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Outside of slang, I'm looking for a list of words that have been co-opted by society to mean something derogatory. In some senses, they are also "trigger words" and phrases.

The word cult, for example, is offensive to some, however it is the scientific word used to describe the initial stages of a formation of a religion.

On the other hand "Black" is a generally accepted term to describe African Americans, however several people are afraid to say that word out of fear of offense.

Question

  • What I'm looking for is a "word census" to determine how offensive a word is to a given affiliation, zip code, or population overall.

This resource will help me craft a response that is most relevant to the community I'm targeting.

I really doubt that such a resource exists right now in 2017, but I envision that to be something that is needed.

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    I don't think something like than can be created. You can't really assign a rating to what some people find offensive, mainly because it is reliant on too many factors: location, culture, upbringing, experiences, political affiliation, and opinions.
    – Hank
    Feb 1, 2017 at 15:53
  • Yes! A Scoville for offense. The children need it!
    – user116032
    Feb 2, 2017 at 3:25
  • I have voted to reopen. The thoroughly researched answer demonstrates that the question was well posed. Jun 16, 2022 at 0:36
  • As the western culture evolves, the fraction words labelled as offensive / triggering approaches 1.
    – Jpe61
    Jun 16, 2022 at 9:00
  • @jpe61 "stability is progress"
    – TLDR
    Jun 18, 2022 at 22:59

2 Answers 2

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Is there a way to determine how offensive a word is?

Yes, there are several ways, depending on your need: Do you need to know how offensive or will is it offensive do? How specific does the data need to be? How many words should be analyzed? Do you have the resources to conduct your own experiment? Or maybe you want to try data mining?

It's quite broad, so I've tried to find a variety of techniques and resources. Hopefully you can find something that works for you.


The dictionary method

Sometimes, you can just look in the dictionary and find your answer. In any case, it's a good place to start.

For example, you might wonder about the word Eskimo. You can look it up in Oxford Dictionaries and you'll see:

In recent years the word Eskimo has come to be regarded as offensive (partly through the associations of the now discredited etymology ‘one who eats raw flesh’). The peoples inhabiting the regions from the central Canadian Arctic to western Greenland prefer to call themselves Inuit. The term Eskimo, however, continues to be the only term which can be properly understood as applying to the people as a whole and is still widely used in anthropological and archaeological contexts

In many cases, it won't be that obvious, but you can infer what the connotation is. See this entry from NOAD for cult:

a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister

The word "cult" may be offensive because it implies something is strange and sinister.

You may want to also consider looking in slang dictionaries, such as Urban Dictionary or The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English


Data mining

Data mining is probably your best bet if you want to examine a lot of words, especially words in context. There are a lot of resources out there if you know how to find (and use) them.

  • SentiWordNet:

    SentiWordNet is a lexical resource for opinion mining. SentiWordNet assigns to each synset of WordNet three sentiment scores: positivity, negativity, objectivity.

  • See also my answer on MSO about detecting offensive comments. I link to several papers and a dataset containing text identified as offensive or not offensive.


The research approach

There are also dozens of studies that look into exactly how offensive certain words are (the words studied vary from paper to paper). All of the studies I've found use surveys of some sort (almost always on college students).

Here are some papers I found:


Other resources

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    Another point that needs making is that to understand whether a word is offensive, it is not always ok just to survey the public at large, the people being referred to need to be consulted. For example, in the UK there is widespread casual acceptance of offensive language to refer to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people (and because of its general acceptance, many people would deny its offensiveness). It's not possible to get a good idea of how offensive some language is if the people it refers to are not consulted. Sep 18, 2023 at 14:13
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What I'm looking for is a "word census" to determine how offensive a word is to a given affiliation, zip code, or population overall.

This does not exist nor will an accurate version of it ever exist: if it is not accurate, it is useless.

Such a list is, by definition, an historical record and therefore will never be up-to-date.

What offends one will not offend another: there is no purpose in any list that is general and no possibility of a specific one.

I really doubt that such a resource exists right now in 2017, but I envision that to be something that is needed.

You have a lifetime of unrewarding work ahead of you that will never be current or finished.... Sisyphus had it easy...

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    You may consider it useless but as Laurel's answer shows, people do conduct research into this (both academics and people practically involved in areas like media policy), and they evidently find the results somewhat useful.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 18, 2023 at 12:17
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    A list of how offensive words are? I wonder what the scale is measured in and how the axes are determined? If they do research into this then it is not with the intention of it being used for measurement - more to show changing attitudes.
    – Greybeard
    Sep 18, 2023 at 17:09

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