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Semantic Reclamation

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Content Warning - derogatory language and slurs: some readers may be sensitive to some of the content in this article about semantic reclamation. This document serves an educational purpose to inform people of important information and relevant examples of semantic reclamation. Our team is diverse, and we sought input from members of the communities mentioned to educate readers in a way that is sensitive to the history of these words.

Culture, politics, and society; these things are constantly changing. Because of this, language is constantly changing, too. What we say and how we talk reflect who we are, where we come from, and when and how we have been socialised.

Semantic reclamation is a major example of how the changes within language and society are connected. In this article, we will look at semantic reclamation in more depth, including examples and the controversies surrounding them.

What is the definition of semantic reclamation?

Let's look at a definition of semantic reclamation:

Semantic reclamation (also known as reappropriation) is when individuals and groups use and take ownership of derogatory words that have been used to oppress them. Reclaimed words are usually political and controversial due to their present and historical use of belittling oppressed groups such as women, the LGBTQ + community, the disabled community, and ethnic minorities.

When a word is reappropriated, the disparaged group adapts the context in which the slur is used, making it more difficult for oppressors to use it against them. Those within marginalized groups who support semantic reclamation argue that by redefining slurs and using them in their own context, the oppressive power of the words is reduced as they no longer have the same negative connotations in the oppressed community (within reason).

As society progresses, often due to hard political struggle, our values change. Because of this, some oppressed groups have become increasingly liberated, although we still have a long way to go in many respects. The meanings of words can also shift to reflect these changing societal views.

Similarly to language narrowing, language broadening, pejoration, and amelioration, semantic reclamation is a significant example of how developments in society and language are connected.

Some synonyms of semantic reclamation include language reappropriation, lexical shift, and language repossession.

Semantic reclamation examples

As society progresses, our language naturally reflects this. However, as we will see in the following examples, changes such as semantic reclamation can be controversial and political.

Although reclaimed slurs may be used by individuals from the communities they describe, it is still not okay to use them if you are not part of this community. These words are still highly offensive when used in the wrong context by the wrong person. Furthermore, not all individuals from specific communities agree with the reclamation of pejorative language.

What's with the asterix? In professional documents, potentially offensive words are often censored to ensure the text remains inoffensive and professional by avoiding the use of strong language.

B * tch

'B * tch has been used as a derogatory term throughout history, usually towards women. As the formal meaning of the word is 'female dog', the term developed into an insult against women by likening them to dogs.

  • In popular culture, the word has been reclaimed, usually used in place of the word 'girl' in a friendly manner.
  • 'B * tch' is often used in a positive context with no insult intended, for example, 'Hey b * tch!' can be used as a sassy greeting used between friends and 'I'm going out with my b * tches tonight' connotes a group of close friends going out together.
  • The word 'b * tch' is often reclaimed by women artists. In Madonna's album Rebel Heart (2015), she uses the word 44 times.
  • In Lizzo's song 'Truth Hurts', 'b * tch' is used multiple times as a positive attribute, suggested by the phrase 'that b * tch':

I just took a DNA test, turns out I'm 100% that b * tch

Even when I'm crying crazy

Yeah, I got boy problems, that's the human in me

Bling bling, then I solve 'em, that's the goddess in me

You coulda had a bad b * tch, non-committal

  • The queer community have also helped to reclaim the word. If you have ever watched Ru Paul's Drag Race (2009-present), you will see how 'b * tch' can be used as an insult and also as an endearing term.

Sl * t

'Sl*t' is arguably still in the process of being reclaimed by women worldwide. The original meaning of 'sl*t' implied low standards and low personal hygiene. This meaning has developed over time to describe women who have had a lot of sexual partners as women with low standards of living.

  • Similar to the word 'b * tch', women have begun to refer to themselves as 'sl * ts' to redefine the context in which the word is used and reduce its offensive connotations.
  • The term 'sl*t-shaming' is also commonly used in sex-positive circles to criticise the shaming of sexually-active women.

D * ke

Since the late 1970s, lesbians have worked to reclaim the words 'd*ke, 'butch', and 'femme' (and the roles associated with them).

The word 'd*ke' describes a masculine-presenting woman or butch lesbian and is a shortened form of 'bulld*ke' (considered more offensive). It was an intense pejorative used in the 1950s and 1960s as a result of entrenched homophobic and misogynistic values in British and American societies. The word has also been used pejoratively by upper-class lesbians to describe butch or crude lesbians. Similarly to the word 'f*ggot', 'd * ke' has also been used to identify political and feminist activists.

  • As our society becomes increasingly accepting of LGBTQ+ people, many lesbians can feel proud of their sexuality and live openly. The term 'd * ke' no longer has the same negative connotations in the lesbian community, removing the power from those who use it in a homophobic sense.
  • The D*ke March is the lesbian protest march held during Pride Week in many cities in the United States and Canada, and more in Europe such as Berlin and London. The March's mission is to encourage activism, bring the d*ke community together, and promote visibility in the LGBTQ+ community.

