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September 10, 2012 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Slurring Your Words

On the offensive in the campaign of language reclamation



Dyke. Queer. N****r. Cunt. All words that would earn the speaker dirty looks, accusations of Tourette’s, or even physical retaliation. Recently, the phenomenon of ‘language reclamation’ has been particularly visible, thanks to things like slutwalk, the increasing recognition of LGBT rights, and the mainstreaming of the N word in popular culture. Slang once used to deliberately shame and abuse socially misfit groups has been ‘taken back’ by minorities, the purpose being that acceptance of slurs steeped in decades of intolerance can nullify their hateful intent. To advocates of appropriation, it’s not about erasing the history that bred terms like ‘fag’ and ‘dyke’, but recognising that they have the power to change meanings. 

Of course, change doesn’t happen overnight. Opponents of reclamation are often the ones who have suffered the stings of derogatory language first-hand. The psychological wounds left from years of racism/homophobia/misogyny can sometimes never heal, and to older generations who’ve battled against the tirade of slander, embracing the vitriol can be difficult to understand. Racial stereotypes for example, include layers of sinister connotations that lay within the discourses used to frame them. Guido, mammy, kike, towel head, and other ugly slurs seem to be permanent weapons of racism, seen as ‘their tools’ and ‘their words’. To the naysayers, linguistic ownership is unchangeable. Following this logic, derogatory words can, at worst, reinforce the same false tropes, repeating and perpetuating discriminatory views that could be used against the very groups trying defeat a legacy of injustice. These concerns are valid, but the aim of those who want to reclaim slurs is to take away the stigma by either neutralising its meaning, or turning the word in to something positive.

Derogatory words cause pain, and proponents of appropriation say that facing the hurt head on is the only way to make things better. If, say, ‘dyke’ is embraced for what it’s taken to mean (being a lesbian) then calling yourself a dyke entails taking ownership of your sexual status and refusing to acknowledge the homophobic intent behind people who use it as an insult. It’s not a perfect response, but is sometimes a necessary one. On that note, the issue of who uses what slurs is important. If you reclaim the word ‘bitch’, you do so with the goal of discarding its pejorative associations, and if you call a friend a ‘bitch’, you do it knowing that they share your definition of the word. The same can be said for words like ‘cunt’, and ‘n***a’, and almost any group-specific slur, because if you aren’t a member of those marginalised group, your ‘right’ to reclamation is seen as less valid.

Opponents point to this as a ‘double standard’ that reinforces the negativity of derogatory words, since they remain ‘too rude to be spoken’ by those in an ‘outsider’ group. They argue that it’s a form of social ostracism, replacing old socio-cultural divisions with new ones. Intolerant people might not be able to say ‘fag’ or ‘tranny’ in public, but they can still think it and continue its malicious objectives with other like-minded bigots. This is, however, a pessimistic view. Derogatory language is about power, and while we might not be able to eradicate bigots, reclamation is a step in the right direction, if for no other reason than it’s better than doing nothing. It’s empowering for some members of communities who’ve felt haunted by prejudice, and taken authority away from previously untouched institutions.

Nevertheless, reclamation is tricky. There are a range of social discriminations that haven’t yet been explored enough, such as physical disabilities and mental illness. The media might be on board right now, but the groups at the centre of the reclamation debates don’t have a unanimous stance on the topic. Nor should they. Language, experience, and prejudice are interconnected. They affect everyone differently, but one thing stays the same-as long as we have social intolerance, we’ll have derogatory words.


N****r: Of all the words in this article, N***** is still the one we can’t spell out, and that speaks to its inherently racial groundings. The least subjugated members of society (white, middle-class heterosexuals) can sometimes use terms like ‘cunt’ and ‘dyke’ if their motives have been ‘verified’ by the groups in question. Because the ‘N word’ relates so deeply to the experiences of one group, it’s difficult for even the most well- meaning of writers to use (such as this one). Arguably, it began the resurgence of reclaimed language, at least in popular media. It’s become a staple of ‘gritty urban’ movies and every rap song since 1990, and is often used as a term of endearment within African-American slang, yet the debate over whether this is a good thing remains hotly contested in that community. What’s interesting about the ‘N word’ is its appropriation in to other racial lexicons. It’s not unusual to find white people (typically male adolescents) using the term as a friendly way to refer to each other, without any malice aforethought as to the appropriateness of their usage.

Fag/faggot: Like the ‘N word’, this one is only considered acceptable when used by the group it was originally intended to shame— gay, or ‘effeminate’ men. Having originated as early as the 16th Century, ‘fag’ is still going strong in the homophobic stakes. It remains a popular insult among heterosexual men (and rappers) and is considered one of the most offensive slurs within the LGBT community. Though the word is slowly gaining traction with the younger generation, it has miles to go before it can disassociate itself from the heyday of sexual oppression. It’s also a favourite of the Westboro Baptist Church, and a British slang term for ‘cigarette’.

Cunt: The only word more controversial than ‘Fuck’, cunt continues to be the most offensive thing you can call a woman (as depicted in the How I Met Your Mother episode ‘How Lily Stole Christmas’). For some females, cunt is on par with asshole, not particularly offensive and without the derogatory intent. A subset of feminists who incorporate it in to everyday conversation think that regular usage is a necessary part of eroding the venom. Fun fact: you can’t wiki ‘cunt’ on University internet because of its adult/mature content’ label.

Slut: The reclamation word du jour, slut has been in the headlines recently because of the Slutwalk movement and the accompanying media breakthrough. The positive thing about the term is that it’s made victim-blaming and rape culture a talking point again, and in shining a spotlight on those important issues, age-old societal beliefs are slowly being challenged.

Fat: ‘Fat’ is a tricky one since it’s also an acceptable clinical term. Additionally, it’s most likely to be the first stigma people experience or the first insult they hurl on the playground. Despite being seen as the ‘lesser’ term on this list, the negative connotations associated with fatness are so socially accepted that many still refuse the need to even reclaim the term. While some people want to strip away the standards that lead to the equation of ‘fat’ with ‘undesirable’, advocates of fat acceptance want to own their larger shapes as a symbol of self- love and beauty. The movement is small, but growing.


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