This got me thinking of "innocuous slurs". There are many slurs that are simply slurs; they are always insulting, regardless of the context, and have no other uses. But there are a lot of other words which are only slurs when used in a certain way in a certain context. They have other meanings, and they are generally "innocuous" when used with these meanings. Obviously, these types of slurs are going to be the trickiest for learners, since the insulting meanings are often unpredictable and specific to particular contexts. You have to know something about the culture and even the relationships of the speakers to know whether they're being used as slurs and not as ordinary words.
Because of its long history of white supremacy, the USA has a lot of these terms related to race. After blatant slurs became uncommon in "polite society", coded terms started to come into use. Here's a sampling:
- In some dialects of American English "you people" is an ordinary informal second-person plural. But in the US South, where "y'all" is the usual plural form used, "you people" has racial overtones when used by a person of one race to members of another.
- It's common in many languages to compare active children to "apes" or "monkeys". But because of an ugly history of racist caricature equating Blacks with primates, these terms are highly offensive when applied to Black children, even accidentally (e.g. when describing a mixed-race group of children).
- "Thug" can be used generically in American English to refer to brutish, intimidating men. (E.g. "hired thug", someone paid to threaten someone else with physical violence.) But due to coded usage over the years (e.g. "inner-city thugs"), it's become increasingly racialised, carrying the implication that all Black men are intimidating and dangerous. (When Trump recently referred to protesters in Minneapolis as "these THUGS", it was widely interpreted as a coded racist reference or "dog whistle".)
- The dictionary definition of "articulate" when applied to people is "speaking in a clear and effective manner". However, since white folks have a common stereotype of Blacks as uneducated and hard-to-understand, using it to describe a Black person who speaks without a stereotypical "Blaccent" is considering condescending at best.
- On the subject of speech, men have often described women as "shrill" when they wish to be dismissive of their opinions and their willingness to voice them, to the point that this is no longer a neutral description of the tone of a person's voice.