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Can pronoun "it" be used instead of (personal) pronouns "her" or "him" in a disparaging/derogative manner especially in the personal pronouns?

I've watched a movie wherein a dead body was found and, without saying anything, they've been told just to "burn it!". I know this could have been strictly referring to "a body" — a neutral noun. However, the "burn it!" was said in a really disparaging manner.

And let's suppose that the man who said it knew the man who was killed. Still, can we use "it" instead of "her" or "him" in that manner emphasising the hate and scorn towards a particular person?

  • The simple answer is generally "no", you cannot use "it" to refer to a living person. (Even disparagingly - it just sounds "silly" rather than "disparaging".) NOTE - there's one famous example in film of this: in the film "Alfie" (1966), a very misogynist character refers to someone's girlfriend as "it" ("can you send 'it' out?") - but it's not so much disparaging as ridiculous, extreme. In short, no. (As Binney explains your dead-body example is totally irrelevant.) – Fattie Jul 31 '14 at 11:25
  • It is the right word here -- the reference is the body, not the person. You could not have said "Burn him" -- no way. – Kris Jul 31 '14 at 11:30
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    @JoeBlow I'm pretty sure that "it" can be (and is) used that way. Especially when referring to gender non-conforming people. But also people who are not considered human by the speaker (people of color, disabled people, women, ...). In the dead-body example, it is probably used to refer to the body and thus this is not a good example for this. But I can certainly imagine contexts in which "burn it" would refer to the person, not the body. – tim Jul 31 '14 at 11:35
  • the dead body example is utterly irrelevant, so leave that. for gender non-conforming people you say "they" (even though it's a bit awkward), it would be rude to say "it". using "it" to refer to a person is more whacky/weird that derogatory. you won't find many examples of it. – Fattie Jul 31 '14 at 11:39
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    Ah - quite right. Yes, if you refer to a gender non-conforming person as "it", THAT IS INCREDIBLY RUDE, DO NOT DO THAT. Yes, it is correct that that is a hugely disparaging/derogative usage. As I said, you probably agree, referring to a person in general as "it" is not disparaging/derogative .... it's more just "weird" or sounds like you are just learning English. – Fattie Jul 31 '14 at 12:36
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There's a difference between a dead body (a biological object) and a dead person (the character). "Her" and "him" (as well as the gender-neutral singular "they") are usually reserved for people. So, the dead body isn't a person; that's why it is referred to as "it".

So, if you use "it" to refer to a thing then you imply it is not a person. That's factual rather than disparaging if said thing is an inanimate object (e.g. apple, Earth, dead body) but it is derogative if you refer to a human being. If the man who said "burn it!" was referring to a character rather than to a lump of flesh and bone, then it would be derogative because he was denying the character's person-ness and effectively saying they were an inanimate object.

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I think I would always refer to the body of a human as 'him' or her'. But I would probably not talk about 'burning him'. I think the word 'cremate' is more sensitive and distinguishes a human being from some garden waste.

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