An Overview of the Language of Prejudice

from institutionialized racism by Salauddine Mohammed Faruque by Deborah Schaffer, Ph.D., & Rachel Schaffer, Ph.D. People sometimes refer to “bigoted” or “prejudiced” language, but in fact, language itself is neutral, a vehicle for conveying the attitudes of its users; it has no agenda or bias of its own, but rather reflects (and reinforces) those of the people … Continued

from institutionialized racism by Salauddine Mohammed Faruque

by Deborah Schaffer, Ph.D., & Rachel Schaffer, Ph.D.

People sometimes refer to “bigoted” or “prejudiced” language, but in fact, language itself is neutral, a vehicle for conveying the attitudes of its users; it has no agenda or bias of its own, but rather reflects (and reinforces) those of the people who use it. In other words, language is a tool, and it can be used for good or ill, depending on how it’s wielded. In the worst case, it can indeed be a “loaded weapon,” as Dwight Bolinger famously declared in the title of one of his books. 

Nevertheless, a number of language strategies have been used throughout history to express racist, sexist or other biased attitudes and to influence the attitudes and beliefs of others, intentionally or (perhaps even more dangerously) unintentionally. What follows is a sampling of such language devices; the first three can be easily applied to any stigmatized or marginalized group, resulting in classic “racist language,” while the last three have been associated specifically with gender stereotyping and sexist attitudes.

Derogatory Epithets

Probably the most basic and common form of “prejudiced” language and the one most commonly thought of when hurtful language is at issue, this category simply consists of negative labels for specific groups of people. It seems likely that any collection of individuals, especially minorities, who share any characteristics at all, even those usually viewed positively, will be targeted with some term that ends up conveying negative connotations, even if the label started out neutral or even positive (Madelon Heatherington points out the harmful effect of even “euphemistic epithets” (175-76), while Charles Berlitz discusses the origins of some well-known epithets in his classic article, “The Etymology of the International Insult”).

Thus, those who share race, ethnic background, socioeconomic class, gender, sexual orientation or behavior, religion, age, physical or mental features or (dis)abilities, and many more characteristics, whether seen by others as virtues or defects, will sooner or later find themselves labeled by epithets highlighting their shared outsider status. In English alone, hundreds of such labels have been in common use for centuries, with new ones being created all the time, in spite of the push for political correctness and general increased sensitivity of recent times.

Some examples: honkyniggerslant eyes (for race); spickrautfrog (ethnic/national background); fat catstrailer trash (class); bitchbroadtartgirl (women); fag(got)homoqueer (homosexuals); kikemackerel snapper (religion); gimpretardfour-eyesblimp (disability/physical features); etc.

Euphemistic Put-downs.  

This is our term for a specific sort of backhanded compliment involving negative stereotypes which Heatherington discusses (176-77) but provides no name for. This sort of comment on the surface seems to praise its recipient, but on closer inspection does so at the expense of the group to which the recipient is seen to belong. That is, the positive characteristic attributed to the recipient is presented as not typical of the target’s group, thereby marking the recipient specifically as better than and exceptional compared to the rest of the group’s members because she or he possesses that feature while the rest of the group is viewed as lacking it.

For example, a statement like “you’re pretty strong for a girl” on first hearing compliments afemale’s strength, but its deeper message is not really that the hearer is strong per se, but that she is stronger than other girls, who are stereotypically thought to be pretty weak. Likewise, the pattern “You don’t act/think/sound/look/etc. like a cop/Jew, Mexican/science geek/etc.” offers the claim that the hearer is not identifiable as a member of the named category—and that that fact is a good thing. Consider also the claim stated in a classic ad that some product is “explained in terms even a housewife can understand”; the writer is acknowledging homemakers’ ability to comprehend the explanation while signaling through the use of “even” how limited he or she thinks this group’s intelligence actually is.

Labels of Primary Potency.

Heatherington also names and discusses this language device (177-78). These labels are typically adjectives emphasizing the minority status of some member of a group named by the nouns which the adjectives are modifying. Normally, the noun in a noun phrase carries more meaning or power than anything modifying it, but in these adjective-noun pairings, it is the adjective that catches hearers’ attention and seems most significant (hence, being the most potent part of the phrase), specifically because it identifies something perceived as exceptional about the person being described in relation to the group he or she belongs to.

