Newsweek’s Kathleen Deveny on…that word

You know…that one. The one that’s the subject of the audience-participation section of Vagina Monologues?  That Shakespeare spelled out in Act II Scene V of Twelfth Night? Inga  Muscio’s declaration of independence?

Is that helpful?

There’s of course talk of “reclaiming,” an enterprise I’ve found myself increasingly skeptical of. After decades of amiable or neutral use of the word in hip-hop and other African American aesthetic endeavors, “nigger” has lost none of its strength as a pejorative. “Gay” can go either way; newscasters use it casually and without giggling, but among the youth it’s still a specific or content-free insult. “Queer” has lent itself to both a moniker of radical affirmation of gay identity, and the critical-theoretic study of homosexuality and the fluidity gender identity. At the same time, it retains such potency as an insult one hardly hears it.

The only categorically successful complete reclamation I can think of pertain to what atheists call themselves; most  I know find the words “godless” and “infidel” genuinely funny. But this case is special, because for most of the history of Western civilization, there have been no non-pejorative terms to refer to religious skeptics. The original Greek atheoi referred to a crime, not a belief system. So it’s not really a reclamation at all, but a co-opting.

I don’t think any word will ever be able to be totally reclaimed; context and intonation will continue to dictate everything.

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