I’ve recently posted twice about language and social justice. So here’s the post where we really take a spin – this time it’s not about the language of the majority, it’s about the language of the minority.
Reclaimatory language is interesting in part because it is deliberately taking an offensive word and claiming it, giving it a new definition.
The first time I remember seeing this was when a friend of mine proudly proclaimed she was a bitch – a Babe In Total Control of Herself. I didn’t get it at the time, really. I think we all took it as a titilating excuse to say a naughty word and revel in the fact that we were female and believed ourselves strong because of that. I guess I should amend that – I didn’t get it on the high theoretical plane, but on the easier to understand plane of our emotions, I understood. We made it our word, a word about how we were cool, hip, smart, and daring.
You hear this sense of reclaiming language in other situations. People who are black calling each other ‘nigga’. Women re-defining bitch to suit their meaning, a la Meredith Brook’s song titled ‘Bitch’. People with disabilities calling themselves ‘crips’ and talking about ‘crip theory’.
So what is it, this reclaimation?
It’s owning the word that gets thrown at you as a slur. Taking it in and re-making it into your own self-image. Replacing the negative connotations that the original speaker may have intended with meanings that actually fit you.
It can come off as a slap in the face, offensive and harsh, but that’s part of the intent. It’s to alert the hearer that you aren’t defined by the way someone else means that word. You refuse to be defined by ‘them’. It also serves to make people re-think their internalized definitions to words. If you think a cripple is someone who is so disabled they can’t do anything, and meet someone who proudly calls herself a crip…and works a fulltime job, or takes care of her household, or so on…you have to re-think what a cripple is.
So we change the language. Yes, there will still be bigoted people who buy into the older meaning…but we can change that meaning in people whose thinking is more flexible. And we can change that meaning in ourselves.