Thus, phrases like lady doctormale nurseblack lawyerelderly basketball player, and so on, appear on the surface to simply describe individuals who belong to various professions, but the adjectives clearly mark them as somehow atypical or marginal examples of each category—not a “regular” doctor, but a lady doctor, not a “regular” basketball player, but an elderly one, etc.—where the characteristic named by the adjective (the label of primary potency) is noteworthy because most members of the category identified by the noun are assumed not to possess that characteristic. In other words, the adjectives overpower the nouns and seem to provide more salient information than the nouns do, and that information always points to the recipient’s less-than-typical nature.

Most English speakers would probably see nothing negative about such labels, but they do reinforce expectations for what different sorts of people can (or should be able to) do—restrictions often imposed just on the basis of some background characteristic which usually has nothing to do with those individuals’ ability to perform the role they are trying to fill. And we can actually see this function at work most clearly in retrospect, when specific labels become less common. For example, most people don’t refer to lady doctors anymore, precisely because they are so common that their gender is no longer seen as remarkable and therefore needing to be remarked on. The chain of events in these cases is that once perceived limitations of some group are diminished (through social change, say), the existence of certain types of people/job combinations no longer gets a lot of (usually negative) attention. Speakers then no longer feel the need to label certain members of some field as exceptional, and the original stereotypes are no longer reinforced by constant use of these labels, no doubt further helping along the process of normalization.

Single Terms or Pairs of Terms Not Used Equivalently for Two Groups

Thisdevice most commonly occurs in language used about females vs. males, and is a primary reinforcing tool of sexist attitudes. As Robin Lakoff and several early editions of The Ohio State University Linguistics Department’s Language Files have pointed out, in this type of language, either a single term or a pair of equivalent-looking terms in fact convey(s) noticeably different meanings depending on whether the term(s) refer(s) to a male or a female—and the female use by and large has less positive or more negative meanings (if only subjective connotations) than does the term used for males. These differences develop because of power imbalances between and various stereotypes about the two groups: terms for the less powerful group reflect that powerlessness and reveal negative attitudes toward members, while terms for the more powerful group reflect that power and develop positive connotations congruent with members’ higher status.

Consider the single adjective easy. It has been used to describe people as well as lessons and home-repair projects, but it has taken on markedly different meanings when used for men vs. women. Compare your own interpretations of he is easy vs. she is easy. The former is usually understood to mean some male is even-tempered, willing to go with the flow, and so on, while the latter is even today clearly seen to be referring to a female’s sexual behavior—she is promiscuous. The same pattern holds for he is loose/she is loosehe is fast/she is fast, and other adjectives, as well as for nouns like tramp (compare he is a tramp vs. she is a tramp). That is, when these words refer to women, they have added connotations not seen for men, almost always sexual in nature, and always negative.

Then there are pairs of terms like governor/governessmaster/mistress, and others, whose two members not only have different basic meanings, even though the female term (second) is obviously derived from the male one (first), but whose male term clearly refers to a more powerful and higher-status position than does its female counterpart. This situation also holds for other pairs whose members, while totally unrelated words, can be assumed to have originated to express truly parallel meanings but now show a similar imbalance of power and negativity, like bachelor/ spinsterwizard/witch, and buddy/sissy (derived from brother and sister, respectively).

Generic forms based on masculine forms.

This language pattern is exclusively gender related, but is one of the subtlest yet most pervasive forms of attitude shaping in English. It is also the only human-category-related English language pattern whose use has been (in the case of the pronoun use described below) dictated by a government body. The basic rule here holds that when the gender of a person is unknown, speakers are to refer to that person using a masculine form by default, never the equivalent feminine form or a gender-neutral plural form. In fact, obedience to this pattern, according to Elaine Chaika (446), was officially ordered by the British Parliament for third-person-singular-pronoun selection (he vs. she) in cases of unspecified sex—i.e., use the so-called “generic he” in such cases. Thus, everyone should do his best, an honors student needs to keep his grade point average above 3.5, and, to quote a wonderful example from a magazine ad (admittedly published many years ago), “The average person finds it no problem at all to have 3 head colds, one sunburn, 20 headaches, and 2 hangovers, and still get in his 61 hours of shaving” (only if the average person is male, surely?).

