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.