What makes a bad word bad? What is it that differentiates a purely descriptive word, like “gay,” from its synonym that makes people cringe?

That’s what Texas Tech University faculty member Christopher Hom is working to explain.

Hom, an associate professor of philosophy, says his research is all about trying to answer questions, including the meaning of slurs, why they are so powerfully offensive and whether they can ever be used. 


Christopher Hom, associate professor of philosophy, (806) 834-8743 or [email protected]

Talking points

  • Hom’s theory is not limited to race, as he said slurs can be found for many descriptors, including gender (the difference between “woman” and “b----” or “c---”), sexual orientation (between “gay” and “f--”) and religion (between “Jewish” and “k---”).
  • Each slur draws upon its own set of social facts, biased conventions and flawed ideologies to create a meaning that directly reflects the social reality that supports it.
  • However, it’s too simplistic to say these words are always bad and can never be used. With appropriation – when a particular slur is used by the very people it’s intended to target – the word no longer carries its negative connotation. The purpose of appropriation is often to protest the use of the word by people outside of the target group, to seize power from those who would use the word oppressively, to signal solidarity among target group members, and perhaps to toughen them up.



  • “Just think about the n-word and its so-called neutral correlates ‘African-American’ or ‘black.’ It’s perfectly fine to say that Barack Obama is black. It’s not OK at all to replace ‘black’ with the ‘n-word’ in the previous sentence. Clearly the n-word is doing something deeply negative. The goal is to explain exactly what is going on and how it fits in with a traditional semantic theory.”
  • “My theory is that words like slurs encode deeply negative prescriptions that reflect social institutions of bias. So to call Obama by the n-word is to say roughly that he is deserving of the negative, discriminatory treatment facing African-Americans because he is black. It’s to say that he merits discrimination because of his race.”
  • “Notice that this is false since no one deserves negative treatment on the basis of their race, gender, sexual orientation or religious affiliation. This kind of claim is powerfully offensive – in some cases threatening – and more insidious than a mere venting of one’s racist feelings.”
  • “I hope people come to realize how powerful these words can be and that, when hearers react negatively, they aren’t simply being politically correct. Given that people often act upon their beliefs, to assert deeply negative, normative prescriptions with slurs is not merely name-calling – in the right context, it may be genuinely threatening. These are powerful words that have significant real world consequences, so we really should understand what is going on.”


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