When I type pejorative, I must consciously stop my left forefinger from dropping down on the r key after my middle finger taps the e. When I hear it spoken, it’s often unclear whether there is an r sound at the end of the first syllable.
I’m not alone in this confusion. Message boards are full of perjorative in relation to the controversy over the name of the Washington, D.C., NFL football team. The Sydney Morning Herald printed perjorative twice last month. Perhaps Australian Attorney General George Brandis pronounced the nonexistent r in the word when he was discussing whether the government should refer to East Jerusalem as “disputed” or “occupied.” Subsequent stories by different reporters used the perjorative spelling.
The word can be a noun or adjective, referring to a word that is used in a negative or derogatory way. Confusion might come because pejorative reminds us of perjury. The words are not related, but both are negative and refer to something spoken.
Perjury begins with a prefix, but pejorative does not. The per– that starts perjury is not the more common per- that means “through,” as in perforation, and which gives us the standalone per (which in turn gave us the prefix form we use in percent). Perjury’s per- is a prefix that means “to ill effect,” as used in pervert.
The Latin pejor means “make worse.” Pejorative is a late 18th century borrowing from French, which has pejoratif with the same meaning.
There is also a verb form, pejorate, which predates the noun and adjective form. Feel free to play pejorate in Scrabble this weekend for at least 17 points.
Other forms that are not, unfortunately, in the Official Scrabble Dictionary: pejorism, a belief that the world is becoming worse, and pejorist, one who subscribes to that belief.
One way to remember the spelling and avoid the r is to think of the previously more common pronunciation, with a long e, as peejorative.