Slurs and obscenities: Lexicography, semantics, and philosophy

Geoffrey K. Pullum

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Words are often assumed to have denotations linking them to concepts, and we use a word with a certain denotation when we want to convey to our interlocutor the concept to which it is linked. Obscene swearwords and offensive slurs reveal the simplistic character of this view. Issues of style, tone, esthetics, etiquette, attitude, and self-presentation arise; semantics, pragmatics, sociolinguistics, and anthropology are involved in clarifying them. After surveying some semantic and pragmatic preliminaries, the chapter delves into the lexicography of obscene and offensive terms. There are some flagrant semantic errors in trusted dictionaries. Experienced lexicographers get many simple meanings badly and obviously wrong. Part of the explanation may lie in a desire to distance the dictionary’s authority from the pejorative content. Correcting such entries involves recognizing that words have nonlinguistic properties as well as linguistic ones.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationBad words
Subtitle of host publicationPhilosophical Perspectives on Slurs
EditorsDavid Sosa
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Print)9780198758655
Publication statusPublished - 26 Jul 2018

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • slurs
  • pejoratives
  • semantics/pragmatics
  • lexicography
  • obcenity


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