I can’t be doing with superstition around words. Words are noises, expressed in the visual as sequences of letters and I’m not afraid of any of them. I will say them all out loud if you dare me, or write them down. Backwards, if you think that adds some satanic power to them.
A dictionary doesn’t give words their meaning. A dictionary ought to reflect. And there isn’t a word I can think of which was offensive at its conception. Fuck and cunt, our strongest swearwords, were always sexual references but existed for hundreds of years without being taboo; the shag and fanny of another age. There are words for innately bad things of course, but usage tends to remove the sting; he murdered that song, these shoes are torture and so on.
Words do not upset us. It is their order and context that causes the problem. But use them too often in that problematic order and that problematic context and the words themselves begin to rot.
Nigger, for example. Nigger didn’t mean anything bad. Its etymology is an innocent corruption of Negro, a black person, from the Latin niger, black. Yeah right.
I must say, I mention this particular word because it is the one word which raises some doubts for me. I mean niggling doubts about whether it is okay to say it at all. In my short and sheltered existence, I have never heard or read anybody use that word to refer to another person or themselves, not outside American books, movies and films. Which isn't a criticism of American culture; if the word is in use, it must be used, but it is not in use in my world.
Meanwhile, something weird is happening to the word in my world. The stirring monster of privilege, I guess; white people who have never used the word in their lives come out with, "Of course, we're not allowed to use the N word, even though black people use it about themselves and one another all the time."
Which is a myth on two counts. But why would any white person want to use it? Except in the context of talking about language. I associate the word with the very worse excesses of racial violence, slavery and oppression; nigger did not mean black person; from the books and films I surmise that it in fact meant person who is lazy and foolish yet pliable, a person who is animalistic and sexually predatory but easy to outwit and easy to correct with physical force, a person whose existence is inherrently paracitic but one whose physical strength and dim-witted nature can be put to good use in the right circumstances. Not a person at all, actually. It is an abhorrent sentiment. It is two syllables or six letters of hatred.
Is that superstitious? Of course it is. It is just two syllables, six letters; it has no real power, but it still makes me squirm. I have no idea if this word is to be reclaimed. I suspect that it may be beyond salvage, but it isn't any of my business; it does not belong to me and you'll never read it here again.
I suppose I have always seen other racist terms, the terms I am more familiar with, as fundamentally stupid and thus not nearly so potent. I knew, as a child, that Paki was supposed to be an abbrieviation of Pakistani and yet my schoolfriends who got called these terms descended from almost anywhere in the world but Pakistan - in one case, a friend got called Paki because his paternal grandparents were Jamaican. I therefore concluded that people who used this word had never seen an atlas and assumed that Pakistan was the only country outside Europe.
Similarly, Wog. Wog is a very British racial slur, starting out as an acroynym for Western Oriental Gentleman; a person native to what we now call the Middle East. T. E. Lawrence was criticised for dressing like one, as you might remember from the film. Yet the most famous incident in our history involving this word was when David Oluwale had the nationality of Brit crossed out in his police records and replaced with Wog. Oluwale was born in Nigeria and went on to become the first black man to die in police custody. The word wog didn't kill him; the sentiment did.
All the racist words I can think of are slang words in origin. The trouble with disablist words is that so many terms became playground insults five minutes after being used in a formal, often medical, context; cretin, cripple, maniac, midget, retard, spastic and so on, with a special emphasis on mental health and intellectual impairments. Other words became problematic because they were almost always used in a patronising way. When Devon MP Anthony Stern defended himself for parking in a Blue Badge Parking Space and insisted that there were too many such spaces, he was almost guaranteed to use the term handicapped spaces and go on to say;
"Of course we want to help the handicapped, and of course they've got to be given provisions, but not against the interests of the majority."Handicapped really isn't a bad word; it can be argued to have etymological advantages over disabled. Only for some reason, it is usually only used along with this kind of nonsense. Oh and if you park illegally in a space designated not for helping disabled people, but for allowing them equal access to buidlings, goods and services, then you place yourself in a minority. The majority follow the rules and if in doubt, raise questions about the number of designated spaces. Especially if one is in the powerful position of MP.
The disability-related word that causes most regular shock and offense would be retard, which seems to still be used in some formal contexts in the US, but also much more often as an insult, sometimes as 'tard, sometimes fucktard and the other day I saw the portmanteau celebutard used to describe Paris Hilton (although I confess I was amused by the idea; I propose celebritwit as an alternative). Cripple is still shocking to me when used as a noun and a verb without irony, but I'm so used to its ironic use, or that of its abbrieviation crip among disabled people, that it has lost very much of its power to offend me. Words can have the power drained out of them.
Women, whether consciously feminist or not, have taken the edge off all number of words which used to be used to undermine or dismiss us. Bitch has been a great success. Bitch could be one of the worst insults a woman can receive; it is everything she is not supposed to be, aggressive, manipulative, cold and cruel. And while yes, it is still a term of abuse, it has far less power against the strong and assertive women who have claimed it as their own. Some fine on-line examples being Disability Bitch, Angry Black Bitch, Fussy Bitch, Bitch PHD and Bitch Lab (as was).
Many of the sexual name-calling terms have also been subverted, partly because of increased sexual freedom for women. Some women cheerfully refer to themselves as tarts, sluts and whores in the same way men might refer to themselves as studs. This subversion, though far from uncomplicated, is a thousand times better than attempting to annihilate words from our language. It's also growing increasingly comfortable to use these words affectionately and without gender.
I was going to write about my favourite term of abuse, since subverted, but I'll leave that for another day.