Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt. Whoever coined that phrase was never referred to with a slur or labeled with a derogatory phrase.
Even though words can have hurtful origins and connotations, the act of reclaiming words in various communities has become a practice.
Reclaiming, also known as reappropriation, is the cultural process by which a group reclaims terms or artifacts that were previously used in a way disparaging a group, according to the article “Slurs” by Adam M. Croom in the linguistics journal, “Language Sciences.”
“What’s powerful about word reclamation is that it does not leave words to exist forever with a negative connotation,” Taneum Bambrick, Associated Students Women’s Center program support staff, said. “Although we sort of outlaw words and say it’s bad to use them, that doesn’t do as much as taking them and changing them, because the words still exist.”
In the queer community, the primary taboo words are fag, faggot or tranny, said Jordan Deal, AS Queer Resource Center coordinator. While certain sects of the community deem such words as taboo, others choose to use them.
For example, some drag queens and transgender men use the term “tranny,” but other individuals in the trans-gender population do not think it is appropriate for them to reclaim the word since it does not apply to them, Deal said.
Tranny, in its original usage, referred to transgender women of color who were in the sex-work industry, Deal said.
“Tranny is one [term] that we avoid using at all costs, especially with the trans representation on campus being very minimal,” Deal said. “It’s important for us to watch that word and be an advocate and ally to those students.”
Deal does not use the term at all.
Fag, or faggot, is also a taboo term, but within in the queer community it is sometimes used.
“Fag and faggot get a ‘no, this is not okay ever to say’ rap at Western specifically, but personally and with [specific groups of friends], we look at the word as something that can be used as something among friends,” Deal said.
The term is one of the more common slurs still used today, much like the term “gay,” However, fag has a different history.
“[People] use ‘gay’ to mean stupid and that’s hurtful, but the origins of fag and faggot, I feel, are more violent, so the use of it as a slur hits harder,” Deal said. “I think, for a lot of people, it definitely can create an unsafe space in terms of residence halls and areas where students are living, particularly in their early years at Western.”
Deal, who does not use the term in all circumstances, has recently come to identify with it and does not see the word as offensive.
“[I have] internally identified with it and decided where I stand with the term,” Deal said. “But I haven’t had a lot of outside connection with it with other people besides close friends.”
One reclaimed word in the queer community is the word queer itself.
The shift in the word’s connotation began in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Deal said. It was reclaimed with the idea of members of the community identifying as queer individuals instead of identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, Deal said.
“You could queer something [by] looking at something through a queer lens, like you could look at something through a feminist lens,” Deal said. “So it is more of a political identity than just a category for describing a sector of people.”
Straight people could also be considered queer with this connotation of the word, Deal said.
Reclaiming words for any community is a difficult task, Deal said. There will always be the issue of who can and cannot reclaim certain words, as shown with the term tranny.
“[For example], with the Slut Walk [a nationally occurring march of participants protesting against rape and its connection to a woman’s appearance], is it okay for predominantly white, middle-class women to reclaim ‘slut’ or is it not their place?” Deal said.
A word cannot be erased once it’s in the language, Bambrick said. People remember that it once existed, and they remember the connotation it had, she said.
Words in general have their own meanings and connotations, but the power and impact behind them is only present when allowed, Deal said.
“Words only have power if I give them power,” Deal said. “It’s important for me to reclaim all terminology that can be used against me, because I would rather use it as I see fit than let somebody manipulate me with it.”
The ability to reclaim a word lies with the community it is affiliated with, Deal said.
Minority groups come together because they have faced oppression, and to be able to share in the terminology that has oppressed you is a powerful symbol of kinship, Deal said.
“All these terms have been used against us, they’ve all been used hurtfully,” Deal said. “Let’s use them for ourselves, and let’s define them in our way.”