This morning I’m thinking about reclaiming words.
Linguistic reclamation is the reappropriation of a pejorative epithet by its target, to turn an insult into a positive term and deny others the ability to define it.
‘Black’ has been used in English literature in a derogative way, even the evil is black and Jesus is white. But here we are, standing proudly and saying that black is beautiful. We have reclaimed black.
Hip hop in black America has helped reclaim ‘nigger’. Nigger is a big bad word in the United States, a symbol of centuries of black people dehumanization and oppression. But how do you snatch its potential from the hands of the oppressor? How do you deny such symbols their potency?
Hip hop took the word and symbol of oppression, the word nigger, a word meant to hurt, from the hands of the oppressor, reclaimed it and has continued to erase its agency, its potency, devalue its currency through overuse until it is completely oppositioned to its history. A thousand rap songs with the word nigger.
Though there are the N-word privileges. It is used when among themselves. Sometimes there is a honorary pass, and Latinos are allowed to use the N-word, but not all Latinos. Jennifer Lopez was criticized for using the word, while Terror Squad is allowed to use it all the time. African-American comedians use it all the time, but no white American can use it without a backlash. Context is key.
So when black people use it, it is not only a shared history and identity, though painful, but a testament of ingroup understanding that there has been a reappropriation of meaning.
‘Nerd’ has been reclaimed. Bitch, dyke, Jesus freak, slut, queer, gay. Now we have queer on the covers of books and queer theory being taught in universities. Gay has been reclaimed. Calling someone gay used to be an insult. Now LGBTI has reclaimed the word. It’s no longer an epithet.
A great way of taking the pain of a hated epithet out of it, is to reclaim it for the group it’s used against. Calling someone queer was a way of derision. It used to hurt, it was meant to hurt. Now millions wear it as a badge, a clothe of honour, of individual identity. The unruliness of black hair used to be problematic. Now our women have made natural hair a thing of beauty.
To reclaim is to recapture the power to define.