Nouns used to refer to single humans of unspecified gender also follow this rule, as do verbs derived from such nouns. Thus, we speak of “the brotherhood of man” and “mankind,” something quite different in scope from “the sisterhood of women” and “womankind,” and we also “man” lifeboats, desks and phones while urging people to “man up” (compare “you go, girl”). Language Files and many other resources offer more examples of this device, too.

While many people have reacted skeptically to arguments that this language pattern really conveys sexism or has any negative impact on women, evidence does exist that people are influenced in their expectations and attitudes about gender roles, masculine primacy, and females’ second-class status when the masculine language form is always chosen over a feminine form or a truly gender-neutral one. To give just one example of such evidence, consider Fatemeh Khosroshahi’s 1989 study of how both men and women drew representations of people referred to in sentences using different pronouns—hehe or she, or they. Among her findings, she reports that “traditional-language men and women still consistently use the generic he in their writing and they also interpret generic sentences primarily in terms of male referents” (520) as seen in their drawing mostly male figures to illustrate the sentences they are given, and concludes that for this group, “both their language and their thought are androcentric” (520). Her results, of course, do not prove that these subjects’ language caused their reactions, but it is reasonable to assume that their language and gender expectations do reinforce one another.

Sex-stereotyped Neutral Terms

Finally, perhaps the most indirect type of attitude-reinforcing language is a category that doesn’t actually convey negative meanings or contain biased vocabulary per se. Rather, it comprises words or phrases which, because of women’s vs. men’s social roles and feelings about each sex, reflect gender-identity expectations even though these words’ denotations say nothing about gender as part of their definitions.

A classic example (with more, again, available in Language Files): the descriptive label blond(e) is unmarked for gender (at least in spoken English), and yet if a friend mentions that his upstairs neighbor is a blond(e), chances are you’ll assume that neighbor is a woman, since women are much more likely to be characterized by physical features like hair color than are men. Likewise, some profession labels are still more likely to be associated with one sex over the other (though less automatically than in decades past): nursemodel and prostitute with women; surgeonjet pilot and drill sergeant with men. This gender expectation is brought to the fore especially in cases where people use labels of primary potency to identify professionals of the unexpected sex: male nurse or prostitute, female surgeon or quarterback. And some terms, mostly negative ones referring to behavior perceived as bad (usually sex-related), are tied to one gender so clearly that no equivalent term exists for the other gender, requiring extra sex-specifying adjectives to be tacked on to the other gender’s label, although in some cases, not even that possibility works: slut vs. male slutwhore vs. man whore (not gigolo), diva vs. male diva (not divo), pervert vs. female pervert (?), but bitch vs. ?, rapist vs. ?.

Given the continued variety and pervasiveness of these attitude-expressing and –reinforcing language devices, what can those of us who want to neutralize such language do, especially since decades of social change, increasing acceptance of diversity and equality, and explicit study and discussion of the nature of prejudice, how it is conveyed, and how it might be fought have still failed to eliminate its use? Obviously, a society cannot control all its members, and bigots are likely always to be among us, but when it comes to the automatic or thoughtless use of prejudice-expressing language and its reinforcing impact, there are steps individuals can take to change language patterns both in their own speech and in the language of others. In fact, Heatherington (183) offers a concise four-step procedure for changing objectionable language which can also be applied to other objectionable behavior:1. Identify the objectionable language (or behavior);2. Extinguish that language (or behavior);3. Substitute preferred language (or behavior);4. Reinforce preferred language (or behavior).

How one applies this approach will depend on countless factors: whose speech, one’s own or someone else’s? If
someone else’s, that of someone less powerful than you, like a child, or more powerful, like a boss? Can rewards be
offered, and if so, then tangible rewards, like higher grades on a student’s paper, or verbal ones, like praise, or simply
nonverbal signs of approval? It also seems clear that the second and third steps will require simultaneous rather
than sequential application. Moreover, this strategy might be a very limited way to change society, perhaps affecting
only one person at a time. But all the same, if parents and teachers can raise their own awareness of how language
does influence their own and others’ beliefs and attitudes about different types of people and then are able to teach
their children and students the same lessons while reinforcing more desirable language (and therefore, we hope, the
attitudes behind the language), as has been done to a great extent over the years, then prejudice and “prejudiced”
language should indeed become less common, or at least less a matter of thoughtless habit. If language is still a
loaded weapon, we can at least make sure it is wielded with care and enlightenment, and especially for good causes
like tolerance and equality.

l., Deborah Schaffer, r., Rachel Schaffer

Deborah Schaffer received her Ph.D. in linguistics from The Ohio State University Ohio State University. She is currently professor of English at Montana State University-Billings where she teaches linguistics, composition, and special topics in literature.  She was the chair of the Language Attitudes and Popular Linguistics area of the Popular Culture Association from 1991 to 2005, and has had articles published in The Journal of Pragmatics, English Today, The Journal of Popular Culture, and ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, among others. 

