What makes a word a slur?

Content note: this post contains examples of offensive slur-terms. 

Last week, the British edition of Glamour magazine published a column in which Juno Dawson used the term ‘TERF’ to describe feminists (the example she named was Germaine Greer) who ‘steadfastly believe that me—and other trans women—are not women’.  When some readers complained about the use of derogatory language, a spokeswoman for the magazine replied on Twitter that TERF is not derogatory:

Trans-exclusionary radical feminist is a description, and not a misogynistic slur.

Arguments about whether TERF is a neutral descriptive term or a derogatory slur have been rumbling on ever since. They raise a question which linguists and philosophers have found quite tricky to answer (and which they haven’t reached a consensus on): what makes a word a slur?

Before I consider that general question, let’s take a closer look at the meaning and history of TERF. As the Glamour spokeswoman said, it’s an abbreviated form of the phrase ‘Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist’; more specifically it’s an acronym, constructed from the initial letters of the words that make up the phrase. Some people have suggested this means it can’t be a slur. I find that argument puzzling, since numerous terms which everyone agrees are slurs are abbreviated forms (examples include ‘Paki’, ‘Jap’, ‘paedo’ and ‘tranny’). But in any case, there’s a question about the status of TERF as an acronym. Clearly it started out as one, but is it still behaving like one now?

To see what I’m getting at, consider an acronym from the 1940s: ‘radar’. Do you know what all the letters stand for? I do, but only because I’ve just looked it up. I’ve been using the word for 50-odd years without realising it meant ‘RAdio Detection And Ranging’—a feat made possible by the fact that ‘radio detection and ranging’ isn’t really what it means any longer. Over time it’s become just an ordinary word, which is used without reference to its origins as an acronym. No one mentally expands the letters R-A-D-A-R into words; no one imagines that ‘gaydar’ must be short for ‘gay detection and ranging’. Also (a trivial but telling sign) no one now writes ‘radar’ in all caps.

I’ve been writing TERF in all caps, but these days you also see it written ‘Terf’ or ‘terf’. That’s one sign it’s going the same way as ‘radar’, becoming a word which can be used without knowing what the letters of the original acronym stand for. Another sign is the way it’s now used to describe people (e.g., men) who don’t fit the original specification, in that they aren’t radical feminists. It looks as if at least some users of the term don’t define it strictly as meaning ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminist’, but use it with a more generic meaning like ‘transphobic person’.

This kind of change is common in the history of words. Word-meaning is inherently unstable, liable to vary among different groups of users and to change over time, because we don’t learn the meanings of most words by looking them up in some authoritative reference book, we figure them out from our experience of hearing or seeing words used in context.

It’s easy to see how that might shift the meaning of TERF in the way I’ve just suggested. Imagine you hear two of your friends discussing a mutual acquaintance who they refer to as a TERF. You’ve never encountered the term before and you have no way of knowing it’s a short form of a longer phrase (because it’s a true acronym, pronounced not as a series of letters but as a single syllable that rhymes with ‘smurf’).  So you listen to what’s being said about the TERF in question and make the simplest inference compatible with what you’re hearing: that TERF means a transphobic person.

If TERF’s meaning has started to shift that’s actually a sign of its success (words evolve as they spread to new users and contexts). But it makes the argument that TERF is just a neutral descriptive label for a specific group of people less convincing. That argument either takes no account of the way usage has changed over time, or else it’s a version of the etymological fallacy (‘however people actually use a word, its original meaning is the true meaning’).

But the fact that a word isn’t a neutral description doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a slur. We’re back to the question philosophers and semanticists have found so tricky: on what basis can we say that a word is a slur?

As I’ve already mentioned, the people who’ve written on this subject don’t agree on what the answer is. And after reading their various accounts, I’m not sure I believe there’s a single right answer. Rather, I think there are a number of criteria which need to be considered. If we’re in doubt about a word’s status as a slur, we can try asking the following questions, and then looking at the overall balance of the answers.

My first two questions are based on what the philosopher Jennifer Hornsby proposes as the two fundamental features of a derogatory term or slur.

Is the word commonly understood to convey hatred or contempt?

Does the word have a neutral counterpart which denotes the same group without conveying hatred/contempt?

This definition seems to have been constructed using racial/ethnic slurs as a prototype. In these cases it’s generally understood that the slur term, used in preference to a neutral term which denotes the same group of people, communicates hatred/contempt as part of its meaning (that’s the difference between, say, ‘Jew’ and ‘kike’). This doesn’t help us much with terms like TERF whose status as slurs is disputed. TERF is certainly understood by some people to convey hatred and contempt, but others deny it conveys those things.

It’s also unclear whether there’s a neutral term which TERF contrasts with. TERF doesn’t so much refer to a pre-existing group as bring a new category into existence (there was a pre-existing group of radical feminists, but they weren’t defined as a category by the belief that trans women are not women, and in fact they still aren’t, since not all radical feminists hold that belief). So, to decide whether TERF is a slur we need to ask some other questions.

Do the people the word is applied to either use it to describe themselves or accept it when others use it to describe them?

Both parts of this question are important. If a group of people voluntarily use a word to describe themselves, then—on the assumption that people don’t generally slur their own group—you might conclude the word isn’t a slur. However, this does not allow for the possibility that a term might be a marker of identity and solidarity when used within the group, while remaining a slur if it’s used to/about the group by outsiders. (The classic example is the solidary use of the N-word among (some) Black people: it doesn’t make it OK for white people to use it. ‘Dyke’ for ‘lesbian’ is another example: fine if you are a lesbian, suspect if you aren’t. ) There are also jocular, ironic and self-mocking uses which don’t undermine the status of a word as a slur (women friends might refer to themselves in private as ‘sluts’ or ‘bitches’, but they wouldn’t accept being described in those terms in public or by non-intimates).

