Once upon a time, a French linguist named Saussure represented words as things with two parts: the signifier (the symbol – sounds, hand signs, shapes made out of ink, etc) and the signified (the meaning – if the word is tree, the signified is a tall brown cylindrical thing with lots of little green things coming out of it). The connection between the signifier and the signified is an arbitrary, conventional, changeable one. That is, there’s nothing about tall brown things that makes them need to be called trees. Arbol does just fine for them too. There are theories of sound symbolism, but they are so limited in their scope and in their consistency (we’re talking, maybe possibly words with the “ee” sound tend to, but don’t always, represent things that are smaller than words with the “ah” sound – not a big threat to what I just said) that we can safely ignore that here. So that’s what arbitrary means. Conventional means that, since the connection between signifier and signified is random, people in a speech community have to agree on it, and it’s that agreement that MAKES the string of sounds or whatever they are MEAN the definition of the word.
Stop and think about that for a second. I’m saying that dictionaries are not divinely inspired and dropped down to us from the heavens as the perfection towards which we must strive. People write dictionaries by looking at how other people ALREADY define words (by seeing how they’re used in context). We, the speakers, are the authority. When someone tells you you’re wrong because the dictionary doesn’t have the word you just used, you are completely within your rights to explain that the dictionary-makers haven’t caught up to you yet. You have my blessing to compare yourself to the cutting-edge trendsetters in fashion, and your dictionary-enslaved friends to people who shop off the rack (just not in a classist way). Now, it gets more complicated than that, because people tend to think that certain speakers ought to have more authority over the language than others, but there is no way they can prove that. It’s pure opinion. It’s widely held opinion, so it would behoove you to take notes on those speakers if you like being employed and respected, but surely we all know that just because a lot of people believe it, doesn’t mean it’s so.
Unless “it” is the definition of a word, since they’re conventional. But that only means it’s so for those people, not for everyone.
One of the completely natural, inevitable, universal things about language is that it changes over time, which covers the changeability part. Change happens for lots of reasons, ranging from a kid never having an opportunity to hear a word to a social group using language in a different way from others in order to identify themselves as different. You can try to fight against this, but like the anti-gay marriage people, you will be assured of eventual defeat. You would be in the company of the people who used to write that using “you” to address a single person is crazy and improper and must be stopped for the good of civilization. The words, they are a-changin.
OK, now that we’ve got that knowledge under our collective belt, let’s have a quiz.
1. Does the word bitch mean female dog, mean woman, cowardly man, to complain, female friend, or, with the suffix -in, awesome?
2. Does the word cunt mean high priestess, vagina, or horrible woman?
3. Does the word gay mean cheerful, homosexual man, anyone homosexual, or retarded?
4. Does the word retarded refer to someone with a legitimate mental disorder or to someone who did something stupid?
If you’re looking for the “all of the above”, you’ve been paying attention. There is no Real Meaning of any of these words. To many non-English speaking people, they aren’t words at all. To some English-speaking people, gay means cheerful. To others it means anyone homosexual. To others it means both. You get the idea.
Does this mean that it’s ok to call anyone whatever you want, and that you can avoid getting called offensive by explaining that J19 said it’s ok and she knows linguistics so she must be right? No. When you decide to say a word, you make that decision for a reason, or several reasons. Like, when I just wrote “reasons” right there, I did it first because I wanted to get the idea of motivation and premeditation, and second because I was talking about several of them instead of just one, and third because my audience is mostly English-speaking and may not understand “razones.” And also because it’s a word I use a lot. And that’s just the word “reasons.” When you call someone a bitch, or a cunt, or gay, or retarded, there’s even more going on. When you call a woman a bitch, you purposely (but probably without stopping and thinking about it too much, consciously) choose that word instead of “asshole” or “dick” or “meany-pants.” Why? What does bitch say that those words don’t? What do those words say that bitch doesn’t? When you say the word “slut”, you are simultaneously calling someone promiscuous, female, dirty, and immoral. You can’t pick and choose, they’re all there, packaged together, just like how bitch prepackages female and mean (and mean in a female-specific way) together. Why are they attached like that? What does it mean when you use a word that attaches those concepts?
Oh, but you were really just referring to a female dog. Well, if you said “Kathy [a person] is such a bitch,” then no, you weren’t referring to a female dog, and the fact that bitch can also mean female dog cannot save you. I shouldn’t have to say that, but some people….
Ok, so what if you’re that kid who says “That is SO gay” and just means retarded, and by retarded you just mean dumb, and you’re sorry that those words have other meanings and were originally based on making fun of certain groups of people, but it’s not your fault, and you’re not trying to make fun of those groups of people when you say them, you just like the words. First, in your defense, no one should tell you that you’re just so wrong because retarded ALWAYS means mentally challenged and can never change. If that’s the case, they should be offended every time someone calls them nice, which used to mean foolish. Second, in the defense of those people, you need to acknowledge that the meanings of those words that refer to groups of people who are not inherently bad and who are habitually discriminated against – those meanings are still in use. By people all around you. They’re not just a piece of trivia like the old meaning of nice. Some people will see your use of “gay” as a prepackaged insult like “slut” and “bitch.” And if you call a cowardly guy a “bitch”, some people will note the fact that a mean woman can also be called a bitch and assume that you’re saying something bad about this guy, but something even worse about all women. Ditto “pussy”.
