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Sometimes, when I explain a new word to a friend who doesn't speak English well, I know that the word has to be used carefully, because it is not appropriate in all contexts, or can be offensive if used in the wrong way (or used at all). And I try to convey to the friend a feeling of what is dangerous about a word, so they will not use it inappropriately. Interestingly, languages (and cultures) have different reasons why a word can be dangerous, but today I am thinking of words which are insulting. For insults, I know broadly three sub-categories:

  1. Words which are OK in their primary meaning, but insulting when applied to a human.

    That cow from Accounting lost my receipt.

  2. Words which are specifically meant as an insult, but are not dirty. A conservative grandmother won't let her grandchild apply the word to another person, but won't be appalled at the child knowing the word.

    That nitwit from Accounting lost my receipt.

  3. Words which are not just insults, but also vulgar, and considered taboo in some situations.

    That bitch from accounting lost my receipt.

What I am looking for is for a term for the second category above. And it should not be just an umbrella term which also includes one or both of the two other categories, but one which makes it clear which one is meant. Just like

"Bitch" is a curse word.

makes it clear that "bitch" is not in category 1 or 2, I am asking if there is a term which could be used in the sentence

"Nitwit" is a _____ word.

would not only make it clear that nitwit is an insult, but also that it is not in category 1 or 3.

I am aware that there are many descriptive ways to express that, for example "non-curse insult", but I have a nagging feeling that I have encountered a single-word term that is specific to that exact category, and have forgotten it. After talking to some people, I am starting to doubt if this term exists, but if it does, I hope the community here will find it.

I am not sure that the term is used in a noun phrase with "word", so maybe the example should simply be "Nitwit is a ____".

  • 1
    I don’t see why you list bitch under 3 instead of 1. In its primary meaning, referring to a female dog/wolf/fox/otter, there is nothing insulting about it. I would say group 3 is by far the smallest; it’s actually hard to think of many examples. I can mainly think of vulgar terms for body parts (“That dick/cunt/arsehole from accounting”). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 27 at 17:41
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    Personally I would call them derogatory words. – pbasdf Feb 27 at 17:42
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    I would argue that nowadays that primary meaning of "bitch" has been displaced. For example, Duolingo won't even accept "bitch" as a translation for "chienne" (it accepts both "dog" and "female dog"). I just chose it as an example so as not to litter the site with stronger curse words. – rumtscho Feb 27 at 17:42
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    @remarkl there is also no reason to have a word "stool" when you can say "a chair without a backrest", but the word "stool" still exists. So I have the hope that this word exists even though the idea can be described without using a very specific word. – rumtscho Feb 27 at 18:00
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    The word 'epithet' springs to mind. – Nigel J Feb 27 at 19:29
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Would you consider "belittling" or "disparaging" sufficiently exclusive of the vulgar category? I suggest these.

https://www.thefreedictionary.com/belittle

https://www.thefreedictionary.com/disparage

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I think “pejorative” works for your use case. For instance, nitwit is a pejorative (word). Ending with “word” is optional in the vernacular.

From Merriam-Webster:

pejorative

: a word or phrase that has negative connotations or that is intended to disparage or belittle.

1

Consider the following:

You have a small brain.

None of the words used in that sentence are vulgar, pejorative, offensive, or derogatory in any way at all. Every one of them is value-neutral.

[Wikipedia]

Value-neutral is a related adjective suggesting independence from a value system. The object itself is considered value-neutral when it is neither good nor bad, neither useful nor useless, neither significant nor trite, until placed in some social context.

Yet, despite that, the overall meaning of the sentence as a whole has it act as an insult because of the context in which each word exists.


As to nitwit. Most people would probably agree that the word itself is not vulgar. (I can't imagine it being normally used as a curse word.)

According to Merriam-Webster, it means:

: a scatterbrained or stupid person

Scatterbrained seems only mildly offensive to me—or, possibly, even a value-neutral term that is meant as a literal description of somebody's state of mind and behaviour. Scatterbrained doesn't have to be taken as an insult, but it certainly could be. And calling somebody stupid is less open to a charitable interpretation.

At the very least, I would think that the word nitwit would be suggestive of an insult.

However, I can imagine a spouse laughing, kissing their partner, and affectionately saying, "Oh, you're such a nitwit!" In that particular context, some people might find it to be an endearment rather than an insult.

But like value-neutral words that end up being used as insults, I think that context has to matter. And context is also something that is open to interpretation.

At best, I think all you can really say about nitwit is that it's not vulgar.


But if, as you say, it's meant as an insult, then I'd say it's being used as a derogatory word.

[Merriam-Webster]

1 : expressive of a low opinion : DISPARAGING
// derogatory remarks
// a derogatory term
2 : detracting from the character or standing of something
—often used with to, towards, or of
. . . abstained from saying a word derogatory to his new friend's religion . . .
— Anthony Trollope

There is nothing wrong with using belittling to describe the word nitwit when it's used in a negative fashion, but if it's meant as an explicit insult, rather than an offhand remark or put down, I think that derogatory has a more forceful quality to it.

To me, an insult has more conviction, and intent to harm, behind it than just a negative comment:

[Merriam-Webster]

: to treat with insolence, indignity, or contempt : AFFRONT
also : to affect offensively or damagingly

0

That would be a 'euphemism'.

euphemism (according to Merriam-Webster) : the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant

  • Surely an insulting word is always offensive even if it's not vulgar? – KillingTime Mar 6 at 6:15

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