Slurs and Semantic Indeterminacy


The analysis of the derogatory aspect of slurs has recently aroused interest among philosophers of language. A puzzling element of it is its erratic behaviour in embeddings, for instance negation or belief reports. The derogatory aspect seems sometimes to “scope out” from the embedding to the context of utterance, while at other times it seems to interact with the linguistic constructions in which the slur is implanted. I argue that slurs force us to maintain a kind of semantic indeterminacy which, to my knowledge, has passed largely unnoticed in philosophy of language.

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  1. 1.

    If there is no neutral counterpart, C will stand for a non-derogatory description of the class. I am not assuming here that having a neutral counterpart is a distinguishing feature of slurs (see Ashwell (2016)). Many authors agree that slurs have neutral counterparts usually (see Nunberg (2018) for some reflections on this aspect of slurs).

  2. 2.

    Hom (2008) and Hom and May (2013) defend this view. Richard (2008) endorses an approach in which slurs represent their target in a negative way, but the kind of representation involved is not truth-apt. Hornsby (2001) sketches a view in which the derogatory aspect is part of the meaning but has an expressive (“gestural”) dimension. Croom (2014) provides arguments against pure “expressivist” understanding of the derogatory component of slurs.

  3. 3.

    Anderson and Lepore (2013), Feinberg (1985), who endorse the view that it is a censorial or taboo convention; Predelli (2010) holds that the convention is about the subjective admissibility of use.

  4. 4.

    The relation between the truth-functional content of a slur S and its neutral counterpart C is a complex question, and different version of the broad content approach treat it differently. If the denigratory aspect is conveyed through a conventional implicature (cf. Williamson (2009)), then the S and C have the same truth-functional content. If the denigratory aspect is conveyed through a presupposition, the truth-functional content of S coincides with that of C only if we consider cases in which the presupposition is satisfied. According to subject-oriented versions of the presuppositional account, the presupposition is about the attitude of the speaker (i.e., the speaker despises the target group) and it is therefore “self-fulfilled” (cf. Schlenker (2007)) and the truth-conditional contents of S and C are – de facto – the same. According to object-oriented versions of the presuppositional account, the presupposition is about the target group itself (i.e., the target group is despicable). Given the stereotypical nature of the derogation conveyed the presupposition will fail, and and the truth-conditional contents of S and C are – de facto – different (cf. Cepollaro (2015) and Cepollaro and Stojanovic (2016)).

  5. 5.

    Williamson (2009), Potts (2007), Schlenker (2007). Separability is what Potts calls “nondisplaceability”. While separability can be seen as an essential feature of conventional implicatures (Potts (2005, Chap. 5); Hom (2012, 177)), it is widely accepted that certain linguistic contexts (e.g. conditionalization) can act as plugs for presuppositions and block the scoping out phenomenon. However, “expressive” presuppositions are much less easily plugged (Maciá (2011); Schlenker (2007)). See Richard (2008, 18–22) for arguments that the derogatory aspect of slurs is not a conversational presupposition. Also, as will become clear below, metalinguistic occurrences (i.e. quotative utterances) can block the scoped out reading.

  6. 6.

    An analogous dichotomy of behavior between pejorative nouns and verbs onthe one side and pejorative adjectives and adverbs on the other is discussed in Hom (2012), who acknowledges a “diversity of conflicting intuitions” (p.8).

  7. 7.

    Anderson and Lepore (2013) – in defending a form of no-content approach – have argued that in appropriated uses (such as the in-group use of slur terms among Afro-Americans) no offense is conveyed toward the targeted group, because appropriated uses are allowed by defeasible escape clauses to the censorial convention. Here I am not considering appropriated uses, because my focus is the semantic behaviour of slurs under embedding, when they are used in standard contexts. Appropriated uses are often interpreted as uses in which a change of meaning, or an attempt to change of meaning takes place (See Richard (2008,9), and Hom (2008),428). Even if that is wrong (as Anderson and Lepore (2013) argues), and although the idea of a standard context is hard to pin down (especially with respect to “problematic words” such as slurs), appropriated uses are derivatives ones. That is not to say that theory on the semantic behaviour of slurs will have eventually to provide an account of appropriated uses too, I am just claiming that restriction to non-appropriated uses is methodologically useful here.

  8. 8.

    There may be differences here between the no-content approach and the broad content approach. It is difficult to read an utterance of (6) as accusing Mick to have broken a convention concerning “S”, that is a reading in which the derogatory aspect does not scopes out. However, at least certain version of the presuppositional account predict that in reports the denigratory effect is diminished (cf. Cepollaro et al. (2019)).

