Tuesday, March 10, 2009


pejoration [pej-uh-RAY-shən]
n. 1. depreciation; degradation; a lessening in worth, quality, etc.; 2. Historical Linguistics: semantic change in a word to a lower, less approved, or less respectable meaning

[Derives from Latin pēior ("worse")]

If you know Spanish, you know the word peor ("worse"), which of course is directly related to the English pejoration and the more common pejorative. Nobody in normal discourse uses pejoration to mean a decline in quality. If a house or car or any other asset has started to wear out, we describe that as depreciation. If less tangible assets, such as the environment or the quality of life have become worse, more polluted or less accommodating, we describe that as degradation. Yet, pejoration is a perfectly acceptable synonym for either of these and literally means the same thing in each case.

Where pejoration is more often used is in its technical linguistic sense -- the process by which the meaning of a word becomes negative or less elevated over a period of time. Silly, for example, used to mean "deserving sympathy, helpless or simple." It evolved over time to mean "showing a lack of good sense, frivolous." Hussy originally meant "housewife" but in time came to mean "a lewd woman." While bitch still means "a female canine," it evolved pejoratively to also mean "a shrew."

In linguistics, the opposite of pejoration is amelioration, where a word which once was negative or neutral takes on a more positive or at least less negative meaning. Mischievous, for example, evolved from "disastrous" to "playfully annoying." The physicist who coined the term "Big Bang" did so to disparage that theory. However, in time, Big Bang ameliorated into the accepted term by scientists who believe that was how our universe originated.

In a recent article in the Boston Globe, Erin McKean argues that bonus ("a good thing") is now undergoing pejoration. She says, "Recent events in the financial world have tinged the word with a hint of wrongdoing. To listen to the breathless speechifying on the subject, both in Congress and the talk shows, you'd think accepting a bonus were somehow shady, or even villainous. ... President Obama called the bonus payouts at banks receiving federal bailouts 'shameful' earlier this month, and Congress jumped on the bad-bonus bandwagon by limiting bonuses for executives at any financial institution receiving government funds."

McKean continues on the subject of pejoration:
English is littered with examples of words whose meanings were once positive - or at least neutral - which have turned negative through popular use. The process even has a name, "pejoration" (from a Latin word meaning "make worse"). Grumble, for instance, used to be synonymous with mumble, without a hint of discontentedness. A wench was once any girl; an idiot was at one time just an uneducated person, not one who couldn't be educated; and if you called someone sly, you meant they were skilled and clever. (It happens with names, too: Mickey Mouse is both a beloved cartoon character and a way to call something trifling or small-time.) It's too early to tell if this will happen to bonus, but it's certainly possible.

As a synonym for disparaging ("belittling; discrediting"), pejorative is much more commonly used in speech and writing than pejoration. A pejorative term implies contempt or disapproval. Opponents of the Iraq War, for example, used "neocon" as a pejorative in reference to that war's advocates. Yet self-described "neoconservatives" don't take that word to be an insult. In many instances, particularly with political labels, the terms can have a neutral or positive sense -- as when a person on the left uses the term liberal -- or a pejorative sense, as when Rush Limbaugh derides liberals. When you call someone a racist or an asshole, those are obviously pejorative. What differentiates them is that they don't have a neutral or positive sense, except when a person is intentionally being ironic.

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