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A pejorative word, phrase, slur, or derogatory term is a word or grammatical form expressing a negative or a disrespectful connotation, a low opinion, or a lack of respect toward someone or something.[1] It is also used to express criticism, hostility, or disregard. Sometimes, a term is regarded as pejorative in some social or ethnic groups but not in others or may be originally pejorative but later adopt a non-pejorative sense (or vice versa) in some or all contexts.


The word pejorative is derived from a Late Latin past participle stem of peiorare, meaning "to make worse", from peior "worse".[2]

Pejoration and melioration[edit]

In historical linguistics, the process of an inoffensive word becoming pejorative is a form of semantic drift known as pejoration. An example of pejoration is the shift in meaning of the word silly from meaning that a person was happy and fortunate to meaning that they are foolish and unsophisticated.[3] The process of pejoration can repeat itself around a single concept, leaping from word to word in a phenomenon known as the euphemism treadmill, for example as in the successive pejoration of the terms bog-house, privy-house, latrine, water closet, toilet, bathroom, and restroom (US English).[4][5]

When a term begins as pejorative and eventually is adopted in a non-pejorative sense, this is called melioration or amelioration. One example is the shift in meaning of the word nice from meaning a person was foolish to meaning that a person is pleasant.[6] When performed deliberately, it is described as reclamation or reappropriation.[7] Examples of a word that has been reclaimed by portions of the community that it targets is queer, faggot and dyke which began being re-appropriated as a positive descriptor in the early 1990s by activist groups.[8] However, due to its history and – in some regions – continued use as a pejorative, there remain LGBT individuals who are uncomfortable with having this term applied to them.[9] The use of the racial slur nigga (specifically the -a variant) by African Americans is often viewed as another act of reclamation, though much like the latter in the LGBT movement, there exists a vocal subset of people with Sub-Saharan African descent that object to the use of the word under any circumstances.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Pejorative". Dictionary.com. Archived from the original on Mar 21, 2016. Retrieved 2012-04-25.
  2. ^ "Pejorative (adj.)". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved October 16, 2016.
  3. ^ Horobin, Simon (March 31, 2021). "Five words that don't mean what you think they do". The Conversation. Archived from the original on April 5, 2021. Retrieved 2021-04-05.
  4. ^ Stollznow, Karen (2020-08-11). "Ableist Language and the Euphemism Treadmill". Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 2021-04-06.
  5. ^ Bell, Vicars Walker (1953). On Learning the English Tongue. Faber & Faber. p. 19. The Honest Jakes or Privy has graduated via Offices to the final horror of Toilet.
  6. ^ Nordquist, Richard (3 October 2019). "Amelioration (word meanings)". ThoughtCo. Archived from the original on Jan 18, 2021. Retrieved 2021-04-06.
  7. ^ Brontsema, Robin (2004-06-01). "A Queer Revolution: Reconceptualizing the Debate Over Linguistic Reclamation". Colorado Research in Linguistics. 17 (1). doi:10.25810/dky3-zq57. ISSN 1937-7029. Linguistic reclamation, also known as linguistic resignification or reappropriation, refers to the appropriation of a pejorative epithet by its target(s).
  8. ^ Perlman, Merrill (2019-01-22). "How the word 'queer' was adopted by the LGBTQ community". Columbia Journalism Review. Retrieved 2021-07-12.
  9. ^ Druhan, Colin (2019-03-06). "Our complicated relationship with the term queer". IN Magazine. Retrieved 2021-07-12.
  10. ^ Higson, Rachel (2017-09-28). "Considering the N-Word: To Reject or Reclaim?". Prindle Institute. Retrieved 2023-03-12.

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