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The Uncertainty Around Certain Five-Letter Words

By October 25, 2010No Comments

By Joyce
New Organizing Project blogger

When I was younger, I used to throw around words like ‘slut,’ ‘whore’ and similarly derogatory words. I knew these words had negative connotations, but I did not seriously think about them, much less their damaging impact. As I grew older, I began to learn more about the importance of language and that the saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” was a farce.

Words are powerful. They are what we use to communicate with one another on a daily basis. Heck, we even have classes and majors in school devoted to studying and analyzing words, phrases, slang, and languages. To say that words are meaningless is to be in denial about the weight and influence they actually have on us.

Which leads me to the word bitch. I’ve noticed lately that this word in particular has become much more socially acceptable, relatively speaking. It isn’t censored when used in basic cable television shows. Many rappers casually throw it around in their rhymes and verses. In fact, it has seemingly become a term of endearment [mostly between women] and possibly even evolving into a word associated with women being powerful and independent [“I’m a free bitch, baby”].

But let’s take a step back for a moment. Where does the word bitch come from? Going as far back as the 14th and 15th centuries, bitch referred to a ‘dog in heat’ and then developed into a derogatory term for women, referring to her animal-like sexuality and implying promiscuity in a negative way. Even further back, bitch pops up in 7th century B.C. from Greek poet Semonides as a metaphor for women who have descended from animals, crave too much power and don’t know their proper place. [Does this sound familiar at all? Think of the male employee who is applauded for his tough and aggressive style while his female counterpart is criticized for embodying the same characteristics].

So bitch was a word that originated with an intent to degrade someone, namely women. Can a word that began as derogatory ever really be reappropriated to the point where it no longer holds those negative meanings?

My initial reaction is no. For all of the efforts to make the word into something empowering, bitch still has the primary capacity to be extremely hurtful and demeaning. “You’re such a bitch!” is thrown around towards women quite a bit, fostering images of a person who is unreasonable, irrational, has too much power ‘for her own good’ or is ‘overstepping her bounds.’ Towards men, the word is spewed at an individual who is deemed as weak, passive, etc., implying that the man is acting ‘too much like a woman.’ In slang, bitch is generally used as synonyms for annoyance, difficulty, complaining and weakness, i.e., ‘that test was a bitch!,’ or ‘she kept bitching at me about how I never call her.’

For those who say ‘yes,’ the argument is that by reappropriating the word, that deflates some of the power and negative influence held in the word. If you think about it, when the word is hurled at a woman, it’s usually because she isn’t adhering to societal stereotypes that she be a subordinate female; she’s speaking her mind, independent, empowered, etc. Seemingly positive, no? So then why not reclaim the word and make it your own?

Sure, I can understand that, but I just don’t think we’re there yet. For all the self-aware women who want to reclaim the word and use it as a term of empowerment, there are people who couldn’t care less and simply aim to use it as a way to hurt others, very specifically women. The word is still primarily derogatory.

Words hold weight and are powerful tools to tear someone down. In this moment in time where LGBTQ youth are killing themselves because of the bullying and painful words from peers, we need to be even more conscious of the words we choose to use.

What do you think, readers?