Owning the slur

Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you. Well, not physically anyway. Not unless they’re slurs intended only to psychologically abuse a target, when they often accompany acts of violence.

There are a number of words whose only use is to hurt. There are words that once meant something strong and proud but, through repeated historical misuse, have become tainted by every bit of hate and venom that has ever flowed through them in their use. There are words that might, to some people, serve as a mere descriptive, an adjective to be used in daily discourse, but to others inculcate a fear of the types of violence with which the word has so often been used in parallel.

And then, there are the concerted efforts to retake those words, to rebrand them.

People who want to raise awareness that rape is rape, even if a person happens to have sex promiscuously or happens to enjoy dressing provocatively, march today in SlutWalks, parades intended to protest a culture that makes people ashamed of enjoying sex and tell us that one should not be shamed into silence about being abused.

Homosexuals have mostly retaken the words “gay” and “queer”, and have made some small inroads with the word “fag(got)”. They have gay pride parades to normalize homosexuality by, paradoxically, showing some of its fringe aspects to desensitize people. And at every one, they use the words that were once solely for “othering” them as a clarion for inclusion.

Black street culture has taken a word so taboo that I, in my melanin-deprived state, can only refer to as “the N-word”, and made it acceptable to call one another conversationally. They have taken a word that was (and still is) used to conjure the demons of slavery and have defanged it for their own use. They have also changed it to indicate that you’re part of the in group of people who understand all the history the word has accumulated. Outsiders using the word are conjuring the same images but do not foster the sense of camaraderie that ingroup members do, though the word is exactly identical in both cases.

Even atheists own a name that is a slur today, originated as a slur in its Greek origins (atheos, without gods), and was almost immediately adapted by its members. And the word has been in a state of pejorative-normative tug of war ever since.

Not to mention the name of my blog, Lousy Canuck. Greg Laden once told me that he has trouble saying the name of my blog, because Canuck was not a nickname for Canadian when it entered his consciousness, it was a slur against Quebecers. Most Canadians don’t seem to care if you call them Canuck. I’m certain a greater proportion of Americans would be scandalized if I called them a Yankee than Canadians by Canuck.

Or, for instance, the Skepchicks, who have taken the diminutive “mere girl” label connoted by the word “chick” and made it their own, even despite the sneers from certain members of the intelligentsia (and even some feminists) suggesting that being a “skep’chick'” is somehow counterproductive to being a feminist. Though the word has largely been retaken, it is still in use in labeling items as “chick flicks”, “chick food”, et cetera.

Some slurs can’t be retaken. Some can. And some pejorative words don’t even rise to the level of being slurs. In a conversation with Stephanie Zvan, she and I discussed why, and the biggest reason seems to be the focus of the slur itself. In almost every case, a slur is a way to cast a person as a member of a minority class (whether a real minority statistically, or perceived minority by being a member of an underclass), and to simultaneously shame that person for being a member of that minority class.

The easier slurs to retake are the ones that describe how a person should not behave — “bitches” are forceful, assertive (or aggressive) females, for instance. The word “bitch” has largely been retaken, because women have, quite rightly, recognized that being assertive is not a bad quality. It is, in reality, only a bad quality if you believe the women in question are breaking their proscribed gender roles. People still use it to this day to shame these women for not holding to the gender roles that, through the present erosion of the patriarchy, are weakening their holds. The word has become a mere pejorative, and not even always so.

The word “dick” means very approximately the same thing — though the use is significantly different in that women are the perceived minority, so “dick” has never risen to the level of slur. If you’re “being a dick”, you’re being rude, obnoxious, or otherwise transgressing on someone else. Since the “default” privilege is that of being a man, owning a dick is not a bad thing. The opposite to this slur is not “twat” or “cunt” as some people have suggested, but rather “pussy”. Where “being a dick” means to transgress, to overstep one’s societal boundaries, “being a pussy” means being too passive, lacking the sort of aggression necessary for a particular task. It is an accusation intended to shame a man for acting like a woman, which owing to gender roles is supposed to be a bad thing. The problem with both slurs is that they proscribe how a dick-owner and a pussy-owner should act, and that stepping out of those lines is bad. And worse, they assume that both pieces of male and female anatomy are somehow bad when, frankly, neither is bad in any way.

