Take Two: Words We Cannot Say…Except When We Can

I am a sucker for an online linguistic survey. Recently, I saw a tweet about this survey,  being done by a PhD student in Helsinki, about attitudes towards offensive language in English. I jumped right on it.

It then got me thinking about this post that I wrote over two years ago (originally published on 10 June 2012). Here it is, with some minor edits, but still with no pictures.

Read, comment, then go take the survey!

On 23 July 2009, Henry Louis Gates was arrested on his own porch in Cambridge, MA for disorderly conduct. A neighbor thought he had been breaking in, the police were called, and then, though Dr.Gates’ identity and residence status had been confirmed, he was arrested. Judging from all reports and comments by people who would understand far better than me, the incident was an unfortunate case of wounded pride on both sides. I come to that conclusion, of course, having no personal knowledge of the events nor the potential lingering racial issues that may or may not have led up to the arrest.

Imagine my surprise when I came out from under my rock to realize that I had just taught to my Freshman Composition students an essay written by Dr.Gates entitled “What’s in a Name.”  Although perfectly aware of the Cambridge incident, I had somehow failed to link the name from the news story to the name of the author of the essay in my writing textbook. In this essay, he describes an incident from his childhood about seeing a white man respectfully use the derogatory term “George” to address the author’s father at a drug store fountain shop.

The first thing that confused my students was the term “George” as a racial slur. Granted, it was before my time, but I figured it would be the same idea as assigning one name to every man of that race in order to dehumanize them, show that they were all the same – interchangeable and expendable. The second thing I thought of, of course, was how George Foreman named all 5 of his sons George. Is he old enough to have experienced this racial slur? Is this his way of reclaiming the pejorative term in a way to wrest power from those who have traditionally been in control of naming? Or was he just being utterly narcissistic?

There were other terms in the quote given at the start of the Gates essay. I couldn’t even bring myself to say most of them out loud. It wasn’t only that I would have been slightly embarrassed to say, for example, the term “spear chucker” in front of my black students. Mostly, I felt unable to even make the sounds with my mouth because it’s been so ingrained over the course of my entire life that these terms made people feel bad. I don’t like making people feel bad and so I’ve developed such an emotional response to racial slurs that I can’t even mention them.

However, as is the case with many curse words, it is incredibly awkward to write even a half-way decent discussion of racial slurs without actually mentioning the words. For this reason, I will force myself to type the words in question in order to have an honest and open exploration of what the terms may have become.

There is a phenomenon of minorities taking control over terms that had previously been used to denigrate them and their lower social status in the majority culture. Often, these reclaimed words are ascribed new meanings, or at least meanings that are more skewed to the positive than the negative. “Queer” and “fag” are perfect examples. Of course they can still be used in an insulting way, but they are just as often used within the gay community with either positive or negative connotations. The words are not used to describe sexual ‘perversion’, but rather certain characteristics or personality traits.

Interestingly enough, it seems that it is being used differently in heterosexual communities as well, often meaning a jerk or a loser, which is still negative, of course, but is no longer associated with sexuality. But it is still the gay community that is reasserting control over the terms that have previously denigrated them. In 2007, the group Dykes on Bikes even defeated a legal action that objected to the trade-marking of the name, referring specifically to the use of the traditionally pejorative ‘dyke’ in their name. In fact, the legal action was initiated by a man, who felt that the term was offensive to men. This indeed borders on the absurd.

Also, women have taken on the word “bitch”. We all know what a bitch is: a mean, selfish woman who doesn’t care about anyone else as long as she gets what she wants. It’s even become a verb, ‘to bitch’, meaning to complain loudly about something.  Then women started to reinvent the word. I haven’t been able to find who said it first, but the term has been said to be an acronym for ‘babe in total control of herself.’ As contrived as this may be, the point is still a shift towards a positive meaning.

It’s often been said that aggressive behaviors in men are perceived as confidence whereas the same behaviors in women are overbearing and ‘bitchy’. Rather than come up with a different word, however, why not just take ‘bitchy’ and make it positive? Thus we have Bitch magazine, started in 1996. There’s Meredith Brooks’ song “Bitch” from 1997, although to be fair, this seems less about reinventing the word itself as it does about embracing the idea that a woman can be, amongst other things, a bitch but this just makes her a complex person. Being a ‘bitch’ isn’t all what she was. A woman cannot be defined by only one term. The point is that the groups in question are claiming control of what connotations and uses these terms now have.

Even Native Americans have chimed in on the process of reclamation. What these groups have in common is that they are making the argument that the power is not in the word itself but in the intention behind the utterances of those words. The word itself is just an arbitrary arrangement of sounds that, in and of itself, doesn’t signify anything at all. Words need intention and context to give them life. A man calling a woman a ‘bitch’ in order to make her feel powerless gives the word a negative meaning, while two good female friends playfully calling each other ‘bitch’ shows their power to control the intention and, ultimately, the life of that word. It makes perfect sense that a group of people should have control over how they are named. The problem is when the group itself can’t agree. Context is important, but not only the current situation is in play when reclaiming power over language. Historical contexts still come into play.

In a 1968 essay, sociolinguist John Gumperz  discusses speech communities:

Regardless of the linguistic differences between them, the speech varieties employed within a speech community for a system because they are related to a shared set of social norms. Hence, they can be classified according to their usage, their origins, and the relationship between speech and social action that they reflect. They become indices of social patterns of interaction in the speech community.” (1) 

In other words, language helps to define group identity. The language is agreed upon based on shared background, experiences, values, ethnicity, or interests. Whatever else holds that community together, language is one of the most visible indicators of who belongs to that community and who does not.

