Language Reclamation

by LimebirdCat

The ownership and meaning of words is desperately important.

Of course it is – words are the key thing we use to communicate concisely and expressively with. There are of course other methods of communication at our disposal, but the others seem unable to contain the same impact of words.

Now, the importance of words, how they’re used, and their varying degrees can be debated until the cows come home, that’s not what I want to talk about. It’s the use of words in perhaps, a socially uplifting way.

Look at language reclamation. Anyone who has studied the subject of English Language will have come across this concept – the taking of words and changing their meaning so that they suit a particular purpose. This can be done in a positive, more informal way. Words like ‘cool’ and ‘sick’ (so I’m lead to believe by the next generation) have had their literal meanings replaced with conceptual ones. They now mean that things are good or great in a social, informal way.

Yet, my interest lies in the reclamation aspect.

Words have, for the history of mankind, been used to maim. It is a sad, inescapable truth that words have been thrown like daggers for simple, mordant effect. I got to thinking about it recently when I was reading a post one of my friends had put on Facebook, about a group who have decided to reclaim the initials ‘EDL’. They are usually associated with a political party of unsavoury qualities, which I will not spell out in order to not give them any more attention than they deserve. The new ‘EDL’ have decided, according to their manifesto, to stop hate and, of course, replace it with disco (that’ll explain with the D stands for).

I like the idea of a negative being replaced by a positive, even humorously. I like the concept that hatred can be diffused somewhat by simply robbing it of its hateful meaning. I like the way humour can be used to dispel the evil spirits attached to words.

For example, being called a horrible word hurts, there is no denying it. Growing up wearing glasses got me the wonderful cliché of ‘four-eyes’. As a grown up, I found it puerile and eye-rollingly awful. As a kid? It was horrible. Now, I have the intelligence and confidence to shake it off and probably come back at an offender with something more clever and infinitely more biting. But what if I embraced the tag instead of having it placed upon me? What if I was to refer to myself as it instead?

Perhaps it would appear terribly self-deprecating, but in the long term, it robs a bully of a term they can use on me. If I turned round and said, “Yeah, I’m four-eyes… so? You might as well have called me one-head or two-arms. Do you want an award? Wait there, I’ll just go get a teacher, you need recognition or something…”Apart from annoying that person, the point remains valid – embracing the negative, defusing it like a bomb and then shrugging at it, can turn hate into neutrality.

That is a very small scale example. There are words that have crept into our lexicon and into that of particular cultures, that have robbed those who would use them for harm of their meaning.

Of course, there are words that people still find very offensive, so I won’t write them down here, but think about it. Can you think of hateful vitriolic words, that people now use as a sort of every day idiom? Yes, they can still cause harm, especially in the context in which they are meant, but on a wider scale, they have been changed and warped into a quasi-acceptability. People are, over time, taking away the venom in language and replacing its meanings. They are reclaiming language with their bare tenacity and human spirit to stop it from being used by the ignorant and hateful. How wonderful is that? How beautiful a thing to see that words can be used with so much hope and yet, so unnoticeably. How often do we even sit there and consider why a word has changed its meaning? It can’t all be down to trend and what the ‘kids’ are down with these days. It has to come from the spirit within ourselves, the will to want better and to end the hatred.

Yes, I am waxing lyrical on my soap box once more – but it’s a worthy footnote to understanding the change and usage of language. As writers, we try and be a bit clever or perhaps a bit cautious about the language we use as we write. With this, it is worth noting that language is not just a means of letting people know something, but a concept, a perspective.

All ye poets out there will naturally float towards this anyway as with poetry words are mined and refined to acute perfection, so their absolute meaning is pondered. In the world of prose, I wonder, when we are writing down with our limitless word counts, if we perhaps forget some of this.

Never underestimate the power of what you write and how you write it. Don’t forget that the freedom you have to express yourself has the ability to help you be part of that linguistic change.


11 Responses to “Language Reclamation”

  1. Great post Cat! Yes I do remember studying Language Reclamation, very interesting topic! I also was a victim of the ol’ four eyes dig, and I think your idea to turn it back on them is a good one! Wish I’d have thought of that when I was at school, I’m pretty sure it would have worked.

    I love looking at language, and how meanings have evolved over the years, it’s really interesting. I saw a rude one the other day and I can’t remember where it was from. I think it was in Sherlock Holmes or something and it was.. OH WAIT I REMEMBER.

    It was using ‘ejaculated’ as ‘exclaimed/said’ *snort* *childish giggle* Anyways… that’s all. LimebirdBeth out.

  2. Great post -I have recently deconstructed “Misummer Night’s Dream” line for line throughout for a children’s book I am writing and I adore the way words have changed their meaning. It is a pure joy for me when I come across something new. I remember my son getting “four eyes” when he was only four – it is heart breaking. Great idea to agree and ask if they should get an award.

  3. Great post, Cat. I haven’t studied English Language. However, I did study history and religious studies once (not to higher level), and remember the subject of icon reclamation coming up somewhere – although it may be called something else.

    I think the whole concept of evolution is about taking something and making it suit a new environment. Language evolves in a similar way and I like to take your post to mean I can give grammar police death stares: “It’s not bad grammar, I’m simply reclaiming that sentence!”

    In terms of religious history, there are some well documented cases of religious symbols being reclaimed by successive religions seeking to undermine the symbols’ meanings. I think Dan Brown covered this in one of his Templar stories.

  4. Excellent Post. there is no faster way to end a verbal confrontation than to accept an insult and follow it with awkward silence. What more can they say? They have insulted you. You have agreed with them. End of conflict. It doesn’t always work that easy. But, it does take away some of their fire as they expect you to retaliate.

    I am routinely mystified at some of the words that are reclaimed. Interestingly, it appears to me that often, the younger generations lead the way.

  5. I love it! I was also four-eyes and a lot of other mean names kids come up with. Why are kids so darn mean! It’s always interesting to see the ways words evolve and change. Funny, my granny HATED the word “cool”, to me everyone said it everything’s cool but she just couldn’t stand when people referred to things as “cool”.

    This reminds me of Back to the Future – when Marty McFly goes from the 1980’s to the 1950’s, he says “heavy” a lot … (sort of like we said cool) and Doc Brown takes it literally thinking something is wrong with gravity in the future ! I love that movie!

  6. Great post…a good reminder of the power of words and how to fight words with…words!

  7. Reblogged this on Continuous Strings and commented:
    My latest Limebird diatribe on language reclamation. I know, I should have gone off and researched it further, but I didn’t want to – limited time and that Beth one, she’s such a mean slave driver! Ha! Only kidding.
    Enjoy 🙂 and whilst your at it, go have a look at all the other exciting things going on at Limebird Writers!

  8. There are so many words that get reclaimed, as you mentioned cool and sick, neat, killer, the bomb, etc. You are right as well, that many words have been reclaimed as slurs or insults. It’s a shameful thing but shortsighted, bigoted people abound everywhere I guess.
    I didn’t get my glasses until 9th grade, so was spared the stupid remarks by classmates. I’m sorry for those who weren’t, but you can be assured I never called anyone that!
    If only more people would simply follow the golden rule: Luke 6:31 “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” Seems like a pretty good thing to do, especially this time of year.

  9. The other place where words are misappropriated is in political discussion. Where even rhetoric has had its meaning changed.


  10. I love this bit, Cat: “As writers, we try and be a bit clever or perhaps a bit cautious about the language we use as we write. With this, it is worth noting that language is not just a means of letting people know something, but a concept, a perspective.” That’s so true, especially with conveying the ideas of a story through a particular voice.


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