Lynne Tirrell, "Derogatory Terms:


Racism, Sexism, and the Inferential Role Theory of Meaning"


Language and Liberation:  Feminism, Philosophy, and Language, eds. Christina Hendricks & Kelly Oliver (Albany:  State University of New York Press, 1999), 41-79.



1.   Introduction

a. "An analysis of derogatory terms helps show why individual speakers cannot escape the socially established meaning of their utterances" (41-42)

  1. Issue

1)   "Much more is at issue than bad attitudes and referential misfires" (42)

2)   Issues of legitimacy

a)   "Legitimacy of a set of linguistic practices"

b)   "Legitimacy of the social practices they support and by which they are supported"

  1. Common Views of Absolutist and Reclaimer

1)   "Such terms are undesirable"

2)   "Engage in active attempts to change the social practices in which these terms are embedded"


2.   The Problem

a.  Epithet hurled at African-American man staying within speed limit

  1. Man uses epithet to assert that a woman not involved with a man is a lesbian


3.   Contextualism:  An Inferential Role Theory of Meaning

a.  "The heart of the expression is its designating the person as subordinate" (45)

  1. "Racist language is significant only within a context that sanctions wide varieties of disparate treatment of members of races deemed lesser, including social and economic isolation, harassment, violence, and even genocide" (46)

1)   Includes not only speech acts of comission but also ones of omission

2)   "If I say nothing about her words when my neighbor says 'nigger,' then although I haven't explicitly sanctioned the term and its expressive commitment, I have done nothing explicit to challenge it either" (49)


4.   Social Context:  An Absolutist Position Concerning Groups, Labels, and Power

a.  "The Absolutist takes the assertional commitments of the derogatory termÉto be nondetachable" (52)

  1. "The Absolutist holds that a speaker who uses a derogatory term invokes the entire inferential role of the term and undertakes a global expressive commitment to that way of talking"


5.   The Reclamation Project:  Reclaiming Labels, Regaining Power

a.  "Proponents of reclamationÉsay that sometimes when used by members of the in-group the term is a badge of pride that recognizes an important history of degradation without endorsing its continuation" (56)

  1. "When African-Americans use the term among themselves it is possible for the term not to carry derogation, and this shows that group membership can enable disaffiliation from the common derogation" (58)
  2. "It is the same word, with the same history, but with a new future" (60)

1)   "When a subcommunity reclaims a word, like 'dyke," the new word 'dyke' [up arrow] makes it clear that the old one must be recast explicitly as 'dyke' [down arrow]"

2)   "Both 'dyke' [down arrow] and 'dyke' [up arrow] have the same past, but their present and their futures are significantly different" (61)

  1. Changes Meaning

1)   "The rehabilitation of a term is not achieved by one speaker by fiat in an instant; it is a community-wide achievement that takes time to occur"

2)   "The problem for the members of a community as it moves from a derogatory inferential role to a laudatory one is epistemic"

  1. "Since 'dyke' [down arrow]as we now understand it represents the common past of the two versions of the term, its inferential role serves as the default when there are no clear markers that the less common and more recent 'dyke' [up arrow] is appropriate"



6.   Conclusion

a.  "Even if one doubts that the reclamation project can succeed, it is clear that the Absolutist's brand of holism is too strong" (64)

  1. Derogatory use of "nigger" and "dyke" as bully-words

1)   "They depend for their force and for their content upon a system that favors those not taken to be denotable by the terms" (65)

2)   "They use that force to threaten and control persons taken to be so denotable"

  1. Significance of Inferential Role Theory of Meaning

1)   Move us away "from thinking about the harms of derogatory terms as being located in their connotation (representing the mere bias of the speaker) or in their denotation (saying that they fail to refer since the descriptive content of the terms in inaccurate)" (66)

2)   "According to the inferential role theory..., these terms license inferences bout those they are used to denote which we think ought not to be licensed"

  1. "What is wrong with derogatory terms is that they are part of a set of unjust discursive practices that support and are supported by a set of unjust social, economic, and legal practices" (67)