The Noun as Insult

About a year ago, I wrote a post titled “The Politeness Spectrum of Parts of Speech” in which I argued that, in modern English, some parts of speech have more polite or offensive connotations than some other parts of speech. In particular, bare nouns (e.g. “blacks”) seem to be ruder than adjectives (“black people”), which seem to be ruder than prepositional phrases (“people of color”). I’ve thought a bit more about this progression, and I think I now understand better why nouns are at the rude end of the spectrum.

In politics, being able to tag yourself or your opponent(s) with a name of your own choosing is often an advantage. In the debate over abortion, both sides have managed to pick out very complimentary names for themselves and have succeeded wonderfully in making them stick: it is entirely neutral to refer to someone as pro-choice or pro-life, although “life” and “choice” are both very good things that no one could really be against per se. We could imagine a world in which the most common neutral terms were, say, pro-abortion and anti-abortion or even prohibitionist and anti-prohibitionist.

Naturally the fringes on both the left and right are not comfortable using complimentary labels for their opponents. Right-wingers often refer to pro-choice people as abortionists or even baby killers (although a quick Google search suggests that baby killers is more often used sarcastically by the left). And the inspiration for this blog post came from an article in the Nation where a pro-life Obama appointee is referred to as an antichoicer (with no hyphen).

Antichoicer calls to mind two other dismissive political epithets of recent years, truther (a 9/11 conspiracy theorist) and birther (a Barack Obama birth certificate conspiracy theorist). Truther was originally a proud self-designation, while birther was based on the much earlier Bircher (a member of the John Birch Society) and was always an exonym. In fact, from these examples the suffix –er seems to be acquiring a derogatory connotation in political discourse, entirely separate from its more normal agentive function, as in speaker, believer, etc.

Leslie Savan, writing the New York Times’s On Language column, mentions several other examples of derogatory political –er that, to my ear, range from less common to unfamiliar: deather (those who believe Obama’s health care plan involves death panels), flat-earther, grassy-knoller (a Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorist), mooner (people who believe the moon landings were a hoax), winger/nutter (short for wingnut), tenthers (people who believe the 10th Amendment gives states the right to nullify federal laws), and of course teabagger (a member of the Tea Party movement). Savan contrasts –er with the more respectful suffixes –ist and –ite (as in Trotskyist and Thatcherite) and finds an affinity with earlier tree hugger (sic) and bra burner, which are (or originated as) both agentive and politically derogatory. In all the more modern derogatory examples, there is no agentive sense: truthers don’t truth, tenthers don’t tenth, and although teabag is a verb (for a sexual practice), the –er doesn’t feel agentive at all to me. It’s not that teabaggers are teabagging; it’s that they are part of the Tea Party movement, in the same way the truthers are part of the 9/11 truth movement.

But why is the insulting form a noun, rather than some other part of speech? Why do the Nation and other liberal outlets turn pro-life into antichoicer rather than just anti-choice? The answer, or at least one answer, seems fairly simple: adjectives can’t always stand on their own (in English). If you call someone anti-choice, you often have to specify a noun too: anti-choice activist, anti-choice voters, etc. But this seems to dilute some of the force of anti-choice, since you may not be as interested in the person’s aspect as an activist or a voter. In the article in the Nation, for example, the important fact about Obama’s appointee is that she is pro-life, not that she is an activist or a politician or any other noun. If all you really want to say is that someone is pro-life, antichoicer is the most effective (derogatory) way of saying only that and nothing more.

It may also be the case that the noun essentializes more than other parts of speech. An anti-choice activist or an activist for anti-choice causes (to use the even more formal prepositional-phrase form) advocates against abortion, but we don’t necessarily know anything about what an antichoicer does—what we know is who that person is. To return from political to ethnic examples, a Jewish man or a Jewish doctor is a man or a doctor who is Jewish, but a Jew is just Jewish—nothing else.

Savan’s column compares derogatory –er to the –gate suffix for political scandals, which has proved enduringly productive over the past three and a half decades. Whether –er achieves that kind of longevity remains to be seen. If so, it would almost surely bode poorly for the future of our democracy.

Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.


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