Many entertainment properties have their own proprietary swears. Battlestar Galactica has “frack”, Firefly has “gorram,” and so on. Most of these seem to have been invented primarily to get around the censors. There’s another reason swears are invented in fictional worlds, though, and the Bladerunner movies exemplify it: the slurs that exist in a world tell us a lot about the world. Don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil the new Bladerunner for you. All I want to talk about is the word “skinjob.”

Skinjob is a slur used by humans in both movies as a pejorative term for androids (though not, interestingly, by the characters in the book. In the book, androids are referred to as “andys”). It’s a very satisfying word on a morphological level. It evokes words like “rimjob” and “nutjob” while managing to be even easier to pronounce thanks to the “nj” compound at its center. “Skin” evokes carnality in a way that suggest obscenity without actually using it, thus placating the censors. On top of that, skinjob is an especially ironic epithet because it could just as easily apply to humans as replicants, subtly reinforcing the theme of human/android duality that lies at the center of Bladerunner. This word is doing a lot of work, basically.

The fact that “skinjob” exists as a slur tells us a lot about how humans view replicants in this future dystopia. Slurs are a type of language meant to abuse and dehumanize. But replicants, we’re told, are not human. How can you dehumanize something that isn’t human? We don’t have slurs for giraffes or dolphins, and we certainly don’t have slurs for microwaves (unless you count “hunk of junk”). “Skinjob”, then, humanizes replicants in order to dehumanize them. It speaks to the very human tendency to assign human motivations even to things they’re certain aren’t human, and then to immediately hate those things for being too human.

More broadly, slurs in fiction tell us which groups are oppressed, and by whom. They make us reflect on the divisions in our own world. What’s more, they provide another level of abuse that powerful, callous characters can inflict on the less powerful. Because, as a rule, the more targeted a swear is, the more personal, the more viscerally offensive it is. That’s why we often attach adjectives to words like “motherfucker” and “asshole”; it’s not that the words themselves aren’t powerful, it’s that they aren’t specific enough. This is the terrible power of slurs – they attempt to reduce a person to some accident of anatomy or culture, and to completely capture that identity inside one word. They are a way of saying, “you are such a foul being that I have invented word just for people like you.” Slurs are a form of evil magic – a spell we all have access to, and should never cast. But we can learn a lot, in fiction, from watching others cast the spell.