Words change meaning overtime because the relationship between images and sounds are arbitrary. Here is an illustration of Saussure’s chart on the signifier/signified.
In case you haven’t read or watched The Vagina Monologues, I’ll give you a quick spoiler– at some point, you reclaim “cunt”. “Reclaiming Cunt” is a monologue that apparently has the ability to make anyone between 21 and 81, cheer, laugh, smile, but most importantly scream “CUNT!” without an ounce of shame. I have never seen the monologues, but reading it gave me the opportunity to singularly experience the full effect of a word being transformed within my mouth and mind. The word oozed out of it’s angry, bitter shell, and took on the life of a sweet and tasteful word, with a heavy “bite” at the end. I felt the word. For the creator of the Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler, she accomplished her reclaiming mission, thus providing a new “positive” word to those willing to open themselves up to the monologues.
Of course, this idea of “Reclaiming” isn’t new to anyone who has heard and discussed the “n-word”. The common argument amongst those who use it normally is that “we are taking the word back”. However one defines it, one can not disagree that it is a word that has been placed in the center of a tug-of-war between those who oppose it for its brutal and symbolic history, with those who view it as a word that can be reclaimed by the black community. And that’s where an interesting question is presented: should a word with such a brutal history be stripped of its original meaning and reclaimed by the group it has oppressed? And, if so, how productive is it for a movement towards equality?
The idea of humans actively reclaiming is a very interesting one. History has shown us that words normally take on a natural progression on their own due to the merging of cultures, changing dialects and sometimes, continuous misspellings. A great example of this would be the word “clue.” Clue origionates from the Greek mythology of Theseus using a “clew” (a ball of string) to find his way back after entering into a cave to kill a minotaur. By the 1500’s a “clew” had turned into its modern spelling of “clue” due to a variation of spelling becoming prominent. The gradual reshaping of the word “clew” is miraculous because the change in spelling eventually prompted a change in the meaning. Normalcy in language is defied in the active movement of reclaiming words. Reclaiming words does not factor in human misunderstanding, changing dialects and borrowing from other cultures. It is simply humans consciously re-creating their own culture by changing the way we relate to the word and define it.
The problem reclaiming presents occurs when the history of a word is endangered. The redefining that reclaiming provides is geared towards stripping the word of it’s original power, which is manifested through stripping the word’s original definition, and replacing it with a more empowering one. For “cunt”, the women and leader of “V-Day” intend to return the word to its original owner, “a queen who invented writing numerals”. This concept is fantastic, but when words such as “kiek”, “jap”, “nigger”, “kaffir”, etc. are being “reclaimed”, the idea of stripping away the original definition, which gradually abolishes the history behind the word, becomes an issue. The issue is that by distorting the history of a once (or currently) oppressed group of people, it not only leaves room for only one fabricated version of history, but also allows room for that history to be repeated, thus producing an unequal form of history. This may seem extreme, but consider the idea that with the absence of the pain and brutality within history, space is created for accepting brutality. If one can not reflect on a past mistake, then one will not learn.
The original question posed was “can words be reclaimed?” And the answer is obvious: sure they can. But the following question, “how productive is it to social movements?” is the tricky one. The act of reclaiming words that have inflicted pain upon a people is a brave act, and an amazing attempt to actively change the way a people perceives themselves. And yet it is also very dangerous. Removing power from a word opens up the door for future generations to become ignorant or neglect painful aspects of our history. So, is reclaiming a word productive to a movement?
The answer is, it depends on the movement. There is no “right or wrong” answer to this question. But the thing that is most essential is that we should all be allowed to take back the power once lost when these words were inflicted upon us. But it is also important for us not forget our ancestors, many for who the last words they heard happened to be the words that we currently embrace.
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