Three rich-lexicon theories of slurs: A comparison

01 Jun 2024
Room D1

Three rich-lexicon theories of slurs: A comparison

Many authors writing on slurs think that they are lexically rich, in the sense that their lexical meaning comprises both a descriptive dimension and an expressive/evaluative one, the latter accounting for their derogatory character. However, more fine-grained theories of slurs have been proposed, drawing on frameworks from lexical semantics. My main aim in this paper is to compare three such fine-grained rich-lexicon theories – the one put forward in Zeman (2022) with two similar ones, Croom’s (2011, 2013) and Neufeld’s (2019, 2022). According to Zeman, a slur’s lexical entry comprises various meaning dimensions (perceptual, origin, evaluative, etc.), but in particular uses of slurs different dimensions get foregrounded/backgrounded (e.g., when a slur is used derogatorily, the evaluative dimension is foregrounded; when it is used non-derogatorily, the evaluative dimension is backgrounded).

For Croom, slurs encode rich conceptual structures made out of properties (none essential) prototypical members of the target groups are taken to possess, ranked and selected for communicative purposes. However, if the list of properties associated with a slur is open, it can end up being quite substantive and become problematic for computing and storing. Croom also claims that the selection of properties in a context is based on closeness to the members of the target group. But this is implausible: for example, one cannot use the n-word in a non-derogatory way in a sentence stating the results of a census, regardless of closeness relations. Neither of the two other theories have these problems.

According to Neufeld, slurs are terms with null extension that comprise an “essence” that is given a causal-explanatory role for the negative traits that members of the target group are taken to possess. Since no such real essences exist, the terms fail to refer. However, it is not straightforward how non-derogatory uses are accounted for: slurs don’t seem to have null extensions when used in this way and claiming that the postulated “essence” disappears is ad-hoc. Second, while Neufeld cites a lot of psychological evidence for essentialization, it is not clear that her view allows for users of slurs that are not committed to, or even explicitly reject, any “essences”; but such users seem conceivable. This is not a problem for the other two rich-lexicon theories considered.



Croom, A. (2011). Slurs. Language Sciences, 33, 343-358.

Croom, A. (2013). How to do Things with Slurs: Studies in the way of Derogatory Words. Language & Communication, 33, 177-204.

Neufeld, E. (2019). An Essentialist Theory of the Meaning of Slurs. Philosophers’ Imprint, 19, 1-29.

Neufeld, E. (2022). Psychological essentialism and the structure of concepts. Philosophy Compass, 17, e12823.

Zeman, D. (2022). A rich-lexicon theory of slurs and their uses. Inquiry, 65, 942-966.