  9. 9.

    As Predelli (2010) suggests, although he does not provide a explicit meta-linguistic reading of it. Cepollaro and Thommen (2019) elaborates on the thesis in more detail.

  10. 10.

    See Anderson and Lepore (2013), who claim also to be “suspicious” of most of the data concerning acceptable uses of slurs in embedding structures. Another problem for those approaches is to account for the difference between pairs of sentences like “All Cs are Cs” and “All Cs are Ss”. I will not take these into account here, because they are not crucial to my main point.

  11. 11.

    Hom (2012) admits that the “orthodox” behavior of slurs (and pejorative nouns in general) is the wide scope one, but he maintains that it is due to Gricean implicatures calculated from the literal meaning of what is said. He seems to maintain that, generally speaking, unsung a predicate P conversationally implicate that P has non-empty extension; and that is what generates offensiveness.

  12. 12.

    The outline of the distinction between the expressive and the descriptive dimensions of meaning can be found in Kaplan (ms.). For examples of couple of terms, which are very close in meaning, but of which one behave like a descriptive term, the other like an expressive, see Predelli (2010).

  13. 13.

    For a similar critique to Anderson and Lepore (2013), see Jeshion (2013b). See also Camp (2013).

  14. 14.

    Jeshion (2013b) objects to Hom that there does not have to be an institution with specific discriminatory practices and ideology in order for a slur to possess a derogatory content, and she offers counterexamples.

  15. 15.

    Cf. Blackburn’s notion of “stance” and its link with descriptive and normative beliefs (Blackburn (1993)). Williamson (2009) makes reference to a stereotype in connection with slurs. See also Jeshion (2013a). I think the notion of a “slurring perspective” endorsed by Camp (2013) is closely related to the idea of a derogatory stance that I am developing here.

  16. 16.

    See also Saka (2007): “For in order to believe that a pejorative applies to someone, one must have not only contempt for a certain class but also access to conventionally established pejorative terminology; one must belong to a linguistic community in which pejoratives exist. Since the conventionalization of contempt relies, like all convention, on societally recognized norms, every pejorative utterance is proof not only of the speaker’s contempt, but proof that such contempt prevails in society at large. This is why pejoratives make powerful insults, why repeated exposures to pejoratives can create feelings of alienation, inferiority, and self-hatred, and indeed why a single pejorative utterance evokes measurable bias in overhearers” (p. 142).

  17. 17.

    Although I am not considering an account of appropriated uses here, I suspect that a correct account of appropriation, too, should follow the line of Hom (2008)’s remarks: if racists and homophobes have the role of “experts” with respect to slurs, in order to appropriate a slur – whether in its in-group use or its out-group one – the semantic connection between the slur and the “experts” must be receded or drastically modified.

  18. 18.

    In so far as Andersen and Lepore’s explanation of the origin of the derogatory content differs from Hom’s, they cannot endorse the further explanatory step and explain the taboo norms in terms of the derogatory stances. However, there is nothing as such in the no-content position (i.e. the thesis that the derogatory aspect comes from the convention concerning the admissibility of the use of slurs) that clashes with taking this further step. Note that broad content approaches are compatible with explanations of the origin of the derogatory content in terms of no-content, depending on how much the mechanism of conveying the derogatory content is seen as a meaning-related convention. Williamson (2009) points out that the truth-conditional contents of a slur and of its neutral counterpart are the same. However, he also insists that a slur is not synonymous with its neutral counterpart.

  19. 19.

    As an anonymous referee has pointed out, the extension is also touched by this indeterminacy, since whether the derogatory content of S counts as lexical or not has radical consequences for the extension of S. If it is, its extension is empty (no one is C and despicable in virtue of being C); if it is not, S and C have the same extension.

  20. 20.

    On semantic vagueness see Varzi (2007). Notice that here I am only exploiting the theory of vagueness as semantic indeterminacy for a (partial) analogy, but my position does not require that such a particular theory of vagueness is true. Also, I am taking precisifications as possible interpretations of the language. If you read them as possible languages, then the last line should read ... does not coincide with the semantic value of any of its precisifications....


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Correspondence to Giuliano Torrengo.

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Torrengo, G. Slurs and Semantic Indeterminacy. Philosophia (2020).

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  • Slurs
  • Expressives
  • Indeterminacy
  • Semantic Deference