In most cases, men are praised by society for amping up their aggression, being assertive, “making the first move”, being bold, taking risks. All of these are practically synonymous with “being a dick”, but nobody calls these people dicks solely on the basis of their being assertive, aggressive, or otherwise transgressing societal mores. Men who are not these things are “being pussies”. And women are expected to “be pussies” and remain passive, pliant, and exist in supporting roles only. Both of these labels fit me — I can be both over-assertive in some things, and over-passive in others. I dislike both terms. Society doesn’t seem to mind the male gendered one, though — mostly because being male is the “default” in a patriarchy, where everything is first framed in terms of “what manly men want”, with non-manly-males a mere afterthought. Regardless, the word is well on its way to being owned — how often do you hear “I am such a dick”? Even from women?

The word “dick” has not historically implied that the person is nothing but their penis, though the metaphor of becoming turgidly prominent and inserting one’s self forcefully into places where they may or may not be wanted is salient, and I’m sure some people have attempted to use it that way, myself included. Nor has the word “dick” implied that a penis is a necessarily bad thing, though in a sense reproductive organs have been tainted definitionally by the Puritan roots of Western civilization so any reference to a naughty bit is somewhat taboo (ergo “naughty”). The interesting thing is, because “man” is considered the societal default as a manifestation of privilege, at no point has the word “dick” ever risen to the level of slur — because calling someone a member of the privileged class is surely not a bad thing in and of itself in most of society’s eyes. Except when an MRA gets hold of it and tries to make political hay with it, I suppose — usually in an effort to fight for free use of the next few terms.

There are some words that are synonymous with genitals that as far as I can tell mean absolutely nothing but the genitals themselves though; words I’ve already mentioned, like “twat” and “cunt”. These words shame women for owning vaginae, suggesting that owning a vagina is somehow a bad thing. They reduce women to only the primary reproductive function of a vagina, which is to accede to the demands of a dick — suggesting that it is the proper lot in life for a woman to allow a man to put his penis in her, and she must allow this because that is all she is there for. Of the gendered slurs, this is the most egregious. It takes away the target’s sexual self-direction, their identity, their free will, and states that this is all they are — a life support system to a receptacle for a penis.

These words have a different meaning in the UK, though. There, a twat is a stupid or contemptible person, and a cunt is an objectionable person or object. However, in the UK, both these words additionally carry the exact same connotation as in North America and can be used identically — as a slur against a class of people, specifically women, who are, like here, specifically members of the “underclass” by virtue of not being men. And anyway, the fact that the slurs have a different meaning in a different culture does not excuse their use in this culture, and pretty well anyone arguing for the right to continue to use it is looking for a loophole to go on shaming women for being women. Once the difference is pointed out, people no longer can use that excuse, and should frankly be more readily able to provide a mea culpa for underestimating the culture difference.

Slurs should not be used in any case to devalue or silence another person, but you’re going to keep hearing them regardless. Not every pejorative term rises to the level of slur, though people sometimes like to pretend that every pejorative is one to draw false equivalences and decry perceived (but imagined) hypocrisies. What counts as a slur depends wholly on the cultural zeitgeist and the implications behind the words themselves. When they are used to demand that a member of an underprivileged class remain underprivileged, they are almost certainly slurs, and when these slurs are accepted as self-identification by members of that underprivileged class, they lose much of their bite. But not all of it. Especially not in cases where they focus laser-like on some aspect of a person’s being, rather than their behaviour.

I don’t advocate attempting to own every slur. Some slurs are only good for one thing: identifying people who have no interest in egalitarianism and excluding them from the conversation so the rest of us can get on with fixing the fractures in society. In a way, it is silencing the silencers. In another, it’s a convenient method of determining who’s actually interested in helping humanity, and who’s interested only in helping themselves at the explicit expense of others.

Owning the slur
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31 thoughts on “Owning the slur

  1. 1

    Here’s another part of it. Black people are still often callously referred to using the n-word by at least a sizeable minority in the USA (by most Tea Partiers, for instance). Women are still often referred to as bitches and chicks and sluts (though I don’t think twat or cunt work that way, do they?). Gay men are still often referred to as fags and homos. Lesbians are still often referred to as dykes and lesbos. There are also a whole bunch of slurs for ethnicity and nationality (this is where Canuck comes in). But does anyone go around talking about all those dicks, meaning men in general? Is there a word for men that is a put down like that?

