Weighted words

What’s in a single word? Maybe more than you thought

The cast of The Vagina Monologues leads the audience in a rousing chant of the word ‘vagina.’
The cast of The Vagina Monologues leads the audience in a rousing chant of the word ‘vagina.’
Credit: 
Photo Supplied by Rick Keilhauer

Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me? Catchy though the old adage may be, in South Africa a single word has landed people in jail, been the cause of physical fighting and in a few extreme cases, resulted in death.

The word “kaffir” is considered so offensive in South Africa that in 1976 its use became actionable in court. Despite this, the word continues to be used as a derogatory reference to black South Africans.

Given the word’s origins as a farming term meaning roughly “to plant seeds,” and later used by Arab traders to describe the non-Muslims they encountered in the south and east of Africa, it isn’t clear how the word came to be so racially charged.

Ethnophaulisms, or ethnic slurs, exist in a variety of forms, but are ubiquitous among other types of hate speech and taboo language around the world.

Adele Mercier, a professor of philosophy at Queen’s, said differing cultures have a correspondingly different sense of what words are inappropriate.

“The offensiveness of words is conventional exactly to the extent that what cultures despise is conventional,” she said. “Curse words and taboo words are different in different cultures only because, and to the extent that, different cultures despise different things.”

Mercier said calling a person of Anglo-Saxon descent a dog would produce a significantly more muted reaction than if the same insult was delivered to an Arabic person because of differing cultural opinions regarding canines.

In the case of kaffir, the word’s initial meaning is irrelevant, as it has now absorbed the racial hatred felt by speakers of the word.

“This is a genuine way in which language is a reflection of the mind,” Mercier said. “The meanings of our words reflect our attitudes about the objects denoted by the words.”

Mercier added the word “nigger” was “at some time, in some dialects the standard and innocuous phonetic realization of a word meaning simply black. What turned it into an offensive word is that it came to be used by racist people as an expression of their racist attitudes.

“Words are objects that get transmitted from person to person, like germs. Some words are like noxious viruses:  nasty attitudes attach to them, because the words carry the negative attitudes that their users have towards their referents.”

While words like “nigger,” “cracker” and “faggot” are recognizably and historically weighted with hatred, systemic and individual, others inhabit a grey area.

The word “cunt,” for example, is a highly disputed case. Considered by some to be the last remaining taboo in a society increasingly difficult to shock, Germaine Greer advertised this quality as a positive feature of the word, while others have attempted to sanitize its image, suggesting its frequent use in pornographic films is demeaning to women and shrinks their value to that of a single body part.

“Sometimes sanitizing words is a fine thing to do,” Mercier said, adding that it can, in the right context, aid in changing social attitudes for the better.

“There can also be good reason not to sanitize words,” she warned. “We might not want to sanitize ‘Fuck you’ because sometimes that’s just what you need to use! Some people don’t want to sanitize words because they don’t want them to lose their shock appeal.”

Katrina Keilhauer, ArtSci ’10 and one of the three directors of this year’s Vagina Monologues at Queen’s, told the Journal in an e-mail that the audience of the Monologues was similarly polarized on the issue.

“During the show, we put two cups in the women’s bathroom and asked people to vote with their change whether they thought the word ‘cunt’ was empowering or offensive,” she said. “When we counted the change at the end of the shows, they were actually equal in value.”

Keilhauer added that the vocabulary surrounding females was representative of a greater issue: global attitudes towards women and the misogynistic ideology lurking below our vocabulary.

“If you think about the absolute worst things that a man can be called, you’ll find most of them relate to being a woman or being feminized (girl, pussy, fag, etc.),” she said. “Yet the worst things that a woman can be called also relate to being female: bitch, slut, whore, cunt. It’s not just that so-called bad words are related to sex but that they are often related to being female. I think this really points to how misogyny and patriarchy are entrenched in our language.”

Keilhauer said one of the central issues for the Monologues was an examination of the acceptable vocabulary surrounding women. “One of the goals of The Vagina Monologues is to normalize, reclaim and celebrate certain words, especially ‘cunt,’” she said. “Fear of a word creates fear of the thing, so the first step in loving women (yourself or others) must be to be comfortable using the words associated with them.”

The process of “reclaiming” a word has become increasingly common, with words like “queer” adopting positive meanings within the community the word was originally used to denigrate.

However, Mercier said that changing the language used to describe a group is only one step towards changing a pervasive opinion of that group.

“It would be idiotic to expect the mere adoption of a new word to result in the eradication from society of the offensive attitudes that ride on the use of the old word. As long as the offensive attitudes persist, they will eventually infect whatever words are around that denote their target,” she said. “Language is just the vehicle by which we express the oppression that exists in the world … as long as the odious attitudes persist, language will invent new means to express them. Odious attitudes disappear by education, not by censoring words.”

But it’s not just slurs that can hold sociolinguistic weight.

Like slurs, “swear” or “curse” words are culturally relative.

“Swear words can and do change over time, when the context for them changes,” Mercier said, adding that predominantly Catholic countries utilize predominantly religious swear words, while the demise of religion worldwide has lead to an increase in sexual and scatological cursing. The power of these words, Mercier said, lies in the images they conjure in the mind of the listener.

“The amygdala—a small gland buried on each side of the front of the temporal lobe—helps invest memories with emotion,” she said.

“The amygdala lights up when a person sees an angry face or an unpleasant word, specially a taboo word. Because of the automatic nature of speech perception, once a word is seen or heard, we are incapable of treating it as a squiggle or noise but instinctively our memory is jarred and we respond to its meaning, including its connotation.

“Because of the automatic nature of speech perception, taboo words hijack our attention and foist upon us thoughts that are upsetting. That is why they feel like a verbal assault.  They inflict psychic pain on the listener, by forcing the listener to consider images they would prefer not to consider:  violent images of fucking, blown-up images of private parts, jarring images of excrement and unapologetic rebuttals of religious sentiments.”

Mercier suggested the reason for this feeling of assault might be related to biological evolution as much as the evolution of language.

“The question of why it is corrosive images of sex, excrement and pestilence in particular that trigger our amygdalas is an interesting question, whose answers we can safely speculate to be found in our evolutionary biology,” she said.

“The answers here are the same as explaining the development of our emotions of disgust: avoidance of disease, undoubtedly foremost among them. Here it may help the vivacity of our intuitions to remind ourselves that our brains are, at bottom, Neanderthal and the reactions of our amygdalas were formed well before the advent of bathing.”

Ultimately, Mercier said, language is only powerful because of what it represents. To borrow language from famed linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, the signifier (word) is completely arbitrary—it is the signified (actual thing represented by the word) that is imbued with meaning by society.

“It’s up to language users not to use words that act as vehicles for contemptible attitudes if they don’t share these attitudes,” she said. “It’s up to language hearers not to have knee-jerk—or in this case amydgala-jerk—reactions that using a word is ipso facto a sign of contemptible attitudes.

“There is no substitute for thinking.”

Technically speaking...

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