Reclaimed words


On the Facebook page of my younger daughter, who has just turned 20, one of her female friends has written her a birthday greeting that won’t raise any eyebrows in that particular FB friendship group: “Love you, beautiful betch!” (with betch being an alternative form or spelling of bitch). It’s a word young women are now using commonly as an affectionate term for each other — but I wouldn’t recommend that you adopt that particular term of endearment if you’re male or an older female: it’s probably just not going to fly. That’s because it’s a relatively recent “reclaimed (or re-appropriated) word”: one that was previously a slur or insult aimed at a particular target group (in this case, women) that has then been deliberately adopted and reappropriated by that very group and turned into an acceptable or even positive word. And sometimes — either for a period after its reappropriation or indefinitely — this new usage is permissible only to the target group in question. Hence only young women are allowed to call each other betch. A couple of other reclaimed words that fall into this category of restricted use are queer (to be discussed in a separate dedicated Glossophilia post), and more recently and still quite controversially, dyke and nigga.

It’s not hard to understand why reclaimed words abound in areas of life in which prejudice, bias, conflict and divergent points of view are rife. As the changing rules of political correctness (as well as fads and fashions) govern and police the constantly updated terminology of sexuality and gender, politics, and ideological and religious movements, so the lingo bends and adapts, sometimes producing these insults-turned-titles-of-honor as a means of deflating or exploiting the verbal bullying: as the saying goes, if you can’t beat them, join them. This is a linguistic phenomenon that dates back centuries; there are reclaimed words in modern usage that many might be surprised to learn started out as terms of mockery or insult.

Mormons, Shakers and Quakers were all derogatory terms for members of their respective religious movements before they became their standard colloquial names. The 18th-century British evangelist John Wesley was originally mocked by his fellow students at Oxford University for preaching a prescriptive “methodist” approach to his religious lifestyle, but he adopted the term as the name of his movement, which would eventually secure its place as a denomination in the Anglican Church.

In the sex and gender world, the waters can get very muddy. Both queer and gay have evolved through complicated mazes of meaning and innuendo, with queer still finding its way in the world of definition, identity and acceptability (as are many of those who identify themselves as such, although ironically the word’s most modern meaning is that of deliberately eluding identification or definition in terms of one’s sexual or gender orientation). Gay is now established as an acceptable synonym for homosexual, although it had pejorative overtones in its infancy (in the context of sexuality). However, it has recently developed an additional and quite separate meaning — used predominantly among young people — of general and unspecified disparagement (“oh, his outfit is just so gay”), which is thought by many to be homophobic, even though this new meaning is supposed to be unrelated to that of the reclaimed word. Like queer, gay is being reclaimed and then “dis”-claimed ¬†— batted back and forth across the net dividing PC from uncool. Dyke is another word in this area that might be in the process of being reclaimed, gaining ground in the gay community as a neutral word synonymous with lesbian, even though¬†it is still considered insulting by most.

Tree-huggers, Tories and Yankees, all once terms of ridicule*, are now respectable nicknames used by self-respecting environmental activists, Conservative politicians and American citizens respectively — with barely a hint of irony. Nerds and geeks, who were social outcasts and the ultimate victims of bullying in their original incarnations, now wear their brains and smarts with fashionable pride, and often end up getting the girl. Even being a brat is something a few of us are happy to admit to, if we’re of the military or diplomatic variety.

* some would argue the third one still is, but that’s another (baseball) story …

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