The Linguistics of Name-Calling

Sunday, January 20, 2013

What Is It

Sticks and bones may break your bones, but names can also hurt you. And language gives us surprisingly many ways to deride, hurt and demean – from a subtly sneering intonation to hurtful and offensive names. How does such language work? And why is there so much of it around these days? Has our acerbic political culture ushered in a new era of name-calling? Or is name calling a phenomenon as old as language itself? John and Ken welcome back linguist and NPR commentator Geoffrey Nunberg, author of Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, The First Sixty Years, for a program recorded live at the Marsh Theatre in Berkeley.

Listening Notes

Ken and John begin by making three distinctions relevant to slurs and mean names. First, there is the question of whether the designation is correct – they claim, for example, that use of the n-word is always false, since no one is contemptible solely on the basis of their race – but some people really are a-holes. Second, there is the question whether, regardless of truth value, a word is itself morally problematic – like the n-word. Here John claims that use of the word “asshole” can be morally justified. Third, there is the question whether a word is polite within a given context. Ken thinks that impolite use of names can damage political discourse and make society worse. John thinks that he is nostalgic for a world that never existed.

Geoff Nunburg joins the discussion by first noting his fascination with the word, “asshole.” Telling the story of this word requires delving into American social history since World War II, such that today the word describes, in a strangely endearing way, some of our greatest cultural heroes (Steve Jobs, Donald Trump, Tom Cruise). Nunburg points out that the word has specific semantic content – e.g., you might be an a-hole for cheating on your wife, but not for cheating on taxes.

The hosts take questions from the audience, and topics such as the relation of class to swearing (“vulgar” originally meaning “of the people”), the possibility of using a slur as a means for self-affirmation, and the question of relativity: is a slur only mean when its taken as such?

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (skip to 6:05) - This report follows the story of a group of teenage girls who came up with new, somewhat rude meanings of common words – such as kiwi, mango, and banana – in order to talk about other people without their knowledge. The plan backfires, as meaning of the words get out, and they assume the same position as common swears.