Negative linguistic labels that function as tools of recognition in relation to race and gender are born from a culture of domination. They often take the forms of slurs or they hide as euphemisms, promoting hate and violence, and feeding on ignorance and cruelty. Labels condemn and dismiss everyone deemed to be different, while reinforcing pseudo-truths and commonly shared opinions of ethnicity, subcultures, and sexuality.
But even when they carry such a negative connotation, in their complexity and richness of meaning words offer the chance to escape any form of constraint, and can be used to subvert this damaging use. This is the socio-linguistic phenomenon of reappropiation, which implies that a term once used in a pejorative way to label a certain group of people is adopted by the same group with a new positive meaning, thus challenging social taboos and carrying new understanding.
As Farah Godrej writes in her essay “Spaces for Counter Narratives. The Phenomenology of Reclamation:” “We rescue or salvage [these words] from their earlier – often derogatory – meaning, so that they have the authority of our ownership behind them.” She continues: “Language alone is not the ultimate goal of reclamation – linguistic reclamation is usually a tool for disarming the power of a dominant group to control one’s own and others´ views of oneself.”
This control, Godrej suggests, is manifested over one’s self-image, self-conception, or self-understanding, and reclamation establishes a new balance between language and power, personal or socio-political empowerment. Through reappropriation a group or a person regain a type of cultural consciousness, an awareness of what makes them unique and valuable, eventually replacing shame with pride and confidence.
From the sans culottes (literally “without breeches”), which became the symbols of ideals of freedom, equality, and fraternity during the French Revolution, to contemporary hip-hop artists using, with a sense of ownership, words well within the space of declared political incorrectness, the history of reappropriation is linked with social changes, human rights achievements, ethnicity, gender and sexual vindications (from suffragettes to queer), and subculture movements (beatniks).
The word queer is an example of reclamation. From negative connotations of something odd, strange and suspicious, derived etymologically from the German term for oblique and off centre, queer was for a while associated with perversion and deviance. From the 20th century the term takes also sexual connotations like "invert" and "effeminate," used to mark deviation from heteronormativity.
The sexual revolution of the ´60s and ´70s paved the way for a decade of sexual and subcultural empowerment during the ´80s, when gay, lesbian, and transgender communities claim the legitimacy of non-normative sexuality, and refuse every form or label on their identities. Thus, the word queer comes to describe the choice of a path where gender and sexual boundaries do not exist; the term gains conceptual and practical significance beyond its former disparaging meaning, becoming a way to explore identity, free of prejudice and labels.
Reapproapriation and reclamation are essential phenomena that allow individuals to manage cultural spaces surrounding their identity, as they fight the battle on a linguistic front. Minorities, non-normative social classes, or the disenfranchised inhabit social spaces colonized by often abusive and demeaning discourses. For them, linguistic reclamation is a tool to breathe new life into old realities.
Words: Veronica Mafolino
Copy edited by Elena Stanciu