Queer

'Queer' has been used as an insult to describe people seen as strange or on the outskirts of society and has especially been used as a derogatory word against homosexual people. The term was first used to refer to homosexuality in 1894 by the Marquess of Queensbury.

  • The LGBTQ + community has attempted to reclaim the word since the 1980s to various levels of success.
  • The adoption of 'queer' as a non-pejorative term by the gay rights movement and the group Queer Nation was a decisive response to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, coupled with the desire to increase queer visibility and rebuild the community.
  • It is now a neutral or positive umbrella term referring to all non-heterosexual people, and it celebrates the diversity of the LGBTQ + community. However, the word's reclamation is controversial within the LGBTQ+ community as many (especially older members inside and out of the community) still view it as derogatory.

Examples of alternative types of reclamation

Reclamation does not always refer to words. Statues and artwork, and other objects can also be reclaimed. Let's look at some examples.

Reclaimed artefacts

Some artefacts stolen by colonial powers are either in the process of being or have already been reclaimed by their country of origin.

Sarah Baartman was a Southwestern African woman who was enslaved and exhibited in 19th-century freak shows in Europe. 'Hottentot' is an offensive term for Khoekoe people, and is considered a taboo word because of its history and negative connotations. The women were commonly exhibited in freakshows because of their uncommon and curvaceous body type by European standards, and were often treated cruelly and sold as slaves.

Sarah Baartman died at 26 years old, yet her remains were examined by French anatomist Georges Cuvier for scientific inquiry before being displayed in Museum d'histoire naturelle d'Angers, France. Since the 1940s, there were many calls for the return of her remains to her birth soil. Many, such as Stephen Jay Gould, explain that her remains in a European museum emphasize the use of European pseudoscience to promote intellectual ignorance and oppression of African people.

Nelson Mandela formally requested France to return the remains in 1994, which the French National Assembly agreed to in 2002. While Sarah Baartman's case was successful, there are many remains or bones still on display in various museums in Europe, such as the Irish Giant Charles O'Brien, which are considered part of scientific investigation.

Statues

Influenced by the Black Lives Matter protesters in America, supporters of the movement in Bristol tore down a statue of Edward Colston and pushed it into the river in the summer of 2020 after previous unsuccessful campaigns to remove the statue.

Edward Colston was a historical figure that built up the city of Bristol. He did so using slaves, which is why the protestors took down his statue as a way of demonstrating that they did not stand with Colston's values as a colonist and slave trader. Some Bristolian residents were angry that the statue got torn down as they believed Colston was an influential and admirable figure, responsible for the city's greatness. As the incident drew national attention, many were frustrated by how quickly people decided to tear it down and bury history. Some people felt it seemed an impulse decision.

What are some controversies surrounding language reclamation?

As the above examples demonstrate, reclaimed words and statues are political and often controversial. Let's examine this in greater detail.

One of the main controversies involving language reclamation is that not everyone in an oppressed group shares the same values. Therefore, the reclamation of a certain slur may not be supported by all people who have been affected by its use.

Many feminists still view the word sl*t as offensive, and they do not agree that women using it amongst themselves will result in the word being reclaimed, but rather encourage more people to use it against women.

Another controversial question surrounding language reclamation is who can use the word once it has been reclaimed? When an oppressed group chooses to reclaim a word and use it amongst themselves, other people who are not part of the oppressed community may wrongly believe that they can use the word, too.

Although there are lesbians who feel comfortable using the word 'd*ke' to describe themselves, it would be highly inappropriate for a heterosexual person to refer to a lesbian (or anyone) using this slur.

Why is language reclamation important?

Language reclamation provides insight into how our society's values have adapted and changed over time. Studying language reclamation can help us track historical movements and provide context for our language. For example:

The word 'suffragette' is a perfect example of how semantic reclamation reflects historical movements.

'Suffragette' was first used by a reporter in The Daily Mail newspaper to belittle the 'suffragists' - women who were fighting for women's right to vote.

This is because words ending in 'ette' are often used to describe small things, such as 'kitchenette' (a small kitchen) and 'pipette' (a small water-dropping device).

The suffragettes were unphased by this attempt to dishearten them, and they reclaimed the word by placing more emphasis on the 'g' sound in the word. Plosive sounds are more harsh and aggressive than other sounds like 's' and 'f' because they stop the airflow when you voice them. By placing emphasis on the 'g' in suffragette, the women demonstrated their strong will and courage.

Semantic Reclamation, Millicent Fawcett and Suffragettes, StudySmarterMillicent Fawcett, leader of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), pixabay

Why do people reclaim words?

Reclaiming words can be an empowering experience that shows an oppressed group choosing not to be disparaged by their oppressors. By reclaiming language and creating their own rules surrounding its use, the oppressed group removes the power from their oppressor to belittle them.

What effect does semantic reclamation have?

Semantic reclamation can help people feel liberated - some women reclaim the word sl * t as a symbol of sexual liberation and a break away from the negative connotations surrounding sexually active women.

