Pejoration of words - how & why to invest them with emotion

Being fairly literally-minded, one of the first things I like to do when discussing a topic with people is establish our semantics. That is, to unpack our respective meanings and assumptions of the terms and concepts we use to (hopefully) communicate.

So a practice that I find interesting and often troubling is that of pejoration of words. As well as the complementary process of melioration, but that tends to be more subtle. That is, the idea that a word can be good or bad in itself. This requires both a judgemental mindset, as well as assumptions that we share contexts about words. But beyond the problems of mere connotation and shadings of meaning, this involves making a word into a sort of emotional trigger - like a drug which a person is conditioned to feel good/badly about. Many mature people agree that the meanings and values of words are tied up in context, but where I find pejoration insidious is that the process appears to bypass people’s critical-thinking faculties, for the most part. In that context is not to be established through dialog, but rather assumed through shared experience, doctrine, coercion, etc.

From a very young age, the process of pejoration struck me as fundamentally dishonest, a kind of self-deception and undermining of meaning that is unproductive, that favors and reenforces knee-jerk reactions to stimuli instead of semantics and considered discussion of meaning. For example, being told that “shit” is a bad word, and that I should sat “crap” instead, while being told that they mean the exact same thing. Only that one of them is loaded with some unaccountable, unmeasurable emotional charge “just because”. If a single word could push my buttons, wouldn’t it be better to condition myself out of that unthinking pattern of behavior? Otherwise, all a person need do is utter one specially chosen word to hijack my reason, self-worth, etc. And rather than assuming shared context with people, wouldn’t it be less lazy and more respectful simply to ask? To take just a moment to make our personal and cultural contexts explicit?

Are there any words which push your buttons, for better or worse? And why do they? Do you ever have problems with assuming the contexts you associate with a word are universal or shared, and then discover otherwise? What techniques do you use to prevent or break the emotional loadings of words? Do you ever take pejorative words used against you and re-contextualize them to your or others’ advantage?

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