Super Words: Insults of Mass Destruction

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.

Super Words

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.

5 thoughts on “Super Words: Insults of Mass Destruction

  1. Yes, I guess the “(Fill in Blank)-Word” is because we have two different kind of talk. Public talk and nonpublic talk.

    With public talk(tv,politics,etc.) we tend to not say much as it is. With public talk using “(Fill in Blank)-Word” is just an evolved way to get away with it, I think. And when you say something publicly, your talk maybe quoted out of context and then it will look bad. If you say “Imagine if I said that I dont like niggers” then, in theory, it can be quoted “I dont like niggers” and people dont want to give chance to something like this so they use n-word and so on.

    With nonpublic talk we usually know that we won’t get into trouble by using the true words instead of “x-word”

    This is how I see it and I think it’s fucking niggerish faggotry.

  2. @Jon

    What gets me is even in private situations, people will still whisper some of these words as if they channel dark power. I get get public speaking. I wish we were past that sort of shallow nonsense, but I can understand it. When you’re on TV you don’t know what your audience is. At least in real life, if I’m hanging around certain kinds of people I know to avoid certain kinds of words. I never have to resort to “(x)-Word” because if someone is truly and deeply and somewhat sensibly offended by a word, I’d prefer to not even remind them of it and if I HAVE to bring up the word, I can judge personally if I should censor my language or if I can talk about them about the nature of language or WHATEVER. Being a public face, talking publicly, you don’t have that.

    How language gains power is a really complex thing though. Every word gets it’s reputation differently.

  3. I got a “Super Word” that affects me pretty well. A mental switch that triggers all kinds of pent up violence, but then I remember something I like to others.

    “It’s only a word, you idiot!”

    “But the idea behind the word-”

    “You put the idea there when you interpreted what that single word meant. Imply it as something else. It isn’t difficult.”

    And I’ve already replaced quite a few of those words, anyway. “Vagina,” and “Little Girl” being two of my most common. It’s funny, really, because people know what I mean but don’t get as offended. Though I apply these words not with any sexist or homosexual negativeness, I apply them very firmly to people acting in particularly frustrating manners. (I’ve also never been worried about offending people, but insults responded to with ignorant smiles is always fun. Spiteful smiles, not so much fun.)

    My word, by the way, the “Super Word” that gets me. That would be “Boy.” Don’t know why, at all. But when someone pulls a “I’m talking to you, Boy.” Or anything similar in context, I just want to rip some flesh. But, again, I take a breath and realize that it is only a word.

    As a “writer,” I tell you, the speaker/writer only has as much power as the reader/listener is willing to give them.

  4. @DudelRok
    Really? You claim using “vagina” in a pejorative manner is not sexist?
    …and somehow, you get offended by “boy,” which isn’t even meant to be pejorative in any circumstance.
    I don’t know how else to express my seething rage that people like you exist. You, sir, are an idiot. The kind that makes ME want to “rip some flesh.”

  5. @Madotsuki
    Even though I get your point that vagina is a word that, for obvious reasons, is associated with woman, intent is still very important. Even if someone is using a gender specific body part as an insult, it really doesn’t have to have anything to do with that gender, it’s ridiculous, but it’s true. Just listen to random person’s conversation, people call other people a dick, but it isn’t an attempt to insult men. Also, boy can be used in a way that implies you’re looking down on someone, in fact the only time it was said to me like in DudelRok’s post was in a condescending way.

    I would have to agree with this article though. I remember in Elementary school we had some class where they were talking to us about offensive language. One of the thing they said was “Remember, intent is irrelevant”, and, even though I was an elementary school student, I though “no it isn’t, intent is everything”. Even saying something completely innocuous can be offensive, insulting, or threatening, in the right context. While something that is normally insulting can be used in a friendly manner. Even with the “Super Words”, the fact that some black people, and even some, although very few, white people, will call their black friends nigger, demonstrates the importance of intent. They don’t find it insulting because they know it has no evil intentions. Treating the words themselves with indifference is in fact the best approach.

    For a change lets take a white racial slur. I have no problems with the terms whitey, cracker, or honkey. In fact I find them humorous, and use them myself on occasion. However, if there was a person who was saying any of them with obvious evil intentions, someone who potentially meant me harm, then of course I’m going to take it seriously. But, that is true for any word really. The point is that the main reason why there isn’t a “Super Word” racial slur for white people is because we tend to treat the terms themselves with indifference, and none of them ever had a chance to gain any power. So the best approach is to treat similar terms with indifference, the power they have over you is only the power you give them.

    I have a gay friend who was insulted when I used the term fag. I, truthfully, was slightly confused at first, but then I explained to him that I use fag, not as an insult to gay people, but as an insult to overly flamboyant and showy people who are obviously trying to get attention, like Lady Gaga. Since then, I have heard him use the term himself. It’s all intent.

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