I. What is a Pejorative?
A pejorative is an insult – a word with a negative connotation that expresses contempt, dismissiveness, or even hatred. It should go without saying that such words must be avoided if you want your writing to be neutral and balanced.
“Pejorative” can be used either as a noun or adjective, but either way it refers to a single word with a negative connotation, not a phrase. “Derogatory” is a synonym for “pejorative” (in adjective form only).
II. Examples of Pejorative
Some pejoratives are dependent on perception – to some people, these words have a negative connotation, but to others they are neutral or even positive. For example, the word “liberal” might be used as an insult among conservatives, but among liberals it is a compliment. For social scientists, on the other hand, the word “liberal” is a neutral description, neither positive nor negative.
There are also words that started off as neutral words but became pejoratives (or vice versa). Thus, pejoratives are dependent on history and culture as well as individual perception. For example, the words “moron,” “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “dumb” all started out as medical terms denoting mental illness. Over time, however, they became popular pejoratives that people would use to insult one another. Once that happened, the medical community no longer found them acceptable, and they found other words to replace them. The word “retarded” is now in a grey area between these two statuses – it is widely used as a pejorative, but still has some currency within the medical community. Over time, if people continue to use “retarded” as an insult, the medical community will have to abandon it as they once did with other words.
It’s possible for a word to be used as a pejorative even if its dictionary definition doesn’t have a negative connotation. For example, the word “nerd” simply means overly studious and somewhat socially awkward, but some people use it as an insult, or pejorative. However, “nerd” is only a pejorative if you think that being a nerd is a bad thing.
III. The Problem with Pejoratives
The obvious problem with pejoratives is that they are insulting – readers may take offense when they encounter such words, especially if they are part of the affected group. In general, your writing should not be offensive unless there’s a very compelling reason for it, which means pejoratives should usually be avoided.
This is also true (maybe even more true) when you’re writing something that criticizes or undermines an idea or group. For example, if you’re writing about a political controversy, you should not attack your opponents by calling them “unpatriotic” or questioning their motives. This is because such attacks will make you appear biased, immature, and untrustworthy, thus significantly weakening your argument; the best critique would be one that did not rely on insulting the opponent, but rather on analyzing their views. A really effective attack would be civil, fair-minded, and logical.
IV. Examples of Pejorative in Literature
The use of pejoratives in classic literature presents something of a problem – for example, the N-word is all over the place in Huckleberry Finn, due to the fact that Mark Twain was trying to imitate the way people talked in the South. The intended message of the book is anti-racist, but the use of such pejoratives makes for a complicated reading, and forces teachers and parents to consider whether it’s an appropriate book for teaching anti-racist values.
“A knave, a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave… and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel …” (William Shakespeare, King Lear)
Taken as a whole, this is a remarkable string of invective. Many of the individual words, of course, have negative connotations and thus count as pejoratives within the larger framework of the invective.
V. Examples in Popular Culture
In modern political culture, it’s common to hear the word rhetoric used as a pejorative. For example, someone might claim that a given politician is “all rhetoric,” meaning his or her policies have no actual substance. This is unfortunate, though, since the ancient Greek art of rhetoric is actually extremely important in today’s world. Rhetoric, the art of persuasion and clear communication, should be revered in a world of constant communication and debate, and this cannot be achieved if the word is used as a pejorative.
Popular culture sometimes allows the affected group to “re-appropriate” or claim a pejorative for their own use. While this is attempted often, there are very few examples where it has clearly succeeded. One important example is the word “Yankee,” which was initially a pejorative against American colonists, but is now completely neutralized. Originally a critique from the British soldiers, the Yankee Doodle song was changed and is now a symbol of American pride and patriotism.
VI. Related Terms with examples
Epithet is technically a synonym for pejorative. However, it typically refers to a specific kind of pejoratives, namely the words that were specifically invented to be insults to a specific group of people. The classic examples are racist epithets. However, there are also sexist and homophobic epithets, as well as epithets referring to disabled people, etc.
Invective refers to any kind of critical or insulting language. Thus, pejoratives are a kind of invective. However, invective can also refer to long phrases and even whole paragraphs, whereas a pejorative is a single word.
Pejoratives often occur in ad hominem arguments. This is an argument in which you attack an idea by attacking the person or people who hold it. “You’re an idiot and a liar” is an ad hominem attack with a strong pejorative tone. “Your argument is logically invalid” is not an ad hominem attack, but it still has a slightly pejorative tone (invalid is a negative word, and therefore a pejorative, but it’s less severe than the others).