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OnWords: Reclamation Of The Pejorative

Atomische * Tom Giebel, flickr Creative Commons

What distinguishes words that are used as insults from those that have been reclaimed by the aggrieved party?

Consider the use of the word “gay,” once a way to slight someone who is attracted to the same sex but now used with a sense of pride. Or, and more problematically, consider the “n”-word, relentlessly repeated in rap lyrics, but still quite contested wherever it comes up.

The go-to response to whether an insult is taken as such by its intended target is context. Context is how we derive meaning for just about all spoken language, and that's why our friends can get away with calling us stuff that would otherwise lead to fisticuffs.

But taken publicly instead of privately, context fails as an explanation.

I propose the process of reclaiming a pejorative takes three steps.

First is a sense of ownership: the insulted group must assert its right to use the word, and, in some circumstances, to be the only group allowed to do so.

Second is public declaration through art or literature, pride marches or public relations. The danger of self-caricature is real at this point, but it works: the amped-up, vamped-up, and over-the-top gay pride marches of 30 years ago represent this phase.

Last is normalization. This does not mean that just anyone can use a once-insulting term, but it does mean that the rules for acceptable and unacceptable use are re-established, and opprobrium is heaped on those who break the new rules.

Reclaiming a pejorative is not a sole means to social power, but it does mark the rise of marginalized groups to positions of greater acceptance and esteem.