Choking on our words…


This post will, by necessity, contain words which people may find hurtful and/or offensive. It’s fairly impossible to discuss the politics of word reclamation without using those words, so if you are someone who is offended by seeing those words in print, then don’t read this post.

One of my more unfortunate nicknames in high school was feminazi; a name I was proud of earning but did not like in and of itself.  I had an impossibly high soapbox that I was in continuous danger of falling from.  Simply put, my  arms were full with so many social concerns and I was making a constant effort to share the load with my fellow classmates.  I abhorred non-inclusive language, vulgar terminology, offensive jokes.  I was also very vocal about my abhorrence; I suppose making me a less entertaining classmate.

Those who know me now may not believe it but I really have tempered since my high school days.  I don’t feel the need to follow every joke with a personal critique or “dressing-down” but, truthfully, I am no more comfortable with these things as I was a decade ago.  I certainly haven’t seen enough change in our society to justify behavior that wasn’t appropriate ten years ago.  A part of me even feels shamed by my failure to shine light on this issues.  I don’t want a well-meaning attempt to make others more comfortable to turn into a silent approval of something I know is wrong.

Are you familiar with the concept of reclaiming words?  Reclaiming language is a deliberate attempt to take an offensive word and claim it, giving it a new definition.  I unknowingly did it myself as a teen.  I was very fond of the word Bitch.  I had a binder covered in flashy Bitch stickers I had proudly purchased at stores such as Claire’s (who decided this was an appropriate product to sell to teens?).

These stickers turned the word into an acronym for empowering phrases like  “Babe In Total Control of Herself” or said something along the lines of “You Say I’m A Bitch Like It’s A Bad Thing”. I don’t think I fully understood what I was saying at the time.  We all took it as a titillating justification to say a naughty word.  It allowed young feminists such as myself to revel in the fact that we were female and believed ourselves powerful and capable. We made it our word.

I made the same fumbling attempt at reclaiming the word Spic.

Spic is an ugly racial slur for Latinos; many believe it originated as a shortened version of the word Hispanic or as a reference to the way Latinos speak English (accents sounding like ‘I don spik inglish’ instead of ‘I don’t speak English’).

If someone flung that particular epithet at us we would come back with, “That’s right! A Spanish Person In Charge!”.  Funnily enough, this is the same word that led to me getting into a fight with a fellow Latina who threw it at me during an argument.  Looking back, I can see the obvious absurdity in trying to reclaim the word one minute and seeing it as the catalyst for a fight the next.

Girls of this generation are doing the same thing with words like slut and whore.  Don’t you cringe a little just reading them?  I cringed typing them out and If I tried to apply such a word to one of my girlfriends I would surely find myself choking from the awkwardness of addressing women I respect in such a fashion.

I do believe there was some validity to my juvenile attempt at word reclamation.  There is a sincere effort to move past the vulgarity of a word by reclaiming it but a greater part of me leans toward the argument against reclamation.

A blogger from FEMINSTE.US put it very well…

“Now, it’s possible to argue–and many people do–that reclamation is an impossible project.  This position usually goes something like, The dominant cultural meaning is so pervasive that no marginalized group can hope to supplant it through satirical revision, which is both subtle and dependent on the awareness of the audience. Some people who hold this position also argue that reclamation makes condemnation more difficult–in other words, that we cannot prohibit an epithet and allow it to be common at the same time. These arguments distinguish between simple and sarcastic intention if not interpretation.

I can’t stress that last distinction enough. Like I said: in order to even pretend to reclaim a word, you have to use it differently. You cannot use it as it has traditionally been used. If you do, you are not attacking but supporting the hateful ideas implicit in the original. I know it sounds straightforward, but a lot of people get confused.

I could not agree more with the sentiment expressed in the last paragraph.  It’s those very actions that led me to writing this post.

Several times in the last few weeks I have heard the words gay and retarded tossed about among my friends.

“that’s so gay..”

“Oh my gosh. What a retard!”

