No matter how irrelevant a single word in a dictionary might seem, words are powerful entities capable of creation or destruction. Like the compressed singularity from which the universe was created, words are dense with history, packed full of connotations and scorching with possibility. When we use them, they come out with a big bang and have endless potential. From childhood, we are taught to think before we speak and that the pen is mightier than the sword so one would think that we would have learned by now of their power. Considering the ease with which stark generalisations roll off politicians tongues or the appearance of stickers defining ‘female’ meant to alienate transgender and non-binary students defacing our very own university, it seems not.
It is hard going a day without hearing the word ‘slut’ or ‘bitch’ being thrown around in social conversations. It’s a term used to shame women for their sexuality. It is a form of mate guarding. If society becomes unaccepting of women’s sexual agency, then men will sleep soundly knowing it is their seed, and not someone else’s, that gets passed on and inherits their property. When it’s used to describe men, it takes on a different meaning. He is being compared to a woman, the worst of insults.
“I find it disturbing when girls use terms such as ‘slag’ and ‘slut’ about other women” commented Grace Lavender, second year Religious Studies student. “These certainly are terms that were used at my all-girls secondary school, and I definitely used them myself. If you, as a young teenage girl, are taught to insult women who appear to be sexually ‘promiscuous’ (however that is defined) before you have even had sex, then how are you meant to relate to your own sexuality later in life?
“The hypocrisy is that we live in a society in which women are explicitly sexualised. Terms such as ‘slag’ and ‘slut’ demonise sexual women and yet women are taught and expected to be sexually appealing.”
It seems that there is a way of taking it back, however. Friends call each other ‘slut’ as an unspoken marker of their bond; it is almost flattering being insulted by a friend because it means you’ve crossed the imaginary line distinguishing you as ‘close’. When it becomes normalized it loses its sting. It is only through the grassroots work of women who have been owning the words historically used to “put them in their place” that the terms can no longer be used to harm them.
The word ‘queer’ has a similar story, although some still choose not to identify as such. It’s only after the deliberate efforts of LGBT+ activists that ‘queer’ has been reclaimed. It originally meant ‘peculiar’ and ‘strange.’ It was a term, with a negative connotation, used to describe those under the LGBT+ umbrella. Beginning in the late 1980’s LGBT+ activists used the politically radical word to own their identities. By reclaiming it for themselves, LGBT+ people took back the power from their oppressors to humiliate and belittle them: a radical example of making lemonade out of lemons.
‘Queer’ is of course criticised for perhaps becoming trendy or too broad and a cop-out from describing one’s relationship with power and privilege, but reclaiming it was certainly a bold move that showed just how important a word can be to a movement.
Even if not reclaimed in a movement, some words can be reclaimed personally. “An obvious word that comes to mind would be the racial slur c***k” said Mungwun, a first year Neuroscience student. “It is still used very often in Edinburgh and even though many people don’t realise the demeaning nature behind it, it is, more often than not, used with the intention to hurt. I remember a couple of years ago, as I was just walking home from school, two boys walked by me and shouted that word in my face.
“And at that point, I never really understood the underlying racism behind one simple word until I told my sister what happened. After she explained to me what it meant, I was reminded of the fact that my physical appearance was different from everyone else’s. For years I denied my culture and heritage, just because I was afraid to be even more different than I already was. Now that I’m older and fully understand the weight this one word carries used to demean someone solely based on their physical appearance, it doesn’t make it any easier to hear.
“In films, songs and even on the streets. I now get that it will never be a measure of how worthy I am to anyone or how pretty I look in their eyes. I own my heritage and culture so the next time someone uses this word against me, I will no longer avoid it and try to confront them.”
Our choice of words is not uncontroversial. There are terms we have no authority over because we do not personally understand the harm they have caused. From the distortion produced by the lack of an ‘allegendy’ to the ingrained shame of a racial slur, words are powerful. They can alter perspectives and give away prejudices. They can give and take power. They can give and take respect and humanity. Being mindful of our language is just one thing we can do to make this world a little better. It’s a small but a radical move.
“There is a famous Urdu saying in our culture and I will try to paraphrase the best I can, even though much is lost in translation remarked Rijah Sheikh, a 2nd-year Psychology student. “It says, an arrow shot from a bow and words spoken from your lips can never come back.
“While I am, unfortunately, accustomed to what they have to say and over time, practice has made this habit of brushing off words perfect, it leaves an impression of whoever says it. It tells me of their unjust intolerance, hatred, and sometimes unawareness. While their words don’t define me for myself, their words do, ironically, define them.”
Perhaps if we recognise the malicious potential of words, we would begin recognising them as hate and treating them as such. While words do not cause the same pain that violence can, they do cause pain. It is a different kind of abuse but it should not be diminished or overlooked.
Illustration: Charlotte Henderson