Reclaiming words

Image by: Alex Choi

Katherine Fernandez-Blance


The English language is constantly evolving, and with it, so should the use of our pejoratives.

There’s been a recent effort to ‘take-back’ words that are usually deemed too offensive and derogatory to mention in civil conversation.

It’s a good start, considering that words are power. It’s about time that historically marginalized groups reclaim a space that has been taken from them.

I’ll print slut and dyke, but I won’t say the N-word. It’s a simple logic — while I might have been referred to as a slut or dyke at some point in my life, I’ve never, and likely will never be referred to as the N-word. It’s a personal choice, which is what reclamation should be about. Of course verbal harassment and labeling is never justified. But, the reclamation of words that have historically been used to marginalize can be empowering.

In my first year at Queen’s I attended the Vagina Monologues, a feminist production that many

know for the scene in which audience members are encouraged to chant “cunt” along with a cast member.

I was visibly uncomfortable with the scene, having always thought the word was one of the most foul expletives in the English language.

Yet years later, when I next saw the show, I chanted alongside the cast. I did so because I wanted to be part of an action that protested a previously anti-feminist word, and changed its meaning. The word was no longer scary, or rude; in that specific context, it was empowering.

Social movements have been successful in doing this exact thing.

It’s not wrong for SlutWalk, a nation-wide event designed to protest slut-shaming, or Dyke March, a lesbian-led event, part of Toronto’s Pride Parade, to name themselves after a pejorative. Rap music particularly has different variations of the N-word in their lyrics. If musicians wish to reclaim the word as an act of protest, they shouldn’t be condemned for doing so.

It’s up to the individual to self-identify and it’s important to contextualize a given situation.

Of course one could argue that a blanket ban on certain pejoratives would ultimately be more fruitful, but in a consistently sexist, homophobic and racist society, this is wishful thinking. We own our words; they shouldn’t hold the power over us.

Katherine is one of the Editors in Chief at the Journal.

Labiba Haque


There’s a reason why words hurt.

Words are a communal tool that can be easily used as weapons due to the power they hold.

Regardless of good intentions, to try and shift that supposed power may cause more harm than good.

In recent years, events such as SlutWalk have tried to reclaim the word “slut” to challenge notions of victim-blaming and sexual violence.

Although I commend the effort, I don’t think the onus should be on rebranding people’s perception of what the word means. Words are so deeply entrenched in our society that it takes more than an attempt by a few to truly take away their power.

My opponent states that reclaiming all pejorative words is a possibility. I suppose it is for some, but only if it becomes gradually acceptable in society and their meaning is largely altered — a feat that’s rarely possible.

Many supporters of appropriation point to “queer” as an example of successful word reclamation. They suggest that this can be done for all words, if the group reclaiming it is associated with the word.

But that’s not necessarily the case. If a derogatory word is said with enough malicious intent, it’s still offensive. A group of individuals may think writing “slut” on their body may be empowering, in terms of regaining control, but reshaping it doesn’t prevent the damages such a word causes in other situations.

Women should be able to dress however they want, but the focus should be on the act of shaming not on the word.

Words like the N-word, also have historical connotations and meanings associated with them. The N-word, like many other words in the English language, represents years of misuse and trauma.

It’s naïve for a younger generation to attempt to embrace the word, especially if they’ve never been tied to it the same way the previous generation was. No single group has a direct claim over a word; they’re accessible to every member of society.

Even if an associated group tries to take ownership of a word, its potential damage won’t change unless its connotation, both historical and definitive, is completely removed.

So the next time you want to call me a slut in an attempt to empower me, don’t. The focus should be on the issue itself, not on rebranding gimmicks.

Labiba is one of the Editors in Chief at the Journal.



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