Dr. Rachel Schaffer has a Ph.D. in linguistics from The Ohio State University. She is a professor of English at Montana State University Billings, where she teaches linguistics, composition, and genre literature courses. A linguist by training, she shifted her research interests to mystery and detective fiction a number of years ago and has published articles on Dick Francis, Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Craig Johnson, and other writers. She is currently a member of the editorial board of 
Clues: A Journal of Detection.

Selected Readings on the Language of Prejudice

Berlitz, Charles. “The Etymology of the International Insult.” In Patterns for College Writing: A Rhetorical Reader and Guide. Ed. Laurie Kirszner and Stephen Mandell. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1980. 319-22. [Not in later editions of this book, but an illuminating and amusing survey of the origins of some of our favorite epithets. First appeared in Penthouse Magazine in 1970.]

Bolinger, Dwight. Language: The Loaded Weapon. NY: Longman, 1980. [A discussion of the power of language and how it can be abused.]

Chaika, Elaine. Language: The Social Mirror. 4th ed. Boston, MA: Heinle Cengage Learning, 2008. [An introductory textbook on language and society.]

Cross, Donna Woolfolk. Word Abuse: How the Words We Use Use Us. NY: Coward, McCann and Geohegan, 1979. [A general discussion of word usage and the power of words.]

Frank, Francine, and Frank Anshen. Language and the Sexes. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1983. [A general survey of sex issues in language use.]

Heatherington, Madelon. How Language Works. Cambridge, MA: Winthrop, 1980. [An introductory textbook on linguistics with an excellent chapter on the power of language, including racist and sexist language.]

Khosroshahi, Fatemeh. “Penguins Don’t Care, But Women Do: A Social Identity Analysis of a Whorfian Problem.” Language in Society 18 (1989): 505-25. [A classic experiment showing how choice of gender-linked pronouns may influence people’s expectations about gender roles or identity.]

Lakoff, Robin. Language and Woman’s Place. NY: Harper Colophon Books, 1975. [An early, landmark look at language and gender, especially how English reflects and reinforces the lower status of women vs. men.]

Lawrence, Barbara. “Four Letter Words Can Hurt You.” In Practical Guide to Writing with Additional Readings. 6th ed. Ed. Sylvan Barnet and Marcia Stubbs. Glenview, IL: Scott,Foresman/Little, Brown Higher Education, 1990. 240-42. [A provocative discussion of how words can hurt women and other groups. First appeared as “—- Isn’t a Dirty Word.” The New York Times 27 Oct. 1973.]

Miller, Casey, and Kate Swift. The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing. NY: Barnes and Noble, 1980. [A practical guide to nonsexist writing.]

Nilsen, Alleen Pace, Haig Bosmajian, H. Lee Gershuny, and Julia Stanley. Sexism and Language. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1977. [Another survey of sex issues in language use.]

The Ohio State University Department of Linguistics. “File 144: Sex Differences in Language Use.” Language Files. 4th ed. Reynoldsburg, OH: 1987. 365-69. [A fun overview of both genderlects (men’s vs. women’s speech patterns) and “sexist” language patterns, with many examples. Later editions of this introductory linguistics text have omitted this reading.]

Valentine, Tamara M. Language and Prejudice (A Longman Topics Reader). Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2004. [Published as a college-composition reader, this book is a more recent collection of articles or book excerpts relating to the language of prejudice.]There’s a Name for Everyone!

The urge to namecall must be universal. Every group of people has derogatory terms (epithets) for anyone who’s different in any way. Can you add any terms to the categories that follow? (Don’t be too proud if you can!) 

Cautionary Note: This list is direct and in most cases, should be extremely offensive to anyone who reads it.  It is not presented for its shock value, but to help remind us of the frequent use of many of the terms, and how some terms may occasionally be used which are not known to us.  It should be the responsibility of each of us to eliminate most of the words that appear on these lists.


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