vent some annoyance, even anger perhaps, but your wife calling you an a-hole, even in private, is not the same as "You were insensitive to Trump when you ask him for his brand of hair spray in front all those people." You cannot understand much with "a-hole," other than be angry back at your wife. A full sentence about your foolish question to Trump though gives you a handle on how others might percieve you. That reframing gives the husband a better handle on reality.
So, if we are a nation that more openingly uses vulgarity and name calls, who are we? Are we regressing culturally?

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, January 24, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

A simple Way to clean up One

A simple Way to clean up One's life is to clean up One's own vocabulary,
The good life is this Way.
=

Fred Griswold's picture

Fred Griswold

Friday, January 25, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

That kind of discourse is

That kind of discourse is used all the time by scientists, Dave. Not to mention lawyers, politicians, and yes, philosophers. At least I use my participles right.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, January 26, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

Yawn. I'll let my comments

Yawn. I'll let my comments stand on their own. Inasmuch as writing is not my profession, I would not expect kudos for sentence structure or participial prowess. If some find my ideas/comments inane or poorly expressed, I take solace in the knowledge that other people find them interesting. Occasionally, insightful. No worries here.
(note to Ken: I have tried, sincerely, to not be an asshole. Thanks for your tolerance.)
The Carpenter.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

To John, of the Big River:

To John, of the Big River: Culture is difficult to track, in terms of progression or regression. In any traditional sense, we might say that our culture IS regressing. However, given the ever-present influence of popular culture, traditionalism is rapidly evaporating. We have enabled and embraced popular culture, while also adhering to racial and religious biases and stereotypes. It is a deadly mix. And, mostly, we do not even notice. I could say more, but if you agree, you can connect the dots. If not, you may (or have) construct(ed) your own model.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, January 31, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

(1) Remember the good old use

(1) Remember the good old use-mention distinction? It applies here. We should be able to mention "nigger" in quotes without being thought to be using the word. This "N-word" stuff seems childish.
(2) There's a purely descriptive sense in which one can speak of --these days metaphorically--"field niggers" and "house niggers." If the "one-percent" are running the show in this country, then the rest of us are niggers in the descriptive sense. The question then would be:
who's in the field and who's in the house? And then it occurs to us: "OMG, Obama's in the house, the White House, that is, and he (in George Carlin's sense) "happens to be black" (well, more like mulatto, but let's not put too fine a point on THAT).
And, like, almost everyone gets offended at this line of talk!

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, February 1, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

Having read and re-read the

Having read and re-read the comments on this blog topic, and having called upon past knowledge and experience, I decided to say something about "the totality of the circumstances"---a quasi-legal term employed by associates of mine when I worked in a quasi-legal environment. I'll try to keep this brief, and, non-confrontational. Quite simply: words are weapons when employed as such. On an individual level, they have recently led to suicides among children who have been bullied, either face-to-face or over that modern wonder we call the internet: social networking soon becomes anti-social in the hands and minds of indolent, indulgent morons (oops). Long story short, if you can't say something nice, keep your trap shut. And don't try to convince the rest of us that words do not matter. History is not on your side.
The Doctor.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, February 4, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

PERIPHERAL ISSUE:

PERIPHERAL ISSUE:
While looking at another website a day or so ago, I noticed an advertised site which sounded interesting. So, I clicked it and got onto the opening page, which used the words publick and privat. Clearly, intentional misspellings. Being intrepid, and sure, nosy, I sent a comment to the grammatical offender, suggesting that he/she/they might consider cleaning up his/her/their act, linguistically speaking of course. Apparently, the site has no privacy guarantee---I must be more careful, I guess. Today, I opened an email from one Patrick Zimmerman, which read: Fok Yew. How quaint. And M. Zimmerman still cannot spell worth a damn!
Is this part of what this blog post has been about, or am I just psseng inn thee wynd?
Assholes do not offend me. I find them ignorant and pathetic. Well. Guess I'll just mined my ouned byzneez.
Deer mee---whot wood Stephen Pinker sey?

Fred Griswold's picture

Fred Griswold

Tuesday, February 19, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

I don't know if anyone's

I don't know if anyone's going to see this since it's so long since the show aired, but I noticed a thing or two here that I think deserve comment. First, to address The Doctor's post, I think you have to distinguish between bullying and political incorrectness. The examples Ken gives in his intro are all individual lexical items. The unit of language is the sentence, not the word. The one offensive sentence Ken gives could in fact be bullying, but individual words can't - words may or may not be seen as politically incorrect, but all they are is words. Another difference between the two is that bullying cases only involve one victim. The proponents of political correctness want millions of English speakers to change their linguistic usage. For that many people to make such a change there has to be a pretty solid argument made, so a utilitarian case against political correctness is not hard to make. And the foolishness of political correctness is easiest to see when a change comes along. It came out a few months ago that somewhere along the line "Negro" morphed into a taboo word. It wasn't taboo when I was a kid. I'd like someone to explain to me how this advances civilization.
There's another way to argue this. Back in the FDR days the left cared about things that mattered - labor unions, Social Security etc. Since then it's been a succession of things, from Vietnam, to feminism, to gay marriage, to political correctness etc. They've had varying degrees of importance and varying degrees of success. Meantime, look what's happened to unions and entitlements - there's not much left of the unions, the conservatives keep trying to privatize Medicare, Medicaid is a joke, etc. And the top two percent have had tax cuts since Eisenhower like there's no tomorrow. The left took its eye off the ball. Being able to add one more word to the taboo list doesn't seem like much consolation.
Lastly, I don't recall seeing the name Laurent Beauregard on this blog before. Anyone who's going to put up a post like that ought to be willing to use his real name.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, February 20, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

I am fascinated by the

I am fascinated by the etymology behind name calling as it's, very often, not what one might expect. I also think it's very interesting how an offensive word may be mundane several years later... A very interesting topic for most people who are interested in languages.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, February 21, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

"(1) Remember the good old

"(1) Remember the good old use-mention distinction? It applies here. We should be able to mention "nigger" in quotes without being thought to be using the word. This "N-word" stuff seems childish."
Unless the memory of your grandafther's lynching is still fresh.
That argument cuts both ways, i.e., it could easily be seen as childish to refuse to alter a single word to a more palatable form, one that does not invoke the potential dialogue distorting effect of the word-concept being alternatively signified - is it that big a strain?
It took me more words to describe it than to do it.
It's just a word, but it is associated with a fairly predictable negative emotional response in certain contexts.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, February 28, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

Everyone has an opinion about

Everyone has an opinion about this issue. Clearly. And that is where we are, culturally: because we are educated differently, seeing the world in a multitude of contexts---we are thereby compelled to react, based on those educated contexts. Some old yahoo said: The pen is mightier than the sword. A recent case here was driven (pun intended) home when a state law, effective today, said that texting while driving is unlawful. Oddly (to me, anyway), the application/enforcement of the new law will be decidedly unequal. Teenage drivers who are apprehended and convicted of driving while texting will face a $150 fine and six month suspension of their driving rights. Adults convicted of the same violation face a different, "secondary offense" punishment---which would appear to say: do like I say; not like I do. Kids recognize and hate hypocrisy. I know I did.
So, this comment does not have a direct connection to name-calling? No, I suppose not. But, do we want our children to call us morons---more often than they already do? So many of the issues we encounter in our modern world are closely intertwined with one another. Complexity, I guess. What we write---what we say, affects those around us. Any denial of this, is, in a word, unconscionable. Or worse: foolish.

 
 
 

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