Guest blogger: Pakis and Queers

By Charlotte Hinge
As every school child will testify, the phrase ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me’ isn’t always true. It can be very difficult to ignore verbal abuse that is accompanied by visibly deep feelings of disdain and even hatred. The two examples in the title are especially hurtful and shocking and liable to provoke a strong reaction.
I know that I don’t really have to explain this to readers of Naked Translations who, I’m sure, are far more adept and accomplished users of language than I am and are all too familiar with the ways in which it can be used to wound and challenge others. Not that I’m suggesting that you’re all out there hurling abuse at random people in the street…
But language changes and each of these terms of abuse has been reclaimed in some way by the very people the terms are aimed at. I recently saw a programme on the BBC about Asian communities in Britain which discussed the fact that the term ‘Paki’ has been reclaimed by some young Asian Britons who will proudly wear the name on a t-shirt. The word ‘queer’ is now used not just by lesbians and gay men to identify themselves, but has become an academic discipline, ‘queer studies’ challenging the idea of normal or accepted sexuality and gender as something that is innate or fixed. The interesting thing for me about all of this, is whether all such words can be reclaimed and whether meanings do change, breaking free from their old associations.
Amongst the people interviewed about Asian life in Britain, there was a very clear divide as to whether the term ‘Paki’ can, in fact, be reclaimed. For some, it was always going to be impossible to separate their experiences from the label and they wished that the term would simply disappear. For others, there was a sense of power from taking the term and not being afraid of it anymore and not allowing themselves to be intimidated by language. In being reclaimed, the term queer has also grown in strength with lesbians and gays openly shouting, "we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!".
I don’t have any answers and this discussion could go on and on. One thing that does seem clear, is that the value of a word is dependant on whose mouth the term comes from. A neo-nazi shouting ‘Paki’ doesn’t mean the same thing as when a member of the British Asian community uses this term in an enlightened way. I’m happy that words can be reclaimed and that power dynamics can be challenged. There will always be people who continue to use a word in its original meaning, intending hurt and oppression, which suggests that words can’t ever be reclaimed fully. However, taking such words and turning them completely around creates a depth and double meaning that turns the pain, at least for some people, into power.

By | 2016-10-18T15:51:17+00:00 March 28th, 2005|Culture, Guests|5 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Sarah March 29, 2005 at 10:07 am

    You’re right, this is a minefield… where to start?
    “people… intending hurt and oppression”
    My experience is that people who use specifically abusive language like this don’t really think, they have little awareness of what they are saying.
    We used all sorts of language as children that no adult was ever going to take the time to explain to us. It might have been hurtful, but it was also horribly naive. At some point everyone was a ‘chav’, ‘gypo’, ‘spacker’, whatever. Nobody told us it actually meant anything. When we grew up, we dropped the language and just went on to other things.
    I was born in South Africa to English parents, and came to England when I was two years old. At age 10, my best friend in Primary School turned round one day and called me an ‘evil, white South African’ – what was she talking about? There were people in South Africa doing horrible things in the 80s, but what exactly did that have to do with me, here? Neither of us knew, and it only set our friendship back about two days, but it was shocking – it was an insult from the adult world.
    I think you learn this stuff when you are immature and occasionally it just sticks. I quite like the ‘Paki’ T-shirt image. It’s not entirely rational, but maybe it’ll work because it is so immature too.

  2. Daniel Hinge March 31, 2005 at 8:52 am

    Well written Miss Hinge. Presumably done sat in a pizza parlour in Italy?

  3. trouble fete April 27, 2005 at 9:38 pm

    What about Cornershop?

  4. Su April 29, 2005 at 6:00 pm

    Or as we used to shout on the London Pride March when approaching the West End…
    “We’re here,
    We’re Queer,
    and we’re NOT going shopping”

  5. Su April 29, 2005 at 6:23 pm

    Another thought…..Unfortunately,although minority groups may try to reclaim terms used by the majority, the majority is adept at finding a new term with which to label anyone perceived as different….when I was young, I too used terms like spazza and flid (not realising until much later that the latter was a shortening of Thalidomide). Recognising the perjorative use of the word, the Spastics Society changed its name to Scope….alas,this did little to change things – when my daughter was at school, the favourite insult for anyone suspected of stupidity was…”Scopehead”. That has now largely died away, I believe, and in these enlightened times, children with any sort of disability in school are referred to as having special needs – but yes, you’ve guessed it, now children simply label a peer seen as stupid as…”special”, with heavy sarcasm duly applied.

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