Presented by Rob Stainton (University of Western Ontario)

Most theories of slurs fall into one of two families: those which understand slurring terms to encode special informational content (however conveyed), and those which understand them to encode special emotive content. Our view is that what sets slurs apart is neither of these, but rather use-theoretic content. In particular, we urge that slurring words belong at the intersection of a number of categories in a register taxonomy that usually includes [+vulgar] and [+slang] and always includes [+offensive] and [+derogatory]. Thus, e.g., what distinguishes ‘Chinese person’ from ‘chink’ is neither a peculiar sort of descriptive nor emotional content, but the fact that ‘chink’ is lexically marked as belonging to different registers than ‘Chinese person’ does.

The paper begins by explaining the contrasts among informational, emotive and use-theoretic meanings. We then lay out the notion of register, borrowed from sociolinguistics, as one sub-variety of use-theoretic meaning -- the one which pertains to the circumstances under which it is socially appropriate to use a term. We end by showing how this notion can be usefully applied to the specific case of slurring words.

If successful, we will have achieved twin aims: to provide a novel approach to the meaning of slurs, and to illustrate the usefulness of taking some meanings to pertain to what the term is to be used for.


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