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.