What’s really in a name?

My friends, I’m a bit confused about something, and I’m really hoping you can help me.

Linguistics is my passion. Although I got a degree in English Lit from university, I really want to go back one day and get a Linguistics degree. Words intrigue me: their origins, their spellings, their meanings. Sounds change, spelling is altered and meanings shift over time. Someone asked me once why certain words become known as swear words. I explained to them that some of these words were at one point, just descriptive words, in their country of origin. Somewhere along the way, another word was used to describe the same thing, and the first word became a less desirable one to use. Hence, swear words. http://newsfeed.time.com/2013/04/10/nine-things-you-probably-didnt-know-about-swear-words/ (#3 gives a good example of this).

The whole idea of word meanings that morph is what brings me here today. Because you see, I’m wondering about how some words have bad meanings and yet people embrace them? Bear with me.

Let’s take a word that ignites people: the “N” word. For those who may be reading this outside of North America and may not be familiar with this term….and because we’re all grown folk, I’ll make it plain: Nigger. As a child I was fully aware that this was not a nice word. Actually, it was an awful word, devastating to the heart and mind. For hundreds of years this word has been used to subdue and strike fear in the hearts of millions of blacks around the world, any place where slavery was present, and in post slavery years. It has not ever, nor can I ever foresee a time in which it will have a good meaning.

I like rap and hip-hop. But I don’t like the use of this word in the songs I listen to. I don’t like the fact that young black men use this word when greeting each other. “Wuzzup, mah niggah!” When I hear it, I cringe! I want to ask if they realize how many of their fore-fathers and mothers died trying to face down the shame that this word carried? How they whispered in their children’s ears while they slept, “You’re just as good as every body else…you have a right to be here…black is beautiful…”.

And while I’m trying to process this, my mind goes on to ponder the righteous indignation these same people feel when whites use the word in the same way. I don’t get it…if you want to take this word and try to infuse it with goodness when you use it, why is it so bad for your white friends to do the same?

I have the same question about such words as “slut” and “fat”. Perhaps its because I’m from a different generation (born at the tail end of the 60’s). Raised with the knowledge that certain words are good, and others are bad and never the twain shall meet. The mental image I have when a girl in my class was called a slut doesn’t go away when I see women marching on Parliament Hill in a Slut Walk. Is it possible that language change has taken this word and given it a fresh coat of paint, making it a brand new shade of acceptable?

And ‘fat’. A word I am also familiar with. Never meant anything good. In my head it summed up all that was undesirable; it implied laziness and lack of control. At no point in all my time on this planet have I ever heard it used in a uplifting manner. Fat people should be ashamed. But I see it used now as in ‘Fatshonista’ and ‘Fatabulous’, in a effort to shed a positive light on those who aren’t and may never be the slim, trim version of woman-hood the world has come to expect us all to be.

I can’t speak from experience on this one, but I am very much aware of the LGBT (forgive me if I’ve missed a letter) community re-claiming the words ‘Queer’ and ‘Dyke’ in much the same way. Taking that which those who hate you have used against you, and turning it around. Perhaps its a way of saying, If I call myself this name, then you can’t hurt me with it.

I’m intrigued, my friends, truly. And I would love to hear back from you on this one.


About Bella

I've reached my 40's with a few battle scars, but I'm still in one piece so I guess that's something to be thankful for. Married for a long time...well, what passes for long compared to many of my other friends. Almost 20 years. 3 kids: a teen and two tweens. Heaven help me! There's a lot about me to know but I always think that others won't find me interesting, isn't that sad? Writing is my passion. It's an outlet; it's a way to filter my world and the experiences I have. Blogging was a foreign concept to me when it first came out. But I GET IT now. It's therapeutic to unload. It's fun to read about the experiences of others. This is my way of meeting and greeting, overcoming the obstacles of time and distance. My hope is that you will stop and read my blog. That you will enjoy what I have to say, and we can have a chat. You're welcome anytime!
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9 Responses to What’s really in a name?

  1. What you describe here is oppressed groups of people reclaiming slurs. It is very much meant to disarm a word that has been used as a weapon against these folks, be they People of Color, LGBTQ folks or women.

    So, I can’t necessarily speak to the reclamation of the “N” word because that is not my place as a white person, but as a person who identifies specifically as Queer, I can give you some perspective on that.