Semantic reclamation demonstrates how societal values are not fixed but can change -changing language and the rules surrounding language use can strengthen communities and give hope for change. However, this is not always the case for every culture or social group, and the processes of reclaiming words or artefacts are always contentious and highly debated.

Semantic reclamation can be a source of empowerment for oppressed groups as they stand against those who have repressed them.

Semantic Reclamation - Key Takeaways

  • Semantic reclamation is a process in which an oppressed group redefines a slur and how it has been used against them, using it in their own context to empower themselves.

  • Words that have been reappropriated are often controversial and political as they are emotionally charged by historic events and beliefs.

  • It is not only words that can be reclaimed. Art such as paintings and statues can also be reappropriated, as well as other items like vintage clothes and farming tools.

  • Reclaimed words can reveal more about historic movements and time periods.

  • As our society progresses our language also alters. Semantic reclamation is one of the ways in which our language changes to suit our ever-changing needs. For example, our society becomes more inclusive and our language needs to reflect this.

  • Reappropriated language can often be controversial due to the historic views that the words represent, and the fact that not everyone in the oppressed group will share the same opinion that the word should be reclaimed.

Semantic Reclamation

Semantic reclamation is a process in which an oppressed group redefines a slur and how it has been used against them by using it in their own context.

Synonyms for semantic reclamation include, language repossession, language reappropriation, and lexical change

Semantic reclamation is controversial because the words are usually emotionally or politically charged because of historic events and beliefs. 

Some examples of reclaimed words include, b * tch, sl * t, queer, and d * ke.

Artefacts and statues.

Final Semantic Reclamation Quiz

Question

 Why do people reclaim words?

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Answer

People reclaim words because it is an empowering experience as it allows an oppressed group to choose not to be disparaged by their oppressors.

Show question

Question

How is semantic reclamation an empowering experience?


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Answer

Semantic reclamation is an empowering experience because the minority removes the power from their oppressor to belittle them as they redefine how the word is used.


Show question

Question

True or false?


Everyone is always happy when words are reclaimed because it helps society become more inclusive and accepting.

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

 True or false?


Reclaimed words are often controversial.

Show answer

Answer

True


Show question

Question

True or false?


The meaning of 'sl*t' has developed over time to describe women who have had a lot of sexual partners as women with low standards of living.

Show answer

Answer

True

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Question

How was the word queer initially used?


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Answer

Queer was previously used as an insulting word due to the fact it referred to gay people, it became a general insult describing people that seemed strange or on the outskirts of society.


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Question

Why is it problematic that the word queer was previously used to describe strange or weird people?


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Answer

Queer being used as a way of describing strange and weird people is problematic because it implies being gay makes you strange or a societal outcast. 


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Question

 Why did the people of Bristol reclaim the statue / their city?


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Answer

The people of Bristol reclaimed their city by tearing the Colston Statue down, as a way of demonstrating that they did not stand with Colston's values as they believed them to be racist and outdated in today's society. 


Show question

Question

True or false?


Everyone was happy to see the Edward Colston statue removed because he relied on slaves to work for him and this is outdated in modern society. 

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Answer

False

Show question

Question

Give an example of how language can reflect historic movements.


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Answer

The word 'suffragette' is an example of how semantic reclamation reflects historical movements.

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Question

Why is suffragette a good example of how semantic reclamation can reflect historical events?


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Answer

'suffragette' was first used by a reporter in The Daily Mail to belittle the women who were fighting for women's right to vote. This is because words ending in 'ette' are often used to describe small things. The journalist who referred to the feminists fighting for the vote as 'suffragettes' intended to belittle them, as the proper term is 'suffragists'. 



Show question

Question

Which of the following is not a synonym for semantic reclamation?

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Answer

Lexical appropriation

Show question

Question

True or false?


If a word is reclaimed everyone has the right to use it in its new context.

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Answer

False

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Question

Why do people reclaim words?


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Answer

People reclaim language to empower themselves, as the minority removes the power from their oppressor to belittle them as they create their own rules.

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Question

The word 'b*tch' developed into an insult against women by likening them to what?

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Answer

Dogs

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


In popular culture, the word 'b*tch' has been reclaimed, usually used in place of the word ____ in a friendly manner. 

Show answer

Answer

girl

Show question

Question

True or false?


'Hey b*tch!' can be used as a sassy greeting between friends.

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

Question

The original meaning of 'sl*t' implied ___ standards and ___ personal hygiene.

Show answer

Answer

low

Show question

Question

In what year was the term 'queer' first used to refer to homosexuality?

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Answer

1894

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Question

True or false?


The reclamation of the word 'queer' is often viewed as controversial within the LGBTQ+ community.

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Answer

True

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Question

True or false?


Reclamation only refers to words.

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Answer

False

Show question

Question

Words ending in 'ette' are often used to describe _____ things.

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Answer

small

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Question

True or false?


Our language is fixed and stays the same over time.

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Answer

False

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Question

If marginalised groups redefine slurs and use them in their own context, the oppressive power of the words is _______.

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Answer

reduced

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Question

Reclaimed words no longer tend to have the same ________ connotations in the oppressed community.

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Answer

negative

Show question

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