Words aren't all on equal footing.
There are some words that are so offensive, people participating in studies have often refused to utter them, even without offensive intent or context, says Randall Eggert, adjutant linguistics professor at the University of Utah.
The two top offenders: The "n-word" and the "c-word."
"As more and more research is being done on this, these words, psychologically, are different than any other words in the language," he says. "Just by mentioning them — they cause a real emotional effect."
Eggert acknowledged Thursday he's had difficulty using the words himself in an academic setting while teaching a course on taboo language.
His remarks came while leading a dialogue on "Writing, Racism and Taboo Language," Thursday at Salt Lake Community College's Community Writing Center. The two-day workshop is an extension of a recent Dewey Lecture at the Salt Lake Main Library by Jabari Asim on "The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, and Why."
"What we're hoping to get is a chance for people to have a dialogue about these issues of language and racism, and use their writing to better understand the topic," said Melissa Helquist, assistant director of the Community Writing Center.
A small group of participants had a dialogue on the words, their strength, meanings and intentions, before taking time to write on the topics.
The second half of the workshop next week will explore usage of taboo words, and how they can help or hurt when conveying meaning in cases such as satire or political action, Eggert said.
Some participants on Thursday questioned grey areas of meaning and context, and how to know when one is using a phrase that under some circumstances is neutral, but under others offensive. The example was given of using the term "monkey" to describe a child.
Rebecca Whipple said many people often refer to hyper children as monkeys without any derogatory context. However, Smith replied that there is a racial history to the word, so it's offensive to use "monkey" to refer to a black child.
"I'm coming from that perspective of knowing my ancestors were compared to monkeys and considered less than monkeys," she said.
Christina Smith said it's often up to the receiver of such remarks to start a dialogue, and explain the context of why offense could be taken.
Eggert pointed out, however, that it's up to the speaker to take community standards into account
He used the example of Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, who has been under fire for describing a bill as a baby that was black, dark and ugly. Then, Buttars said there was no racial undertone when he called his critics a "hate lynch mob."
"Even if we take him at his word, the fact is he got it wrong," Eggert said. "It was a very poor choice of words."