  2. 2

    Only one I can think of, off the top of my head, is “bastard”. It’s applied only to men, as far as I know. And in that case, it means the person’s mother was unwed.

    That’s an aspect I meant to touch on in the original post — the idea that women who act like men are “bitches”, and men who act like women are “pussies”.

    So even the gendered insults against men are about the women. So charming.

  3. 3

    Right, bastard carries two aspects of misogyny in it: 1) it usually applies to men only as if male babies were the only ones worth trifling over, and as you say, 2) it applies to men whose mothers commited the horrible act of having sex out of wedlock or, horror of horrors, not being Christians (interfaith marriages it seems).

    So it doesn’t really fit with the other slurs for general populations where the term is a slur for a person’s identity (race, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, etc.). No, it would have to be something equivalent to dude or guy or bloke but also defame them at the same time.

  4. 4

    As a British person who came over to America to walk the PCT in 2010, a few people called me limey. Were they trying to insult me? From what I understand of the word its what sailors used to drink to prevent scurvy. I dont know about other Brit’s, but I’m rather proud of the Royal Navy and to be associated with them is a compliment!

  5. 5

    Just substitute “Yank(ey)” for “Limey” and you get pretty much exactly the same tone… Which is to say anywhere from fondness to “oh shit, I’m about to get beaten down.” It’s one of those “context is everything” terms.

    As for the main post, one thing about reclaiming slurs– you can only do it if they’re slurs at you. The act of reclaiming is not for allies to perform. Not even really good, sweet, caring allies who do everything else right. Leave that one to an actual member of the affected community and go do something else useful.

  6. 6

    Another area that you missed is disability. My friends with mobility problems can call themselves crips and spazzes and joke about their cripple cards (to use the disabled parking spots) but it’s another in-group only example.

    @Nentuaby, one of the funny things about the internet at large is that nobody knows if you’re in that community or not. So it gets much more tricky to use those partially reclaimed slurs than it is in meat-space. I’ve been amusingly presumed to be straight and able-bodied by people who really should know better. My nyms are usually identifiable as female, but other ambiguous posters are very often assumed to be male.

  7. 7


    Truth. Really, it’s best to stick to a policy of using slurs-being-reclaimed only reflexively unless you know your audience very well. Even when I’m head-to-toe rainbows at a pride parade, I’m not going to call some stranger a fag, or even call one of my friends same while strangers are in earshot. It might be patently obvious I was “taking it back,” but not everyone wants the damn thing back!

  8. 8

    […] Owning the slur There are a number of words whose only use is to hurt. There are words that once meant something strong and proud but, through repeated historical misuse, have become tainted by every bit of hate and venom that has ever flowed through them in their use. There are words that might, to some people, serve as a mere descriptive, an adjective to be used in daily discourse, but to others inculcate a fear of the types of violence with which the word has so often been used in parallel. […]

  9. 9

    A chat room I belong to, one that includes one third to one half non-US residents at any given time, discussed at length the issue of what short name to call US residents. (The Canadians took exception to “Americans.”) We were nearly unanimous in choosing “Yankee” as the best-sounding and most characteristic word, and now that is what we use.

  10. 10

    Alethea: the omission was not intentional, though the original post really wasn’t intended to provide a comprehensive list. It was more a discussion of slurs themselves, and when it’s a good idea to try to own them.

    The point Nentuaby makes is not only valid, it’s extremely important. If you aren’t obviously a member of the group to all parties involved in the conversation, trying to own the slur might result in backlash. For instance, Rebecca Watson used the word “twat” on a recent Skeptics Guide to the Universe, not as a slur against her fellow vagina-owners, but as a deadpan joke for their benefit. The fact that not everyone “got it”, means that incident is now fodder for those MRAs trying to fight for their right to call women twats indiscriminately.

    This despite the fact that Watson is obviously the target of such slurs and fights against their use. I suspect this is another case of the slur being better left to the assholes that really really want to use it to shame women.