My response?  By Gay I assume you mean stupid?  When you say Retarded I believe you meant to express something more like dumb or foolish?  We’re all intelligent, fairly compassionate people.  Why not use another word?  One that actually means what you are trying to say.  Our language is so rich

How about brainless, foolish, dopey, dull, idiotic, nonsensical, obtuse, simple, witless, ludicrous, and moronic  to begin with?

Issues with actual word reclamation aside, if you are not a part of a community to whom that word has been ascribed and you are using it in a different but still derogatory context… you are a part of the problem!  We could be a part of the solution.

Some are reading this and thinking, “Why would you let it bother you so much? You know what they mean. Pointing it out only creates an awkward situation. And no one likes it when people create awkward situations.”

Sometimes you need to be over-sensitive to make other people sensitive. Sure, it will create an awkward situation but if no one does anything to stop what offends not only me but others around them, then it just continues to be passed down to further generations, and continues offending others anyway.  Even when i know what they mean, why use the phrase?


4 thoughts on “Choking on our words…

  1. I enjoyed this comment from Emi (posted on the Facebook link to this blogpost)

    “Wish I could like this 10X. You sound exactly like me in high school, not surprised of course. Learning to ignore these things has taken time… It makes me sad to think that I can hear “retard” and not be set off into a moral outrage. The upsetting idea is that there are no male equivalents, or that the ones that do exist are so much less offensive and demeaning. What’s the alternative to c**t? Dick? Yeah… Not quite the same effect.”

    • My reply to Emi…

      Very true. Sadly, the use of the C-word is becoming more prevalent among the younger generation. I found that really disturbing. It was one word I wasn’t even comfortable writing in this post.

      Yeah, “moral outrage” doesn’t always make us the most popular person in the room but I was disappointed in myself to realize how much quieter I am in my outrage. I think I’d rather be loud and unpopular when it comes to these issues.

  2. I’m somewhat torn here. On the one hand, I feel like our society becomes more and more uptight, more and more senstive each and every day. For example, at my new job, when I went through sexual harassment training, it was made clean that a simple pat on the back or shoulder is harassment and that even if you don’t offend the person being patted, someone could see it and find it offensive, and therefor, the harassment occurred. When you live in a society that is so hypersensitive to wrds, actions, opionions, thoughts, etc, I think it causes a breakdown. Is it even okay to shake a stranger’s hand anymore?

    When we get caught up in words, we give power to the user. If you’re going to get offended by c*nt, c*ck, the n word (okay, even I cannot bring myself to say it or type it, with the exception of singing along with a song or two maybe), and on and on, then you’ve allowed that person to hurt you. True, spic isn’t a nice word, and I cannot think of many contexts where it wouldn’t be offensive, unless you choose to not allow it to be. Should I, an overweight person, be offended if someone uses the word fat negatively? How about when a black person says that white people don’t have rhythm?

    I do think that when a group takes a word (n word prime example) and inserts it into 50% of rap music, uses it to describe their homies, use it to describe the bad seeds in their circles, etc, it creates ambiguity. What it doesn’t do is take that power away. If I walk up to an African American and says “what’s up my negro?” I’m as likely to get punched as I am to get met with anything other than a smile. What constant use does is say “this word isn’t bad, unless you, a non African American uses it, which then makes you a bad person.”

    While I choose not to use it, or fag, or spic, or on and on, because I have an advanced vocabulary, I also will point out that just because I’m white or a male doesn’t mean that I had anything to do with any of the previously mentioned words, and have done little, if anything to perpetuate their use or standing. I do find it irritating to watch our society get more and more out of control in the realm of political correctness. You cannot even criticize our current president without being called racist by some (despite having campaigned for and voted for said president).

    • I’m sorry Joey! I thought I replied to this and I haven’t been back to my blog in weeks.

      I absolutely understand your concern regarding the possibility of hypersensitivity. Especially when absurd rules are being set such as the ones in your office.

      I promise, if you ever pat me on the back I will resist the urge to sue.

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