Whether framed as complaints about cancel culture or as increased awareness of prejudice, stories about offensive language are common in our daily news cycle. In On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present (Cambridge UP, 2020), linguist Karen Stollznow explores the history of language that offends, including talk about race and ethnicity, gender, religion, mental health, physical appearance, and age. Her book tells the origin story of how terms come to have the power to offend. It also investigates the euphemism treadmill, the phenomenon of offensive terms being replaced with new, neutral terms which eventually become offensive as well. Despite the large number of terms the book deals with, she argues that it isn’t impossible to keep track of what’s offensive and what isn’t. By explaining the background to our language and its implications for the lived experiences of human beings, Stollznow hopes the book will enable its readers to examine their own language and its power—for harm and for good.
Malcolm Keating is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Yale-NUS College. His research focuses on Sanskrit philosophy of language and epistemology. He is the author of Language, Meaning, and Use in Indian Philosophy (Bloomsbury Press, 2019) and host of the podcast Sutras (and stuff).
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