  11. 11

    Thanks, CyberLizard! Yeah, I’ve referred to people as “dickish” in the past, mostly in reference to the Phil Plait “Don’t Be a Dick” speech, but even though it doesn’t rise to the level of slur I’m still making an effort to avoid using it.

    As for everything else, well, if I somehow use a slur and don’t realize it, I hope someone’s going to be real gentle with using the cluebat on me after this post.

  12. 13

    On a more serious note, as my understanding of issues like this and my own inherent privilege as a white male increases, I’ve become much more active in both policing my own speech for unconscious offensiveness as well as trying to educate others on theirs. Great post, btw.

  13. 16

    From the OP:

    Not to mention the name of my blog, Lousy Canuck. Greg Laden once told me that he has trouble saying the name of my blog, because Canuck was not a nickname for Canadian when it entered his consciousness, it was a slur against Quebecers.

    The word “lousy” also has negative connotations. It originally meant someone infested with lice. Lice, particularly body lice (Pediculus humanus humanus), can transmit diseases like typhus, relapsing fever (typhinia) and trench fever (Werner-His disease). Lice infestation is generally associated with having a low socio-economic status, either by being poverty stricken or being in crowded living conditions where hygiene is poor (homeless, refugees, victims of war or natural disasters, soldiers in a combat zone, etc.).

  14. 17

    I don’t agree that “bitch” has been reclaimed. It’s become much more socially acceptable – it’s allowed on network tv in primetime! – but that’s not a good thing; it’s not like fuck or shit, that are just useful swear words as opposed to pejoratives, it’s a woman-label that has retained all its old venom and added new stuff about being a slave or sexual slave or otherwise womanishly weak and subordinate. It’s a horrible word.

  15. 18

    I won’t argue you on the point that it’s a horrible word, Ophelia, with all its attendant meaning. I will say that I see it more often used in a “retaking” sort of way, given that I really don’t watch prime-time TV (or any TV at all honestly) any more.

    I haven’t encountered it with the weak and subordinate connotations though. It’s always meant “pushy” or “aggressive” or otherwise NOT submissive. Is this a relatively new phenomenon?

  16. 20

    Random other thoughts…

    I identify by a word that has been reclaimed in my time (and I’m pretty young). “Queer” was horrifying when I was little. I remember considering it one of the foulest words in the language. Now, reclamation efforts were in play, but the slur still lived.

    Now it’s considered by many (not all) a neutral blanket term for people of alternate sexuality. In fact it’s the most preferred term for many, including myself. The dual meaning of Gay as both a blanket term and one specific alignment has always been broken, so it evolved to get several other labels tagged on and settled as LGBT. In the last few years “LGBT” began falling out of favor with increasing speed because the enumerative approach is fundamentally bad, and because the acronym was always kind of a bad joke on the B and especially T anyway.

    That left a gap to be filled, and the mostly-reclaimed word fell into it. That’s where its reclamation got finished. (Your mileage may vary, of course; subcultural change does not happen evenly across all regions, and the mass culture is pretty much always a decade behind with this stuff.) There are still people who’d try to slur me with it, but it would take me a while to realize they were trying to be insulting; it just wouldn’t have that power to trigger shock and sickness that a live slur does. (Not that I wouldn’t take offense at the intent to sling a slur, of course.)

  17. 21

    OB, the reclamation of that word is definitely not an accomplished fact. There is a reclamation movement, though. Witness Bitch Magazine and the fairly prominent (albeit on-hiatus) trans feminist blog Genderbitch.

    It’s a pretty clear example of how hard reclamation is; just because the process is started or even thoroughly underway doesn’t mean the slur is defanged immediately (or, hell, within a generation.)

    Jason Thibeault:

    Relatively. Some subculture or another (I don’t know which one) made it the slur of the week for sex workers sometime around 2000, so all the bullshit attached to those stereotypes has been backflowing into the slur’s usage.

