slur & epithet, "racially derogatory word"

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Sat Mar 30 17:13:40 UTC 2013

Seems like I posted something about this years ago, but maybe I never got
around to it.

My sense matches Geoff's. A "slur" used to be some kind of accusation or
imputation, unlike an "epithet," which was an insulting synonym.  "Slurs"
usually required a whole phrase or more for expression, while an "epithet"
was just one word (sometimes a compound: e.g., "mackerel-snapper").

FWIW, I think I began to notice the new sense of "slur" in the early '70s.
I noticed because I was aware that slang was rich in "epithets," not slurs.


On Sat, Mar 30, 2013 at 11:08 AM, Geoffrey Nunberg <
nunberg at> wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Geoffrey Nunberg <nunberg at ISCHOOL.BERKELEY.EDU>
> Subject:      slur & epithet, "racially derogatory word"
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> I’m trying to figure out when “(racial) slur” entered the mainstream
> vocabulary in the sense of “derogatory word,” as opposed simply to an
> insulting or defamatory remark. Ngrams shows the phrase "racial slur" as
> quite rare before the 60s. In Google Books and Proquest, it seems to have
> been used in this sense before then predominantly in African American
> publications like Ebony, Jet, and the Chicago Defender (where early cites
> refer, to a 1942 NAACP objection Lucky Strike’s “nigger head” brand tobacco
> and complaints from black students in the same year about being required to
> sing Stephen Foster songs about “darkies”). In other sources, it seems to
> be chiefly used in this period mostly to refer to insults or disparaging
> remarks or actions having to do with race (in one case when an officer in
> Korea tells white soldiers that the colored officers have stuck with the
> troops more than they have; in another, by Nixon to describe the charge
> that he was anti-Semitic; in another when!
>   a NY barber posts a sign charging patrons more for “kinky” haircuts).
> I don't know that it matters exactly when the word was first used in this
> sense, but it would be important to know how and when the sense developed
> and spread. Did it first take root among African Americans and spread to
> the white mainstream media in the context of the civil rights movement or
> growing white sensitivity about racial issues?
> This sense of the word isn’t recorded in the OED, which hasn’t updated the
> entry for ‘slur’ since 1912. Odd that this word hasn’t been singled out for
> out-of-sequence revision, given its cultural significance. (Jesse, you must
> have scads of stuff on this your files.) It also isn't in M-W or the AHD,
> unless you allow that it's accounted for with "A disparaging remark; an
> aspersion." I don't think that's an accurate description of "nigger" or
> "fag"; at least it doesn't suggest that these are particular words.
> "Racial epithet" seems to have undergone a parallel development. The first
> nine cites for "racial epithete" in Proquest Hist Newspapers (and 47 of the
> first 50 from 1942 to 1961) are all from the Chicago Defender. The OED does
> have this sense for 'epithet'  ("An offensive or derogatory expression used
> of a person; an abusive term; a profanity"), though the cites involve only
> words like "bastard" and "swine." (Nowadays, it seems to me, when someone
> is described as having "used an epithet," it's dollars to doughnuts the
> word in question was either "fuck" or "nigger.")
> Geoff
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -

"If the truth is half as bad as I think it is, you can't handle the truth."

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list