Words have power, this much is obvious. Sometimes, however, that power can be a little ubiquitous. Take the word bitch for example; to some it is an innocuous word meaning, “the female of the dog or some other carnivorous mammals.” However, over time it has come to also mean “a lewd or immoral woman” or “a malicious, spiteful, or overbearing woman —sometimes used as a generalized term of abuse.” Both of these definitions are printed in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, and given the – same credibility. Does this bother anyone other than me? How can hate-speak have become so acceptable in our society that even the dictionary acknowledges the hateful twisting of these words – into things they were never originally intended to mean – and give them the same credibility as the words original, harmless, definition?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming the dictionary publishers, or writers for this phenomena. The truth is almost all of us have uttered the word bitch at another woman or man, we’ve all contributed to this shift in meaning. But should we allow this to go on?
Faggot** (originally a bundle of sticks), Dyke (a variation of Dike which means “an artificial watercourse” or “a bank usually of earth constructed to control or confine water“), queer (“differing in some odd way from what is usual or normal“), gay (” happily excited”, “keenly alive and exuberant”, or “homosexual”) and so on have been taken from their original meanings and turned into something hateful, words that are not spoken in “polite company”. Most of these words continue to be hate filled to this day; with the exception of queer, a word which the gay community has managed to claim for themselves and twist what was twisted once again, into something positive.
** as a side note I do know that in places like Europe this world is still not a hate-word, it applies instead to cigarettes (right?) this makes me happy – we need to work on that here in the ‘States!
What bothers me especially is the manipulation of the word gay; which simultaneously seems to hold two separate meanings now. On one hand it still does refer to homosexual men and women in a neutral way; its simply an identifier. On the other hand my generation seems to have taken this word and manipulated it’s meaning to refer to something, stupid or dumb. I’m sure I’m not the only one who is sick and tired of seeing kids and even adults going around calling intimate objects, movies, songs, and pretty much anything else gay for no reason. It both offensive and it makes no sense grammatically. (This website provides a great resource for dealing with hate-slurs such as “that’s so gay!”) Or, you could just do what I do… “That book was so gay!” “Really? Do you mean it was happy? Or that its attracted to other books of the same gender?” “Um…” “Exactly.”
There are words that will probably never be okay to say, for instance, nigger which is a word I must pause and second-guess before I even begin to type. These words have been hate-filled and wrong for centuries, there original meanings (if they were innocuous) have long since faded from memory or relevance. These are words that should never be said, never be used. These are words who’s only purpose is to hate.
However, when you take a word like bitch and render it unusable you lose the power. Its like in Harry Potter: those who referred to Voldemort as He Who Cannot be Named gave in to the fear and the hate this his name invoked, they lost the power. So use these words, please, reclaim them. But use them for the meanings that they originally had. OR we can twist it right back – get a group of friends, give these words new meaning (totally unrelated to the hateful, hurtful definitions) and use it away. Just make sure it’s clear what you’re doing and when people ask whats going on tell them, pull them in! Bottom line: just do something, change your personal habits and definitions and hopefully we can make the rest of the world follow along.
For instance, BITCH Magazine (a feminist publication) is taking the word bitch and twisting the twist into something positive and empowering! These woman will not be messed with – they recently pulled the magazine out of a very tough financial spot and just, generally, are not giving up on making women’s rights acessable and prominent in the media. Click for some more information!
If we continue down this road I can see words like feminist or activist (or any word that describes a group that is prone to attack) being manipulated and turned into something hateful. The bottom line is any word can be twisted and taken by hate. Any word. If you wait to do something until it is your word, your group… then its too late, you’ve been hit, you’ve been discredited and the struggle to reclaim your word will become even harder (but possible, once again see “Queer” for inspiration!)
What words to you want to reclaim? How are you going to get them back?