AI: Reclaiming Words


There are certain words you would think twice about before saying. Words that everyone knows are ‘bad’ words, and rightly so, as they have been used to marginalise, ridicule and hurt any minority group you can think of. Words that I’m sure you will all agree should not be taken lightly when used against anyone.

And yet, it seems like more and more, words are being reclaimed by the very groups they are intended to marginalise. The idea is that by using these words in a positive light, as a way of affirmation, it diffuses and disarms the impact of those words. The recent SlutWalk rallies would be the most recent example of this attempt, although it was argued that while that was one aspect of the rally, their main point was to take the onus away from the victims of rape, and placing it where it rightly belongs, on the perpetrators themselves.

While many embrace the reclamation of words, there are some who don’t see it as very empowering. A comment made in a post I was reading on this subject (the commenter’s name is Stina and can be found a few posts down) throws light on some of the problems arising from the perceived reclamation of words without thought to their context and intent. I believe that it is those two things that should be thought about first when using such words. Many people within a friend group or tightly-knit community may be comfortable with using a particular word around each other for the purposes of reclamation, but that does not mean that everyone who could be affected by that same word would think the same way, or would be affected the same way. Which is why I think thinking twice about a word just may not be enough.

What do you think about reclaiming words? Is it always productive to do so? Is there a word you have reclaimed for yourself and/or your peers?

The Afternoon Inqueery (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Queereka community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays at 3pm ET.

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  1. great question! i wonder about this myself sometimes. i like the idea of reclaiming terms, but it’s so hard to gauge the impact and force your words will have. i think we can agree as a general principle that it’s almost never appropriate that terms of abuse be used by anyone but members of those groups they were designed to hurt (for instance, as a trans-masculine person i’m pretty sold on not using the word “tr*nny” as it’s predominantly been used against transfeminine folks).

    but i still wonder… is it ever appropriate for someone who doesn’t actually identify with some identity but is often perceived to be of that identity, or has been a target of abuse based on that perception, to reclaim terms? can terms ever be de-fused to a point of normalcy where they can be used more broadly without any stigma being attached to them or offense being caused by them?

  2. Thanks for bringing this up. I’ve thought about this a lot myself, and in general I’m a big believer in word reclamation as a general principle. To respond to @awkwardturtles, I think “queer” is a very good example of a word that has more or less overcome its history to the point where most queer people don’t find it offensive, even when used by non-queer people.

    That said, I don’t think word reclamation is that effective on its own in fighting injustice, prejudice, or stigma for a variety of reasons. There is a well established linguistic phenomenon whereby euphemisms come to be tainted by the concept they reference and must be replaced by a new one. Stephen Pinker calls it the “euphemism treadmill,” but one could just as easily call it euphemism decay. A good example of this is water closet->toilet->washroom->facilities. Sometimes the rate of change or choice of substitution can be different in different places.

    This kind of thing also happens for marginalised groups, when the word becomes tainted by its use by oppressors. For example, negro/nigger->coloured->black->african american->person of colour/visible minorty (these last being broader in scope) or crippled->handicapped->disabled->differently abled, and many more. So long as the group in question is marginalised or oppressed, this kind of euphemistic decay will always happen (like “gay” becoming an insult, even though it was coined as a euphemism).

    To an extent, the only service the treadmill can provide is as a kind of political shibboleth that demonstrates a person’s awareness of the current preferred term and their desire to use it. This of course doesn’t always say much about the person’s thoughts on oppression or status as an ally to said groups.

    The idea behind reclaiming is to remove the power from words historically used to oppress, but this is unlikely to remove the underlying feelings on the part of the speaker. At best, it will halt euphemistic decay and remove discursive shibboleths, thereby forcing people to engage with the concepts and mechanics of oppression rather than use of terminology. However, it is likely that widespread adoption of negative terms as neutral vocabulary would lead to a similar dysphemism treadmill that outpaces attempts to reclaim. That is, so long as the group remains marginalised, opressors will always come up with new derogatory terms to denegrate it.

    There are only three things about a dysphemism treadmill that make it superior to a euphemism treadmill:

    1) Using a new dysphemism would show intent to discriminate rather than a lack of awareness of the new preferred euphemism.

    2) Activist groups are less likely to reclaim words newly coined with the specific intention of persecution or marginalisation.

    3) Works from the past using the neutral language of the period will be less likely to be misunderstood as being oppressive. However, using oppressive language of the period might be missed if the terms have lost this connotation due to reclamation.

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