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Reclamation and the Power We Give to Words

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Image by Colin Behrens from Pixabay

Words interest me, which I suppose makes sense given that I do a lot of reading and writing. I’m particularly interested in the power that some words have, how we decide how much power to give them, and what informs our choices about what words to use. The idea of language reclamation seems quite appealing to me.

This post stems from a comment I received recently on a post about psychomotor retardation (a slowing of movement and thinking that can occur as a symptom of depression), and then the comments I got when I mentioned it in a weekend wrap-up post.

Bring on the accuracy

I’m big on accuracy and precision when it comes to language. That probably has a lot to do with my years of post-secondary education filled with a lot of technical language. I figure it’s hard to communicate effectively if people are using words that don’t mean what they want them to mean.

A major peeve of mine is the popular fusion in meaning of the terms psychotic and psychopathic, which actually mean very different things. It’s worse because it’s stigmatizing, but seriously people, open a damn dictionary. Vogue produced a video titled Margot Robbie’s Beauty Routine Is Psychotically Perfect that was a parody of American Psycho. What the actual fuck, Vogue? Get your damn parody right; American Psycho was about a psychopath, not someone who was psychotic (i.e. experiencing delusions, hallucinations, and/or formal thought disorder). You people publish a magazine and using a dictionary is beyond you? That kind of thing is what gets my knickers in a knot.

Anyway, because I prioritize accuracy and precision, I’m not so concerned about connotations, because those are so individual and subjective. In my mind, using retard (emphasis on the first syllable) as a noun is pejorative and doesn’t have alternate meanings. Because of this pejorative meaning, it makes sense to me not to use the word retardation in the context of intellectual disabilities, although changing the wording isn’t going to magically change people’s attitudes.

Outside of that context, though, retard (emphasis on the second syllable) as a verb just means slow and retardation just means slowing. It seems odd to me to expect those words in other contexts to be wiped from the English language.

The euphemism treadmill

Returning to the point about not magically changing attitudes, I’m also very interested in Steven Pinker’s euphemism treadmill concept. It’s the idea that neutral words become tainted by negative attitudes towards whatever they represent, so every so often, those tainted words are replaced by new neutral words that mean essentially the same thing (e.g. n****** -> negro -> black). Until the negative attitudes change, the euphemism treadmill keeps chugging along.

Person-first

My attitude towards person-first language is also influenced by my focus on accurate and precise use of words. “I am a person with a mental illness” means exactly the same thing as “I am mentally ill” based on the way the English language normally behaves, but the former is a wordier and more awkward.

To me, expecting people to use more awkward language to say the same thing doesn’t make a lot of sense. We use all kinds of neutral and positive adjectives to describe ourselves (e.g. Canadian, intelligent), and those adjectives aren’t taken as being all that are and all that we ever will be until the end of time. If people react that way to “I am mentally ill”, that’s stigma, not grammar. If the grammar makes sense and the words are accurate, I’m not inclined to get myself worked up over those word choices.

Slang will be slang

It seems to me that there will always be a demand for slang terms to refer to people who seem really, really dumb (in a non-IQ-related way) or who are saying/doing things that make absolutely no sense (in a non-psychiatric sense). It’s unfortunate that terms like retard and crazy overlap with terms that people associate with intellectual disabilities and mental illness, but I don’t think language policing them is likely to do much good if the associated ask is for people to use non-slang words instead.

If we’re going to tell people to stop using those words, we need to come up with a better ask. It would certainly be nice if we could collectively move towards alternate slang, but people aren’t going to just stop using slang to refer to those concepts.

Language reclamation

When it comes to words like crazy that I think it would be pissing in the wind to try to word police, I tend to favour reclamation. Language reclamation is the process of taking back ownership of words that have been used in a pejorative sense and using them to refer to the in-group in a positive way. If I’m proudly calling myself crazy or mad, that takes away from the power that others have to use those words against me. There are a variety of examples of this within the LGBTQ community, like queer and dyke (there are more in this Advocate article).

A particularly interesting example of reclamation is the N-word. It’s considered completely socially inappropriate and racist for anyone outside the Black in-group to use that word, but it can be used in a positive sense within that in-group to represent brotherhood.

When is it okay if people are offended?