Gumperz continues:

Social norms of language choice vary from situation to situation and from community to community. Regularities in attitudes to particular speech varieties, however, recur in a number of societies and deserve special comment here. Thieves’ argot, gang jargons, and the like serve typically as group boundary maintaining mechanisms, whose linguistic characteristics are the result of informal group consensus and are subject to continual change in response to changing attitudes. Individuals are accepted as members of the group to the extent that their usage conforms to the practices of the day.” (1) 

Not only do group members identify each other through language, but the community uses language to separate itself from the wider society in which it operates. It defines boundaries, shows who belongs and who doesn’t.

This brings me to another word that is being reclaimed, or at least reinvented. Many years ago in Pittsburgh, a small and quiet Japanese student of mine asked me to help figure out how she could appropriately use the phrase, “Fuck you, nigger.” She had passed two black men on the street and heard one say that to the other in a clearly playful, joking way because they were both laughing and friendly with each other. I somehow was able to convey the idea that it was a cultural term that was okay for black men to use with each other but a little Japanese woman shouldn’t ever use the term. She seemed to accept this with no problem, though I was left wondering about it for years afterwards.

There is disagreement over the use of ‘nigger.’ Bill Cosby is famously against it, as are many other prominent black celebrities and politicians. Richard Pryor, who even titled his comedy albums things like “That Nigger’s Crazy” and “Bicentennial Nigger”, then swore after a trip to Africa in 1979 that he would never use that word in his comedy again.

It has, however, become increasingly visible as high profile rappers, hip-hop artists, comedians, and film makers are saying it freely and often.  And Gloria Naylor, author of, amongst other things, The Women of Brewster Place, writes about her positive experience of the word:

In the singular, the word was always applied to a man who had distinguished himself in some situation that brought their approval for his strength, intelligence, or drive.” (2) It also was a term of endearment amongst family members, though in the plural, it meant “some group within the community that had overstepped the bounds of decency as my family defined it.” (2)

Much more has been written about this word – this book, for example – than I could ever hope to cover in this essay.

I believe the key word here is “community.” Outsiders, such as myself, cannot determine if those who are using the word are doing so in a new and powerful way, or are denigrating the memory of when that word was used as an expression of hate and disrespect and forgetting the pain that was caused by it. It is not my place to judge. I also feel it is not my place to declare the end of the word ‘nigger’, however well-intentioned the sentiment may be. I can observe, posit theories, and even have feelings one way or the other, but I don’t really have the right to co-opt another racial group’s ability to interpret their own experiences with and feelings about racial terms.

I can, however, have a strong negative evaluation of hearing two white kids, both maybe 18-years-old, talking about homework in the hallway and one saying to the other, “Yeah, nigger, I’ll catch you later.” I am bothered at the attempt of these two boys, regardless of socioeconomic status, to try to ‘take back’ a term that has never referred to them. ‘Nigger’ has been used as an expression of hate by white against black, or as a term of identification within  the black community, but has it ever been used – organically and not in a contrived manner – by white against/towards white? It is not the place of two white boys to pretend that they are victims of racist attitudes towards black people or part of that solidarity of the black community. Why is it okay for these boys to pretend they are something they are not? Or perhaps the term ‘nigger’ is now being broadened beyond the scope of racial identity and it now encompasses a certain persona that is open to people of all races.

The question is, then, what associations come with this persona and who is controlling them? Are these white kids deciding that a certain tough, hip-hop attitude now makes them a ‘nigger’? How do black people feel about white people deciding to associate a racial term with a very particular image that only represents a small percentage of black people? It does seem to defeat the purpose of reclamation if white people decide to take the word back again and define it how they see fit.

Similarly, should I, as a woman, take offense at hearing more boys in the hallway use the word “bitch” towards another boy? Should I  complain that the word “bitch” was taken from us and turned it into something that means “a pushy, mean, selfish individual of either sex”? That means that people take the worst character traits that are often associated with women, or black people, and connect those to the word. The assumptions are that this racial or gender group has these negative qualities but we are just going to borrow the term for whenever our group also shows those negative black or female qualities.

It still lessens us, makes us small. It shows that we are not entrusted with what we can name ourselves or allowed control over what our own words mean.

According to dictionary.com, the word ‘queer’ was first recorded as a slur against gay people in 1922 and the reclamation process started at least in the 1980s. That’s only 60 years of negativity to counteract. ‘Bitch’, however, has been around in its derogatory usage since the 15th century. ‘Nigger’ has been offensive since at least the 18th century. Perhaps these two words are too entrenched in our culture to be reclaimed in just the last 20-30 years. We may be witnessing a transition in our language in regards to these terms, but it may be too early to tell what place these words will have in the wider societal context. This means we are still very much in a linguistic minefield.

Tread lightly, bitches.


(1) Gumperz, J. (1968) “The Speech Community” in Language and Social Context. Pier Paolo Giglioli, ed. Penguin Books. 1972. pp.219-231.

(2) Naylor, Gloria. “The Meanings of a Word” in Models for Writers. Alfred Rosa and Paul Eschholz, eds.  Bedford/St.Martins. New York. 2010. pp. 108-111.


3 thoughts on “Take Two: Words We Cannot Say…Except When We Can

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