A word or phrase is pejorative or derogatory (sometimes misspelled perjorative) if it expresses contempt or disapproval; dyslogistic (noun: dyslogism) is used synonymously (antonyms: meliorative , eulogistic, noun eulogism). Dyslogisms such as "pea-brain" and "bottom-feeder" are words and phrases essentially pejorative by their nature. Although pejorative means much the same thing as disparaging, the latter term may be applied to a look or gesture as well as to spoken language— in the evocative languages of gesture, it is not easy to distinguish a disparaging gesture from a dismissive or merely skeptical one, however.
Pejorative expressions that are not dyslogisms may also be used in a non-pejorative way, however, and determining the intent of the speaker is problematic— as with any implied meaning. Conversely, a common rhetorical ploy is to apply "pejorative" to a factual descriptor— as "toxic" might be applied to poison— and then decry it as "pejorative" to suit the agenda of those defending the substance as harmless.
Not every breath of criticism is pejorative: a "petty distinction" is indeed a petty distinction: in that case, the defender must demonstrate the authenticity and seriousness of the distinction, which may then be simply recognized as dismissive rather than pejorative.
Sometimes a term may begin as a pejorative word and eventually be adopted in a non-pejorative sense. This happened with the terms Quaker, Yankee and Ham radio operator, which were originally slang insults which came to be worn with pride. In other cases, some groups have attempted to reclaim formerly offensive words applied against them, with limited success: when usage of a term like nigger, redneck, "white cracker", dyke, queer, faggot, tranny, pervert, Kraut, or cripple by someone outside the group is still considered offensive, that is a sign this process of neutralization is uncompleted.
Conversely, a neutral (non-pejorative) term may grow to become pejorative: the term retard, to refer to a person whose mental capacity is permanently held back from development, was originally used as a euphemism, as had been moron before, itself a euphemism for idiot, in order to avoid true dyslogisms like feebleminded, and half-witted. But it quickly grew to have a pejorative sense of its own. This same progression, from neutral to pejorative, may be happening with the words challenged and special, used in the same sense, today. Language writer Steven Pinker has called this process "the euphemism treadmill."
Since meanings change over time, consult an up-to-date dictionary for information on specific words.
- Unrelated to perjury, pejorative comes from the Latin pejoratus, "made worse," and made a surprisingly late entry in written English, 1882, probably deriving from a contemporary French usage, péjoratif. . It is so frequently misspelled as perjorative that the Oxford English Dictionary website contains a faq entry about this misspelling.