Thursday, August 19, 2010

What's in a Word?

Another thrilling topic hosted by Transatlantic Blonde for our Friday Feminist discussion.....the power of words.  Again, Ms.Blondie....beautiful choice.  I don't know where to start.  Words, like everything else, are gendered.  Now I know, right off the bat, there will be an argument as to whether or not this is true.  But it is.  Word selection is extremely influential is what we want our readers to take away from what they reading.  Same with what they are hearing.  It is tricky.  At work, I train people to use certain words with customers.  Like when we up sell product, you always was to use the word "add"because of the perceived extra value that is attached to that word.  If you just ask a person if they "want" something, they are then most likely to be upset but the extra cost because there is the perception of choice.....either they get the product or they don't but it is up to them.  It feels like I am being deceiving when I ask questions in a certain way, but since I have switched, I have had no issues with people being upset with the extra it's all in the word.  This example, however, is conscious.  I know that I am doing it and I am doing it completely on purpose and expect those around me to follow suit.....but how do we handle the words people choose that are hurtful and they don't realize the meaning behind them.

There are three words that automatically make me turn red.  I get angry, fist clenched, want to yell in faces, angry.  I almost don't want to share them because whenever I do, people feel the need to use all three in a sentence, plus if I use them, then I am also giving those words power.  But here they are and my reasons for not using them and hating them.

Nigger.  I was raised that everyone is equal.  I did not grow up in a diverse community, it was very conservative and very white.  This was a word that was thrown around a lot by the white middle class boys that I went to school with.  It has always struck a nerve with me although I don't know the origin of the nerve, I do not tolerate it.  It bothers me when I here black men and women using it as well.  The argument is that the black community has taken back the word to empower it....since it is used widely in the black community, the idea is that the negative connotation will leave once it is empowered.  That is not true.  No matter who uses it and in what context, it is negative.  That word is meant to put a person into a lower status, whether they are black or not.  When is it used, it describes someone who "needs" their power to be taken away.  This word will never be empowered because of it's history.

Faggot.  For a long time I didn't know what this word meant.  I called my cousin a "fag" once because I heard his older brother say aunt went ballistic on me for it but no one told me why it was bad and why I shouldn't use it.  When I was a young teenager I found out the history of this word.  Now, I have never actually researched it, but the story I was told was enough.  My best teenage friend's mom is a lesbian.  I spent a lot of time at their house.  She is a wonderful woman and took in a lot of foster care teens.  Most of them were young men and once I heard one of them use that word.  She was so good at keeping her calm.  This word struck a nerve with her....we could all see it in her face.  She calmly asked if anyone knew why that word was so negative against gay one knew.  I knew that it can be used in place of cigarette, but I didn't know what connotation she was speaking of.  She told us that another term for faggot was 'a bundle of sticks.'  She said that "a long time ago" people would tie up gay men like a bundle of sticks and set fire to them because of their sexual identity.  I think I was about 13 when I heard her tell that story, and again, I have never researched it, but it was enough for me to understand that it is a hurtful word.  Another word that put power over another person.  And another word that has a societal reference to violence against a group from the margins.

There are so many words that we use to sectionalize people.  We refer to women as chicks and bitches because it is a reminder that, although you are people, you only have the status of an animal to me.  We disembody women by allowing words like pussy and cunt to describe weakness, as though our vaginas and uteri are weak.  We use the word girly to tell a boy that he just isn't quite right, that he is less because he is more feminine, because being a woman is so weak.  When you think about the words we (I mean society by the way) use to describe weakness, status, and size, they are all female words.  Our language has linked being female to being weak.  It should be converse.  Women bear children.  That takes insurmountable strength.  Our uteri are anything but weak.  Our bodies know when they need to reject an unhealthy fertilized egg.  Our bodies know when it is time for the baby to be born.  Our bodies know a monthly pattern that is connected with nature.  Our bodies, the changes that we go through from puberty to child bearing to menopause, is nothing but strength.    I start to think about this too much and it makes me want to ramble for hours.....where is the root to our language turning on women?  why were these negative connections made?  how the fuck are we going to shake the connotation from the denotation?


  1. I had the exact same experience with the word 'faggot' but I was 10, i can still remember looking it up in the dictionary.
    language reflects the culture and society it belongs to, so the presence and use of all these words acutally reflects the larger social attitudes held.
    I got on facebook a couple of weeks ago and I saw the comment 'we have a wranger for primeminister' and i thought WHAT? what the hell is a wranger? apparently it's slang for red head. I never knew that. And the new primeminister of Australia is a red head. But that reflects the social attitude to people who have red hair, which is quite negative really. :(

  2. I don't know! I wish I did. I think some of it can be traced back to St. Augustine-- a very influential woman-hater, despite the fact that his mother Monica converted him. I share your hatred of those particular words and many, many others.

  3. Awesome post. I can feel the passion in your writing. Thanks for sharing!

  4. These words have such negative power. I argued in my Women's Studies Capstone course that by using the word "cunt" in front of men (and shocking them) I was taking away the power from them. Did it? I don't know but it certainly made it less shocking and demeaning for them to use it and they rarely did.

    In another course at UC, we watched a clip of Eddie Murphy and during a class discussion everyone danced around the N-word, but no one said it.

    I said "I think it's interesting that 20 years later we are all sitting here and none of us can actually say 'Nigger' even in quoting what we just saw."

    Well the freaking room EXPLODED. I was told how insensitive I was and how I had offended black students (voiced by white students). I asked the one girl in the class with African American heritage if she was offended and she said "Not in the slightest."

    These words are so powerful that people are scared to even be associated with them, which is good, derogatory terms shoudln't prevail or be used. However, part of me (and this is the devil's advocate in me) thinks that we should't be so scared of them, because that only gives them MORE power.

  5. Being a devil's advocate is greatly appreciated! I wanted and used to agree with you about using cunt to take the shock and power away from others and while I was in college with people who were there for a relatively same purpose, it worked. Well I felt like it worked. But when I was out of that environment and used cunt, specifically, it made it "okay" for all men around use it. They would use it constantly in the most negative fashion and I realized that although I was using it too make it less shock and awe, they were using it in it's traditionally derogatory sense. At that point I also realized how wonderful it was in all my Women's Studies classes because I could speak completely free about everything without having to worry about offending anyone. Which is one reason that I love this Friday Fem forum so much, it is basically my favorite part from college, the discussion, response and sharing that created true intelligence. But anyway, I choose to not use them because (aside from college) I have only witnessed them used in the most derogatory sense and I don't want to perpetuate their existence in that way.