  18. 22

    I had the idea of running some of these slurs through the Google Books Ngram Viewer. I found that bastard and whore run tight together the entire way, bastard remaining on top; bitch starts lower than those two but then speeds past them in the 90s. Then douche and enema (for comparison purposes) trail along together until the 50s when enema usage increases. Also cunt, dick, and asshole share a close trajectory, with dick getting some early play in the 20s that peaks in the 40s until the rest meet it in the 60s. Twat, though, stands alone; it has hardly budged compared to the others, though its usage also seems to have kicked off in the 40s. Slut, like twat, stays low and steady in usage, though it is more common.

  19. 23

    Aratina Cage @ # 22: … with dick getting some early play in the 20s that peaks in the 40s …

    I rather doubt the Google software can distinguish between dick=penis and the now obsolete dick=detective, which latter may well have peaked in the years you mention.

    It may not even be able to sort out the use of bitch as a verb, which has become so widespread as to lose some of its sexism.

    Do a little more digging, however, and you can probably find multiple gender-studies theses demonstrating that numerous students have read their retinas raw analyzing the associated implications. Poor kids…

  20. 25

    Heh. While calling someone lousy might be a slur against the poor, it’s largely lost that meaning these days and just means “bad at doing X”. In the case of my title, being a Canadian.

  21. 27

    I haven’t encountered it with the weak and subordinate connotations though. It’s always meant “pushy” or “aggressive” or otherwise NOT submissive. Is this a relatively new phenomenon?

    I think Ophelia’s referring to the usage usually seen when calling men ‘bitches’, “I’m going to make him my bitch”, although I’d think the same concept applies in some situations with women also. “Bitch” becoming more socially acceptable I guess I don’t see as a bad thing, it means to me that milder definitions are potentially crowding out other more sexist intents. Let the power of these words diminish if it looks like it’s moving that way.

  22. 29

    I have been fascinated by the power of swear words and insults since I was a kid (much to my mother’s chagrin)and it’s affected me in many stages of my life.

    When I was very little I was constantly getting in trouble for using the word “retarded” and it frustrated me to no end. My mother worked with the mentally handicapped and she also involved us in a group called extend-a-family which paired families with children with mental and physical disabilities with families without those challenges. So I grew up with a best friend called Charlie who was retarded, as well as knowing many adults whom my Mum worked with with the same problems. I could not for the life of me understand why simply describing my friends was getting me in trouble.

    Due to this experience when I was a little older and I understood better I can recall attempting to have discussions with normally reasonable adults regarding the language, while they insisted I not use the language! It was remarkable to me that even when not used in an insulting or cruel manner, some words were still given so much power, and that power is often given by the very act of refusing to use them.

    Then at uniI remember hanging out with a friend of mine, we’d met in a human rights class and we got on to this topic as he was in a wheelchair due to his cerebral palsy and I’m a lesbian (a somewhat disparate set of traits that nonetheless bonded us). From then on whenever passing each other in the hallway we would greet each other with “hello cripple” and “hiya dyke!” The reaction of those around us was a fabulous source of amusement and discussion.

    In all of these cases, it proved to me thatas you point out, context is key.

  23. 30

    Stumbled upon this blog whilst searching out other things regarding slurs. Where I’m from (midwest USA), women do not like being called “bitch”, “twat” or especially “cunt”, often merely referred to as “the ‘C’ word”. Actually, “twat” is rarely used except for comedic effect between dudes in reference to a female. But “bitch” and “cunt” are always meant as the female version of “dick”, with “cunt” being the worst level of asshole woman.

    Calling a guy a “dick” is not something any guy around here would like applied to him. It is not a term of endearment. “Cock” is another alternative, but does not carry the same level of hurt as calling a woman a “cunt”. Being called a “big dick” is not better than being called a “little dick”, except that the latter is usually used in reference to a man of small physical stature. But being called a “big dick” is applicable based on just how much of an asshole one might be as opposed to his physical size.

    “Bitch” is also used toward one who complains or “bitches” about problems, but can also be used toward a guy who is seen as someone’s lackey or inferior, and is similar to being called a “pussy”, but with even worse connotations.

    And now I would take issue with the first commenter who stupidly and ignorantly suggests that Tea Party people commonly use the term “nigger”, as if to insinuate that Tea Party people are typically racist. This is absolute bullshit from someone who is obviously a cunt with no real interest in truth. Aratina should own THAT as it is appropriate.

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