Thursday, May 26, 2011

Language warning


Still here? Well obviously you are, so thanks - bear with me.

Did that offend you (you know, that word up top - go on, have another look)? People who were really disgusted are probably gone, but good riddance to them and their claustrophobic minds. If it did offend you in some way, why?

You see, it wasn't directed at you. It wasn't directed at anyone, or anything, for any purpose, with any meaning. It's just a word, sitting up there all alone, with absolutely no context whatsoever; so let's give it some.

Why would anyone start a blog like that? Simply, to demonstrate the power of words - of a single word. Is there any other word that can provoke such reaction without any context? I even tried to soften it up by refusing it its right to a capital 'C'. Because, to tell the truth, I'm even a little uncomfortable with it sitting up there as the opening word of this post.

Its origin is in vulgarity, and that's no doubt where it's impact comes from as a taboo word. However, like many words, its meaning and use has branched out and shifted over (many) years.

'Gay', 'queer', 'terrific' - these are all words that are now used in ways that bear little resemblance to their origins.

According to the undisputable Wikipedia (I do my research!):

Cunt is also used informally as a derogatory epithet in referring to a person of either sex, but this usage is relatively recent, dating back only as far as the late nineteenth century.[3] Reflecting different national usages, the Compact Oxford English Dictionary defines cunt as "an unpleasant or stupid person", whereas Merriam-Webster has a usage of the term as "usually disparaging & obscene: woman",[4] noting that it is used in the US as "an offensive way to refer to a woman";[5] the Macquarie Dictionary of Australian English defines it as "a despicable man", however when used with a positive qualifier (good, funny, clever, etc.) in countries such as Britain, New Zealand and Australia, it conveys a positive sense of the object or person referred to.[6]

Yet it's impact remains. I, for one, think that's great! It gives us a unique, vague but powerful word. Even if a few people are needlessly pissed off by it - if they weren't it would probably lose its impact. So surely context, intent and tone are what provide it with its ability to offend.

I despise leaf-blowers and if I say ‘Any man holding a leaf-blower shows himself to be a lazy cunt’, the word gives the sentiment an absurd hyperbolic impact that is otherwise unachievable.

Same with 'fuck'. It the most flexible word, with almost endless uses - as hilariously illustrated in this famous recording. Its etymology seems to be largely tied to sexual intercourse. It's still used in that way, but less often than in the many other ways it can be employed. Today a friend emailed me a copy of a new 'bedtime story for parents' - in children's book style - called Go the Fuck to Sleep. It obviously deals with putting a child to sleep, but no right-minded person would for a second think the word 'fuck' was used with any relation to its original meaning, whatever that may be.

I rarely hear the 'cunt' used as a reference to female genitalia. Strangely, 'Vagina' is generally seen as the acceptable term for this part of female anatomy; its literal Latin translation is 'sheath or 'scabbard' - as in for a sword. To me, that seems pretty degrading. But words change, and few people are aware of Vagina's origin, using it with purity and innocence. It's been successfully reclaimed!

There is one word that seems to be less flexible, even though it has been largely reclaimed by those its been used against, that I can't bring myself to write or utter without feeling like I shouldn't. It starts with 'N'.

Maybe its because of the way I've heard it used - as a specific, targeted attack filled with toxic, baseless hate. Maybe because, even though it has been reclaimed by the African-American community, it hasn't yet established a meaning for general use. If I saw it used appropriately though, I wouldn't be offended regardless of who said it.

I think there are words that are far more insensitive than 'cunt' when used flippantly. 'Rape' for one.

If you were offended by my use of it, it's probably due to connotations you brought with you. Valid they may be, but wherever they come from, it's not me that's offended you.

My only intent was to test reaction. I'm even a little uncomfortable with it sitting up there – but I've used it four times now.

Cunt. Five!

Swear words are important. Fucking important. Sure, they're sometimes used tastelessly, for offence, to hide lack of imagination, or just to excess; but they can effectively communicate strong feeling and add shock or emphasis that makes a joke funny in a way 'acceptable' language can't always achieve. Sorry dad, but yes, some jokes are funny because of the inclusion of ‘fuck’. Not that the word is funny in itself (usually), but it can be a key ingredient to a good joke.

I do say 'cunt' sometimes, in the appropriate context and only among friends I know well who are comfortable with it (ok, I've used it while drunk to be a stirrer and I genuinely regret it).Oh, and now when talking to a bunch of blog readers I may or may not know.

Cunt, fuck, shit, bitch are all great words when used properly, even having artistic value – and we should claim them as legitimate for those uses.

So, what about ‘slut’? I wholeheartedly support the Slutwalk movement, yet had some doubts about the attempt to reclaim the word or empty it of its offensive content. I agree with the general aims of the event. The current common connotations associated with 'slut' should not be applied to a woman just because she expresses her sexuality through dress, behaviour or work, or because they enjoy sex. No woman is ever implicitly asking to be sexually assaulted, abused or harrassed by expressing themselves in this way.

But the word… it seems different to the reclamation and redefinition of 'queer', for example. I mean, that was such an absurd insult in the first place, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with homosexuality. Whereas there are people - male and female, straight and gay - who are irresponsibly promiscuous, risking social and medical harm to themselves and others. If 'slut' has any legitimacy in its current form, perhaps this is where it lies. Can we reclaim it? Should we reclaim it? Would it really empower women to reclaim it, while some people continued to use it in a derogatory way?

Then I read this great article by Clem Bastow, one of the organisers of the Melbourne Slutwalk, and found it kind of enlightening.

I guess I felt differently about 'slut' because it has yet to be reclaimed. It's easier to appreciate the shift in a word, like 'queer', from this side - after the fact. I now think the reclaiming of ‘slut’ could be a part of a celebration and liberation of the positive aspects of sexuality – especially for women, whose sexuality is still socially suppressed in many ways. As Clem Bastow pointed out, it’s a process of change not an act of change.

Anyway, the word is just a minor aspect of Slutwalk, and should not get in the way of the bigger issue (it just tied in nicely to this post). What is important in the change Slutwalk seeks is education - so that we all learn to respect each other a little more through our attitudes, which shape how we use these words.

Society changes. So do words. Keep up or fuck off  :o)

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