    Queer means “different” or “strange” in much the same way that gay means “happy” and yes, it has been used for many years as a slur against gay men, lesbians, and trans* folk of all stripes but that’s precisely why we use it. You hit the nail on the head with “Taking that which those who hate you have used against you, and turning it around.” Oppressors will not disarm themselves, so we must disarm them. We take the words they use from them and use them for ourselves. More than that, however, it is not enough for me to call myself “gay” because I’m not. I’m a non-binary trans* person who was assigned female at birth and my sexuality, along with my gender, is fluid. The word “gay” specifically refers to males and has nothing to do with gender identity. “Queer,” however, is all-inclusive and is, for that reason, used as an umbrella term to refer to a number of different sexualities and identities.

    Here is a link to the Queer Nation Manifesto which was distributed at a Pride parade in New York in 1999 (I think?). It’s a bit outdated and not totally inclusive of trans* folks, but it does have an entire segment on “Why Queer?” if you would like a more fleshed out explanation: http://www.sterneck.net/gender/queer-manifesto/index.php

    • Bella says:

      Thank you belladonnaqquixote….for stopping by, and for enlightening me.
      I realized after i’d posted, that i’d actually answered my own question. It was always my reaction to run away from hurtful words, it never occurred to me that taking it and re-working it would be to my advantage. In truth, I still don’t think it would work for me, but I have a better understanding of how others benefit from it.
      One question….what does non-binary mean?

      • Non-binary means that I don’t identify as either male or female, despite being born assigned female. I consider myself of the third gender (which patriarchy would have us believe doesn’t exist) and identify to others as genderqueer. I prefer gender-neutral pronouns, such as the singular “they/them/their”.

        The gist of it is that gender, sex, and sexuality are separate things and none of them are binary – there is always a neutral place in-between and that is where I fit.

  2. I meant to use the word spectrum in their somewhere – gender and sexuality are spectrums, not binaries – there are countless different identities between cis and trans or gay and straight

    • Bella says:

      Wow. It all sounds very complex, and i’m viewing this from the outside. How did you (or have you) come to grips with it all? Knowing this is who you are, and then trying to explain it to friends and loved ones.

      • That is a very difficult question to answer. I have gotten eye-rolls when I’ve tried to explain it and, having been an English Major in college, many of my other English Major friends have fought me on my pronouns because it’s apparently grammatically incorrect (though the singular use of “they” is absolutely acceptable when a third party’s gender is unknown). Very few people even accept it as a thing which is bothersome but not surprising. My parents semi-acknowledge that I’m trans* but have no idea what it means, nor to they show a particular interest in trying to understand it unfortunately but I did get my mom to stop bitching about how I don’t shave. I have to take my small victories where I can get them, I guess.

        In general, it’s not an easy life. I haven’t begun transition yet, partly because I’m afraid of what testosterone will do to me on a personal level and partly because of what my parents will think (which is stupid, I’ll grant, but whatever else they are, they’re still my parents). The transition thing is an issue because it contributes to my dysphoria – it hurts to be perceived as female, often because it’s very akin to being perceived as a juicy steak which is uncomfortable in itself, but mostly because it’s not what I am.

        What it really comes down to is that I’m not often taken seriously in my identity and that makes me feel unsafe and alone. It’s something I’m not alone in, there are millions of folks who feel the same way and I have the good fortune to live with one and to be attempting to build a local community in my town and increase LGBTQ visibility on the whole – St. Augustine if full of us Queers and nobody seems to notice. I mean to put an end to that.

        Sorry for the emotion dump >.<' it's hard to talk about this without doing that sometimes.

      • Bella says:

        Oh good heavens, don’t apologize! If there’s one thing I’ve learned I’m life, it’s that everyone has a story and has a right to tell it. I appreciate the fact that you have allowed me a peek inside your world. And if nothing else, we have this is common: issues with parents 🙂

      • Thank you so much for being open-minded and understanding. It is not often that people are genuinely interested and ask legitimate questions. 🙂

      • Bella says:

        The pain and struggle of the journey of self discovery and self acceptance is a long and hard one. And its universal. I may not be dealing with what you’re dealing with, but Ive got things in my life that are hard to sort out, partly because of my inner dialogue and partly because of my fears about other people not accepting my views and opinions (parents and extended family for example).
        I started watching Eat Pray Love, you know, the Julia Roberts movie, last night. And so much of what the character was struggling with like deciding to leave an unhappy marriage to pursue her dreams…getting out of your comfort zone in order to find true hapiness. Even if it means shaking everybody else up….I GET that. And I get that life can be so much better if we try to understand each other. Just LISTEN to each other.
        Ok that was a crazy long response lol!

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