“Slur”: from real mud to ugliness, derogatory remarks


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Linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer analyzes the origins of words in the news. Read the previous columns here.

Jon Gruden resigned as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders on Monday after revelations he used anti-Gay and misogynistic language in emails he sent while working as a commentator on ESPN.

This followed news, first reported in the Wall Street Journal, that Mr Gruden used racist language in a 2011 email regarding DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the National Football League Players Association. “Dumboriss Smith has lips the size of Michelin tires,” he wrote in the email.

While the first offense was labeled a “racial trope” in Journal and other media reports, the additional emails were widely identified as containing “insults”. These included the reference to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as a “queer” and the use of the word “queer” in an email about the drafting of Michael Sam, an openly gay player.

“Slur” is now widely used for such derogatory epithets relating to race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, but in its early Middle English appearances the term referred to a watery, watery slime. In a Latin-English dictionary dated around 1440, it was spelled as “sol”. The modern word “slurry” for a suspension of small particles in a liquid comes from the same muddy roots.

It was not until the 20th century that the term “insult” changed from naming an insulting remark to a label for specific offensive words.

The name “insult” gave rise to a verb meaning “to smear or stain”. In “Antonio’s Revenge,” a play by John Marston published in 1602, a character compares the dawn to a courteous lady: “Her cheek is not yet covered in borrowed crimson paint.

Later in the 17th century, the term “insult” took on a more figurative direction when it came to denigrating someone. A theologian named Isaac Barrow, for example, delivered a sermon in the 1670s decrying “ungodliness” which “insults (so to speak) and defames God.” The verb has also been used to pass something lightly, leading to new semantic directions: “slurred” notes in a musical composition are slipped smoothly, while “slurred” speech is spoken indistinctly.

Meanwhile, the name “insult” has become attached to various slights and slanders that could be thrown at someone in a litany of verbal abuse. A Samuel Pepys diary entry in November 1666 recorded gossip about a nobleman who had “become very low by everyone” and “received several insults from the King and Duke of York”.

It was not until the 20th century that the term “insult” changed from naming an insulting remark to a label for specific offensive words. An early example of this modern usage appeared in the Courier-Journal of Louisville, Ky., In 1916. William Warley, a prominent black journalist and civil rights leader, wrote a letter to the editor opposing the newspaper use of the word ‘dark’ in one article. “We contend that such insults increase racial prejudice to the extent that they increase disrespect for race,” Mr. Warley wrote.

In a 2018 article titled “The Social Life of Slurs,” linguist Geoffrey Nunberg observed that the use of “slur” for specific derogatory words circulated in the African-American press in the mid-20th century before being more widely accepted in the 1960s. Later, in the Culture Wars of the 1980s, words identified as “insults” became touchstones of debate.

Mr Nunberg, who died last year, has spent many years investigating a particularly controversial word: “red skin” as a derogatory term for a Native American, long used by the Washington NFL team. “You can say you don’t think of it as an insult,” Mr Nunberg said in 2001, “but that doesn’t change the meaning of the word.” In the end, the team gave in to the pressure and dropped the “Redskins” name last year.

Mr Gruden’s insulting emails were actually sent to Bruce Allen when he was president of what was then the Redskins, now known simply as the Washington Football Team pending a permanent new name.

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