I’m not trying to say that it’s not valid for people to feel triggered by words that carry negative connotations. I’m just not sure that we all need to collectively stop using words that are accurate in a non-pejorative context in response to some people being triggered. I think people absolutely deserve not to be referred to by words they find offensive; it’s basic respect to call (or not call people) people what they wish to be called (or not called).

I certainly wouldn’t refer to an intellectually disabled person as retarded, as that community of people has made it abundantly clear that that term is offensive to them; however, I’m not going to stop using accurate terminology like psychomotor retardation in an entirely different context to refer to my own depressive symptoms. I am not prepared to give that word in that context that much power. Not everyone is going to agree with me, and that’s fine; that can inform their own language choices, but it’s not going to dictate mine.

What do we give power to?

Words only have as much power as we choose to give them. It interferes with our ability to communicate when we use words inaccurately or imprecisely, so that’s good to avoid. It’s disrespectful to call people things they don’t want to be called, so that’s also good to avoid. But beyond that, the more power we give to words, the more power they have to cause harm.

There will always be people who try to weaponize words, and telling those people what to say or not say is very unlikely to stop them. However, if we refuse to give them and their words that power, perhaps by reclaiming those words, they’re less effective weapons. There will probably always be people who have negative attitudes about things like disabilities or mental illness, and those attitudes are going to shine through no matter what words they use.

I suspect quite a few people don’t share my views, and that’s okay. What are your thoughts on how much power we should give to words? Do you see language reclamation as a potentially useful strategy?

24 thoughts on “Reclamation and the Power We Give to Words”

  1. I think you could predict that I would agree with you. Pretty much word for word. I’ve never been one to get fussed over swear words or anything other than ethnic slurs. That’s the line for me. I was brought up to believe that it’s terrible to use them, and people who do are terrible people. I haven’t seen any evidence so far to contradict this. I’d much rather see/hear swearing than those nasty hurtful slurs!

  2. I also love words and finding the best/most accurate and creative ways to use them.
    But I agree that people give too much power to some words…I know I do. There are some words, mostly surrounding sexual assault and all that, that I just can’t say. The meanings are the same, but the words hold too much power over me, and I can’t. When really, they’re just words, and sometimes being able to speak to accuracy is important.

  3. Words have considerable power. I am impressed by the faces of meaning you address in your post. I agree that people should choose the words that apply to his/her/their sense of self.

  4. In our reading on binaries, one of the explanations for their prevalence is simplicity. For example, if everyone who looks and acts like a boy is male and everyone who looks and acts like a girl is female, then people know how to refer to one another. Easy.

    Reality is not so simple, and now attempting to refer to people with their chosen words is becoming more common.

    It’s interesting to notice the shift. Those who need ease may have to find it elsewhere because some people will not abide being called what others want or perceive, for convenience or value systems or whatever reason.

    We read that binaries can hide/exclude. For example, straight/gay hides bisexuality and an entire spectrum of choices and the ability to change, evolve along the spectrum.

    Fixed language doesn’t seem to cooperate with these shifts in understanding of what choices exist for us in the world. So we favor changes in language tied to inclusion and the right to self-name.

    Younger Child is into reclamation, so we are supportive and able to adapt our language usage to what YC finds comfortable.

    This topic of language is very interesting to us

    1. I can definitely see how binaries are limiting, and the more we can move towards respecting self-naming, the better. I wonder if it may be helpful to have words that refer to ranges of choices without limiting what those choices are. If things get too complex and specific, like if one were to start talking about LGBTTTQQIAA to try to capture a wide range of gender identities and sexualities, I wonder if that ends up confusing people and actually making them less receptive to individuals self-naming. And while LGBTTTQQIAA is much broader than straight/gay, it still runs into the problem you mentioned of fixed language, and there will be people who don’t fit in that box, even though it’s a bigger box. Interesting stuff.

  5. I agree with what you say here.

    Same with the words ‘deaf and dumb.’ Thats another example that still gets used. Its used rarely. But I wish I never still come across this, whether written or said verbally. I hate it and its offensive. An outdated term.

    1. I was curious, so I took a peek at the Oxford English Dictionary, and it looks like mute was the original sense of the word dumb. But I agree, it’s outdated and offensive to use it that way now.

  6. So I agree with a lot of these sentiments around word/language accuracy, the pitfalls of language policing, and your points about words that have a non-pejorative meaning. I think language reclamation is fine if it’s meaningful to you, but I’m not entirely sure that I see the link between reclamation and actually getting rid of the negative stigma.