If you’re an insensitive asshole, you might not care what people think you mean. Except you do, because you have to care what people think you mean in order to communicate. If I really didn’t give a shit if you saw what I was really getting at, I’d just seonfm mofw woelme nfsliafsm. But I do, so I write in a way that is intelligible to you, and I use words that I think you will understand in the way I want you to understand them. I don’t call you nice when I’m trying to tell you I think you’re stupid. So you should be aware that when you say something with an offensive history or double meaning, 1) you might mean it in an offensive way (check your reasons for using that word) and 2) you might offend someone else even if you don’t mean it in an offensive way.
Ok, now what if you know what it means, but you’re one of the people it’s offensive towards, and you want to change its meaning and neutralize it as a weapon against you? Good luck. I don’t know if you’ll succeed in changing it, because language change is as unpredictable as it is inevitable. But you’ll have to make it clear that you’re using it in a new way. The fact that it would (well, might) counter to your own best interests to discriminate against yourself is a big way in which you send the message that you’re doing something new with this word. But remember, a lot of anti-feminist women call other women sluts and bitches and mean it the oldest, nastiest way. If someone who it never referred to tried to claim they were reclaiming the word, they would be subject to suspicion that they are in fact 1) using it in the same old way, in order to reinforce their power over the oppressed group, or 2) trying to control the new definition in addition to the old definition and thus disable the attempt by the oppressed group to cancel out the domination that the word represents. Now go back and re-read the above paragraph.
This is the nature not only of words, but of all symbols. The Confederate Flag, for instance. By itself, taken out of history and all other context, it’s meaningless. So you can’t say it = racism, nor can you say it = heritage and has nothing to do with racism. Those of us who are familiar with the history understand it based on that history, and, significantly, we understand it based on the part of the history that we know the most and believe the most and care about the most. There is no solution to the argument over that flag, or any flag. People will continue to see it in different ways and the best we can do is understand why. This goes for the things that I hate about traditional marriage, too. As I noted there, people carry out a lot of deeply sexist traditions without seeing or intending the sexist meanings. I personally still see them as sexist, and I don’t want to do them, but other people may see my point and still think, well, they’re not hurting me, I just like throwing flowers across the room. What’s important is that we both understand that we’re not objectively right or wrong; we need to understand the meaning that symbols have for other people and keep that in mind when we use symbols as well as when we interpret them.
It’s all a game we play. We can’t see into each others’ minds so we try to communicate via symbols that we all pretty much understand in the same way, but we don’t understand them in exactly the same way (since we can’t see into each others’ minds), so we get it wrong sometimes. But we’re aware that we’re getting it wrong sometimes, and that we’re using symbols that others will see differently than us, and as long as we have that awareness, we have a certain responsibility. How much responsibility is a matter of opinion, but I think it’s fair to say that we at least have the responsibility to think about this issue.
There’s one more way in which we have responsibility, and that is the way in which we are all continually constructing the meaning of the symbols we use. Just as the dictionary is written based on the way people used words a couple years ago, so will the next dictionary be written based on how we use words today. Maybe when you act out sexist traditions or call women bitches when they’re mean and bossy and men bitches when they act like stereotypical women (not mean and bossy) or call someone who annoys you “retarded”, you’ll send someone a new message, where, regardless of what they knew about those symbols in the past, they now see that you think of men and women and mentally challenged people in a particular way. Maybe the language you hear and use can shape the way you tend to categorize and understand the world. Maybe not. I don’t know. But it’s a possibility that I think we should keep in mind. I’m all but convinced that gender-exclusive language helped form the idea in my mind, which I can’t rid myself of despite knowing better, that men are the prototypical human beings. But then again, maybe I just got the idea from other things. It came from somewhere though….
Anyway, please spare me the arguments that consist solely of an exerpt from the dictionary (Webster’s says feminism is ____, therefore your type of feminism is wrong, etc). And the arguments that consist of an etymology lesson (when divorced from a history lesson). And for the love of participles, please, PLEASE don’t go around thinking you know everything there is to know about the English language just because you know the difference between an adjective and an adverb and were your English teacher’s pet. A lot of what is taught as “English grammar” was, no joke, MADE UP by some guy a couple hundred years ago based on arguments like “A different language with a different grammatical system does this, so English should too.” Which means that when you call someone stupid or uneducated or lazy for speaking differently from how your English teacher taught you, it is in fact you who are showing your ignorance. Not to mention that discriminating against people based on their language usually means discriminating against people based on their race, gender, class, region, and so on with a list full of things that progressives don’t think you should discriminate against people for. So stop it.