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Slurs are epithets that denigrate a group simply on the basis of membership, for example, on the basis of race, ethnicity, origin, religion, gender or ideology. They provide powerful linguistic weapons, carrying a characteristic offensive sting, prone to cause offence, outrage, and even injury. So much so, that they can be subject to media censorship, and sometimes even legislation.
As to the nature and source of their characteristic offence, the predominant position is to invoke some aspect of meaning. The few who reject this assumption locate the source of offence in the taboo status of pejorative language. In other words, slurs themselves and/or their associations are the source of their offensive sting, not their meanings.
Ernie Lepore challenges both sorts of approaches and defend a novel alternative according to which the source of an offensive effect is negative associations triggered not by slurs but rather by certain articulations of these expressions—phonological or orthographic.
We need to distinguish slurs from their articulations because, surprisingly, the latter can trigger an offensive effect even when the former is absent, and even when articulated, a slur can lose its offensive potency if its articulation is non-canonical.
Dr. Ernie Lepore is a Board of Governors Professor of Philosophy. He is the author of numerous books and papers in the philosophy of language, philosophical logic, metaphysics and philosophy of mind, including Imagination and Convention, with Matthew Stone (Oxford University Press, 2015); Meaning, Mind and Matter: Philosophical Essays, with Barry Loewer (Oxford University Press, 2011); Liberating Content, Language Turned on Itself (both with Oxford University Press, in 2016 and 2007, respectively); Insensitive Semantics (2004, Basil Blackwell), all three with Herman Cappelen; Donald Davidson: Meaning, Truth, Language and Reality, (Oxford University Press, 2005); Donald Davidson’s Truth-Theoretic Semantics, (Oxford University Press, 2007), both with Kirk Ludwig; Meaning and Argument, Holism: A Shopper’s Guide (Blackwell, 1991); The Compositionality Papers (Oxford University Press, 2002), both with Jerry Fodor; and What Every College Student Should Know, with Sarah-Jane Leslie (Rutgers Press, 2002). He has edited several books, including Handbook in Philosophy of Language (with Barry Smith, Oxford University Press, 2006), Truth and Interpretation (Blackwell, 1989), and What is Cognitive Science? (with Zenon Pylyshyn, Blackwell, 1999). He is also general editor of the Blackwell series “Philosophers and Their Critics”.