Warning: The following contains sexist, racist and homophobic language. Not in a sexist, racist or homophobic content, but they’re there. This is a post about foul words. They will be used. A lot.
Now with all topics like this, let me state that I am white, straight, male and middle class. The worst treatment I got was for being a Special Education student from 1st grade until I graduated high school. While I am no stranger to being taunted and teased, my situation is far, far better than a lot of peoples’. I can’t act like it doesn’t affect my opinion (for better or for worse), but either way I just want you to all know where I’m coming from.
A super word is a word with extreme offensive power. It is a word that can offend people easily, even when used in a comical or friendly setting. In the US there are about two, Nigger and Cunt with Twat being a distant 3rd in my experience. These words are so offensive that most people prefer to use the “N-Word” “C-Word” and occasionally, “T-Word” to refer to them. These words, with little effort, can ruin entire days for people in ways just calling them a “Motherfucker” can’t. They’re super words, often locked away in the deepest missile silos of our vocabulary.
… So… what is a word?
Words are a pointer for ideas. From point to ideas of a physical object like a “Mattress” to somethign complex and vague like ‘love’ and ‘morality’. Words can point to different (but usually similar) places for different people. The idea of “death” means two very different things to a Christian and an Atheist. Context also changes where words point and a word in two different, yet similar sentences can invoke two very different ideas. Language is a very fluid thing. Not only are the rules and exact definitions loose, new rules and words are made up all the time. “Stupider” for a time might not have been a real word, but it certainly points where it’s supposed to. The other day my sister used the word “Deoffensify”. It’s not a real word, but that didn’t make it any less effective. Communication doesn’t care about the “realness” of language, nor does it often care about the exact dictionary definitions. Words change through every possible variable, even time. One of the great challenges of communication has always been making sure words mean the same thing to you and your audience.
That whole paragraph in fact is just me trying to make sure anyone reading this knows how I’m using the “word” so we can all be on the same page.
Also as a note… Personally I am not using “the (Fill in Blank)-Word” here because I think it’s disingenuous. I’m putting an offensive idea into your mind while feigning innocence by not actually “saying it”. Also by saying something like “The N-Word”, I am ascribing the power to the sound of Nigger, as opposed to the ideas it represents. The problem of racism is one of ideas, not mouth noises.
The Creation of new Super Words
A lot of activist groups have been trying to elicit change by affecting language. LGBT communities have tried to eliminate the casual use of words like ‘faggot’. Women’s rights groups have tried tone down the use of gendered insults and special education support groups have tried to stop the use of the word “Retard”, sometimes even referring to it as “The R-Word”.
On the surface I think this reaction seems reasonable. These words hurt people. If we want to stop hurting people, we should stop using these words, right? Personally I’m a fan of various flavors of vulgarity, but that’s not an excuse to ignore the pleas of these people… Question is, what do they think will happen?
Let’s use Faggot as an example. Faggot was a word with history before being a homosexual pejorative and is mostly returning to that again. Most people use the word generally and casually as a generic insult. It’s still used as a way to terrorize and offend gay men though and the pain those men feel is no less real because some of us use the word in a relatively friendly way. But what would happen if the word was left to be, compared to if it was attempted to be expunged from our vocabularies? I don’t know the answer, obviously, but this is my guess.
So let us assume Faggot has become a taboo. Does the word get more or less usage? By nature of being a taboo, less. Does the word, now a forbidden, arcane power word, have more or less power? Clearly more. Now it is undeniably a powerful anti-gay insult. Now, does the word get used more or less by the gay hating crowd? More, clearly. There will also always be new derogatory words made to replace any ones that have fell out of favor.
By vilifying the word, it has been given greater power. You have made a greater weapon for your enemies, while protecting your self from incidental usage. You create a tool for oppression.
Conversely, left to it’s own devices, the word will probably become more and more general. Homosexual men would still suffer, but you can’t stop that by changing language. It is the IDEA of anti-homosexuality which ultimately leads to their pain. No matter what, you need to fight ideas. It’s harder to hurt someone without a magic word though. You have to communicate your disgust and disdain. You have to work for it. A super word can still be destructive, even when said flippantly.
That’s the problem with Nigger now. Trying to remove the word has only made it extra powerful. We’ll never be rid of it at this point. Maybe in a hundred years it will become laughably ignorant to use, but until then, it stands a weapon that bigots can use to oppress the black community. What could have been done with the word? I have no idea. It, unlike a number of other words, never had the potential to become a general use pejorative. At best, it might have been able to become some dorky old-timer slang that’d be eventually forgotten. Either way, it seems too late now. The community even tried to “Take it back”, but that didn’t work. Regardless, it shows the pain that can be created just by having a Super Word for a group of people.
As far as I can tell, such attempts to control language have only ended poorly. Super words are bad. We at least want people to have to work hard to deeply offend someone.
You need to fight ideas. One of the best thing about all the writing on this subject is that it’s still building awareness. Even if the proposed goals of shunning a word are dangerous, hearing about the suffering of another human being makes their problems legitimate and real to us. We should at least be questioning why we use such words and what they mean to us and who we use them around. I’m not even sure if this language theory of mine is correct, but I at least want people to think about it, as the repercussions might not benefit anyone.