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  • Ella Gammel

In a Word

**Preface from the author: This article deals with slurs and their effects on minorities. As a white person, I cannot and do not claim to have experienced the effects of racial slurs firsthand. However, discussion of racial issues is necessary; my stances are researched and backed by the voices of people of color in order to do justice to such a heavy, important subject.

I remember the first time my friend described something as “a little fruity.” I didn’t even know what the term meant, but it didn’t sound like something I wanted to say in public or like something I should say ever. And when I told her this, she responded, “It’s okay! We’ve reclaimed it.”

“Cool!” I responded, my smile masking my uncertainty.

This made no sense to me. Aren’t you perpetuating the slur’s damage by saying it more often? For any unaware, ​​"fruit" was a slur originating in the early 19th century within the community of British sex workers and the LGBTQ+ community that twisted itself into a derogatory term as it became more mainstream.

So, to start, why do we reclaim derogatory words? Isn’t it better to shame them into oblivion? This is certainly possible today with the deft hand of social media.

According to Tony Thorne, curator of the Slang and New Language archive at King’s College London, “Reappropriation of ethnic and sexual slurs starts as an act of bravado by a few of the oppressed, then may become an empowering mechanism for a much wider community… Alternative discourse ousts and replaces the discourses of power,” as he said in an interview with The Guardian.

This to say, when a minority group begins using a word repeatedly, its connotations mutate. A formerly derogatory word becomes associated as a term of the minority group, not as one against them. This is important because language and what words mean is a powerful undercurrent to human perception.

For example: we rebel by cursing. If “shit” was an acceptable exclamation for business meetings, it would probably be in less rap songs. Curses’ power comes from their sacrilege. That sacrilege is how a teacher can stir up a dead classroom by slipping an expletive into the lecture: because it’s out of place, because it’s taboo - because it’s interesting. And when a word is interesting, it is powerful.

So, why do we reclaim words that have done so much damage? Even an archaic slur retains punchines when it’s used to insult a minority. However, when that same minority begins using the slur themselves, the slur becomes a word. There’s no way to kill the fun of breaking a law like making it legal. Its villainous shock blunts; it loses its derogatory power.

When I hear the word “fruity,” I assume the speaker is LGBT+ instead of homophobic. It’s no longer the oppressor’s word: it’s ours.

However, is it possible to reclaim every slur? Well, there is still an ongoing debate on this question.

For example, the most insidious and relevant slur in the English language, the N-word, has been reclaimed by black people. “That the word survives is an act of redemption by black folk. The word survives on the conditions that black folks have inscribed for it and nobody else can take that,” says race expert Dr. Jacqui Stanford in a letter posted to Twitter.

However, it’s not a word available to the public as a whole: in an interview with BBC News, Dr. Stanford says that white people can’t use the N-word because its origin in slavery has not been lost. “If you understand the history of the word and how it’s been used, it’s not for white people to use, it’s not for anybody else to use,” says Professor Kehinde Andrews, a professor of black studies at Birmingham City University, in the same interview.

With a stronger rebuke for the word, David Lammy, a representative of the UK Parliamentary Labour Party, feels no one should use the word. He acknowledged his understanding of the history of reclaiming and owning the term, yet said, “I say the time has come to do away with it. If black lives matter, don’t own it, reject it.”

Like the N-word, some slurs are so baked in vile history, they are difficult to reclaim. Even if they can be, debates stir within affected minorities of whether they should be. Regardless of consensus, the decision of whether these words should be reclaimed still ultimately lies within the group they were initially created to target.

You may be wondering: why is this such a hot debate? Maybe you’re exhausted by the policing of words.

Are words that big a deal? Yes.

Yes, because we think in language.

George Orwell and his novel 1984 is the go-to example of power in language. The dystopian society in 1984 uses doublespeak, which is a restricted subset of the English language, simplified to exclude words complex enough to construct critical thoughts. Doublespeak leads to doublethink, a state of the psyche where limited speech leads to limited thoughts, and thus total dependency on the government for information and reality (true or otherwise).

While this sounds dystopian and far away, higher-up influence on thought may be closer than you think. In his essay Politics and the English Language, Orwell describes techniques used to control public thinking through language, like “using pretentious words to project authority and burying atrocities in euphemisms.” These proposed techniques are not just in fiction; they’re being used now, from social media to news headlines. "Orwellianism" is covered more in depth in this great TedEd video. The warning Orwell presents is that language is a direct channel into our thinking. Language is power, and it isn’t a power that should be taken lightly.

It is also important to consider the effect platforming plays in reclaiming words. The reclaiming of “fruity” was popularized by Gen Z TikToks, and the N-word has been hotly contested for years on a variety of social media platforms. Other, less publicized slurs, like those against people of Chinese and Mexican nationality, are not at the forefront of the public mind, and are thus more difficult to condemn or reclaim publicly. Reclaiming a word is, unfortunately, an ability greatly aided by a money-fed-media.

Language is our truest currency. It is ours. When it is wielded against you, it is your right to take it back if you choose.

Reclaiming words cannot be an exact science because words are alive, shifting in power and nuance every day. Words are malleable, and slurs are no exception to that. Reclaiming a word allows the former victim to gain ownership of a weapon previously wielded only against them. There is strength in that. And whether a word should be reclaimed or whether it should be left to wither in the dark: the choice is ultimately up to the minority.


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