In 1893, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a book called Catriona—a book I had never heard of until today. Nor did I know until today that the word I had in mind to begin this reflection on language, pejorative, was a form of the verb, pejorate. Here’s Stevenson.
You do not appear to me to recognise the gravity of your situation or you would be more careful not to pejorate the same.
To pejorate is to make worse. A “making worse” word is pejorative. With no more to go on than that, I would assume that every society would meliorate words that point to what they value most and pejorate words that point to what they value least. Presumably, there will be a range of words between these ends that are not so loaded with society’s values. Everyone would understand that these are between-the-extremes words.
The Tsarnaev brothers, who planted the bombs near the finish line at the Boston Marathon, were caught “on film,” we still say, by cameras that are now routinely put in public places. What shall we call these cameras? I think they are commonly called “security cameras” and if they are there to make us more secure, I can see the point of that designation. I think I would prefer that they be called “surveillance cameras.” Surveillance is what they actually do—or, more precisely, what they enable.
If we imagine a single society with a single set of values, which is the way I set up the dilemma, this society would want to pejorate surveillance. That is the direction in which “Big Brother is watching you” lies. No one wanted to see the woman taking her child out of the back seat of the car and shaking her in anger. But there was a camera there, so people did see it and if they see it, the law (in some states, Oregon being one) requires that they act on it. Surveillance is the process by which your dog is shown to have crapped on my lawn. Surveillance is the end of private meetings, where candor can be tolerated, and the beginning of long “walks in the park,” which provide an alternative in totalitarian societies.
There are, in short, reasons to pejorate surveillance. Unless, of course, it is necessary for our survival. If we are threatened by enemies foreign and domestic, we will want to invest in the technologies that can promise security. Cameras, which can catch enemies doing things when they believe they are unnoticed, can help us be more secure. This single society, with its one set of values, has every reason to meliorate security. We have a responsibility to protect ourselves and have only ourselves to blame if we fail to do everything we can. We are not only vulnerable to our enemies, but irresponsible as well.
Societies like ours are not simple, of course, and different parts of the society have different values to emphasize. Clearly, that is true about the surveillance/security dilemma. Let’s try another area. Women who make a living by selling sex could be called whores. The word is confined, the OED says, to “coarse and abusive speech.” Or these women could be called sex workers—just one of the many divisions of a modern workforce. A society that wanted to discourage the sale of sex would want pejorative terms. Whore is an ugly word. It is coarse and abusive. It is pejorative. That’s why a society would want to use it. The disapproval of the practices it names is built into the language itself.
So why would anyone be opposed to using such a word? Is there really a pro-prostitution community in the U. S.? If by “pro-prostitution,” we mean people who defend it as a valuable part of a complete society, I think the answer is No. The case I have heard for terms like “sex worker” is that it helps to protect the women who are in the trade. “Whores” are non-citizens for most purposes. They do not have access to help from the police, from social services, from health services. They are routinely abused by their employers, as well as by their clients, and have nowhere to turn.
If, on the other hand, they were “sex workers,” they would just be doing another kind of work. They would not be invisible. They would not be separated from society or from the services that societies provide for other kinds of workers. A term like “sex workers” does not ameliorate the practice of prostitution, but it does ameliorate the women themselves. It makes their lot better. It helps make available to them the services that are available to all other citizens. That is the signpost function—the “significance,” we say—of the term, “sex workers.”
What this means is that we would expect every community to establish what is “in bounds” and what is “out of bounds” by means of pejoration and melioration. The good path, the path we ought to follow, would be laid out with little lights along the path. Wandering off the path would bring you to the place where bad words would and should be used to characterize you and what you have done. This would be true in each and every community which has a common language and a common set of values. The values would be in conflict, we would imagine, so the languages adopted would be in conflict.
This gets us away from debates about whether that particular instrument is a “surveillance camera” or a “security camera” and it would bring us closer to the language values that each of these words exemplifies. It would do the same for “whores” and “sex workers” and I think that might be helpful.