  7. I agree. And extra emphasis on accuracy of word choice. I believe, from personal encounters, that people who are continuously inaccurate in their communication run a higher risk of (wilfully or inadvertently) making others misled or gaslit. Misinterpretation happens enough in normal speech as it is…

  8. Great read! As someone who grew up with Dutch as my main language, English can be hard at times. I don’t know all the fancy words, I may mess up the rules as they may be different in my own language.
    I have often described myself as being on the spectrum, having autism and, when times were hard, even suffering from autism. It was all a reflection of me and my mental health situation, but people have felt bad over me using language like this. But it never felt wrong to me. It never felt like I used it wrong when I tried to explain my own experiences and feelings.
    So I totally agree that sometimes we give words too much meaning. Sometimes normal words have been abused too much by a group and their meaning, while not really changed, did change towards something we better not use.
    So yes, I totally get it and understand. 😊
    Thanks for sharing this. I always learn a bit from your posts. 😊

    1. I think if people are talking about their own experiences and suffering feels like the right word for them, other people should be willing to accept that. Just because they don’t feel like they’re suffering doesn’t mean they get to decide what someone else’s experience is.

      1. Yes it’s how I perceive it as well. If someone’s experience with an health issue is that bad that they feel they’re suffering, who am I to tell them they are wrong about that? But unfortunately, there’s people out there fighting over every syllable used if they can… 😔

  9. I feel you. And I love how you own the fact that emphasize the use of language really crawls up your craw. Lol

    I love the sentiment behind the post. And, me being a philosopher, I must push back a little bit on one part…

    The quote “I am mentally ill”. While that might feel precise to you, in so much as it feels like a precise way to describe how you feel about yourself, if I can put it in that way, it would be equally precise to say you are affected by a particular issue. For example, “bipolar affects me in such in such a way”.

    Both ways would be precise without actually having to reduce to one or the other to say that one is more precise, or that one more precisely describes the actual situation.

    I might take a little bit further: to say that “I have a mental illness“ is a more accurate or precise way of describing the situation, is really describing a way that you’ve come to terms with your situation.

    Not all personal situations are solved by ownership in that exact way. I could very well take ownership of my situation by understanding accurately that there is nothing wrong with me, but indeed I am affected by this thing called anxiety, or whatever it is. End it affects me in this way. Such and such. The relationship that I am having with anxiety occurs in such in such a manner. This is also very accurate and precise.

    And so, what I think you were really talking about is ownership of One Self in a precise manner, and using language to communicate oneself accurately according to oneself.

    Because, I would have to ask what comes up for you if I tell you that the accurate description is that you do not have a mental illness or that you are not mentally ill?

    Whatever the reaction would be, it could arise as an offensive situation similar to the way and the topic that you were addressing in your post here, about the use of language and how it affects individuals.

    Because, I wonder what it would mean if the effects of bipolar upon yourself, say, admitted the fact that there was nothing wrong with you. That indeed the bipolar was attempting to show you something about yourself that perhaps you didn’t want to admit, and so the more precise estimation, or the more precise use of language in order to represent yourself accurately, would be to say that you are mentally ill, or, I am mentally ill. Which is to say, the mental illness that you have is that you are unaccepting of that aspect of yourself that is in a relationship with this mental illness.

    But I’m a philosopher, so… as a counselor I would be wondering about what exactly is the mental health that the person is achieving through any way that they might be understanding themselves, and help them to come to an accurate understanding of them self, in such a way that they can have a certain congruency or continuity in their Self, such as you seem to represent in ur blog.

    🦚

    As always. Thank you 🌙

    1. I think part of why I use “I am mentally ill” is the temporal immediacy of it. I experience symptoms of my illness on an ongoing basis, so I am experiencing mental illness in the present in the same way as if I were to say “I am nauseous” if I was experiencing nausea in the present.

      There’s also an element of in-your-face-ness that I like about choosing not to distance myself from a stigmatized role identity. I don’t see my illness as a personal identity, but I do see it as a role identity because there’s so much social meaning attached to being a person with a mental illness. I guess I feel as though owning an identity that others are likely to impute to me anyway supports my agency by allowing me to shape that identity.

  10. Words. I have to agree with you. Way to much importance sometimes is given to words. When I was working my English was good. Now that good for spell check and grammar check as that has really gone out the window with my mind and memory getting worse.

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