With TERF, I’d say the answer to both parts of the question is ‘no’. There may be people who use TERF ironically/self-mockingly in private, but I’m not aware of any who publicly define themselves as TERFs, and it’s common for those who are called TERFs by others to reject the label. Note that these observations concern attitudes to the word: there are certainly some feminists who publicly affirm the belief mentioned by Juno Dawson, that trans women are not women, but they may still deny being TERFs. This suggests they see TERF in the same way members of a certain ethnic group might see an ethnic slur: ‘yes, I am a member of the group you mean, but no, I do not accept the implications of the name you’re calling it by’.  Which brings me to the next question:

Do the people the word is applied to regard it as a slur (e.g. do they describe it explicitly as a slur, protest against its use, display offence/distress when it is used)?

For some writers, a ‘yes’ to this question is enough on its own to make a word a slur.  Luvell Anderson and Ernie Lepore argue that

…no matter what its history, no matter what it means or communicates, no matter who introduces it, regardless of its past associations, once relevant individuals declare a word a slur, it becomes one [emphasis in original]

What these writers are trying to account for is the fact that labels which were previously considered acceptable, or even polite, can get redefined as slurs (examples include ‘Negro’ and ‘coloured’), and the reverse may also happen (‘Black’ was not always acceptable, and ‘queer’ used to be unambiguously a slur). This isn’t a matter of what the term means (the literal meaning of ‘Black’ and ‘Negro’ is the same), but rather depends on the perceptions of ‘relevant individuals’ (members of the target group) at a particular point in time. If they declare a term offensive, then it’s offensive: it’s idle for non-members of the group to tell them they have no business taking offence.

On this criterion, TERF is indisputably a slur.  Many individuals who have been described as TERFs have called it a slur, protested against its use (witness the complaints about Juno Dawson’s column) and explicitly said that it offends them. But I’m reluctant to make that the sole criterion. I agree that for something to be a slur it’s necessary for members of the target group to regard it as offensive, but I’m not sure that’s a sufficient condition (and what do you do about cases where the target group is split? ‘Queer’, for instance, divides opinion in the LGBT community).

As a sociolinguist (unlike the writers I’ve been referencing), I’m also dissatisfied with the implication that members of a group just arbitrarily and randomly decide that, for instance, ‘queer’ has ceased to be a slur or ‘Negro’ has now become one. I think these developments can be related to the changing social and political contexts in which words are used (for instance, the context for the ‘unslurring’ of ‘queer’ was the surge of radical activism prompted by the HIV-AIDS epidemic). Perceptions of words have to be seen in relation to what the words are being used to do, either by the group itself or by its opponents. So another question I would want to ask is,

What speech acts is the word used to perform?

If a word is just a neutral description, you might expect it to be used mainly for the purpose of describing or making claims about states of affairs. If it’s a slur, you’d also expect it to be used for those purposes, but in addition you might expect to see it being used in speech acts expressing hatred and contempt, such as insults, threats and incitements to violence. (By ‘insults’ here, incidentally, I don’t mean statements which are insulting simply because they use the word in question, but statements which say something insulting about the group, e.g. ‘they’re all dirty thieves’.)  

There’s evidence that TERF does appear in insults, threats and incitements. You can read a selection of examples (mostly taken from Twitter, so these were public communications) on this website, which was set up to document the phenomenon. Here are a small number of items from the site to give you a sense of what this discourse looks like:

you vile dirty terf cunts must be fuming you have no power to mess with transfolk any more!

I smell a TERF and they fucking stink

if i ever find out you are a TERF i will fucking kill you every single TERF out there needs to die

why are terfs even allowed to exist round up every terf and all their friends for good measure and slit their throats one by one

if you encounter a terf in the wild deposit them in the nearest dumpster. Remember: Keeping our streets clean is everyone’s responsibility

Precisely because it was set up to document uses of TERF as a slur, this site does not offer a representative sample of all uses of the term, so it can’t tell us whether insulting/threatening/inciting are its dominant functions. It does, however, show that they are among its current functions.  It also points to another relevant question:

What other words does the word tend to co-occur with? 

It’s noticeable that on the website I’ve linked to, TERF quite often shows up in the same tweet as other words whose status as slurs is not disputed, like ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’. Other words that occur more than once or twice in these tweets include ‘disgusting’, ‘ugly’, ‘scum’ and a cluster of words implying uncleanness (‘smell’, ‘stink’, ‘garbage’, ‘filth’)—which is also a well-worn theme in racist and anti-Semitic discourse.

One of the clues we use to infer an unfamiliar word’s meaning in context is our understanding of the adjacent, familar words; the result is that over time, recurring patterns of collocation (i.e. the tendency for certain words to appear in proximity to one another) have an influence on the way the word’s meaning evolves. The examples on the website are too small and unrepresentative a sample to generalise from, but if the collocations we see there are common in current uses of TERF, that would not only support the contention that it’s a slur, it might also suggest that the word could become increasingly pejorative.

In summary: TERF does not meet all the criteria that have been proposed for defining a word as a slur, but it does meet most of them at least partially. My personal judgment on the slur question has been particularly influenced by the evidence that TERF is now being used in a kind of discourse which has clear similarities with hate-speech directed at other groups (it makes threats of violence, it includes other slur-terms, it uses metaphors of pollution). Granted, this isn’t the only kind of discourse TERF is used in, and it may not be the main kind. But if a term features in that kind of discourse at all, it seems to me impossible to maintain that it is ‘just a neutral description’.

I believe in open debate on politically controversial issues, so I’m not suggesting the views of either side should be either censored or protected from criticism. My point is that when one of the key terms used in the argument has become a slur, it is no longer fit for any other purpose, and the time has come to look for a replacement.

 

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