This month has seen the women of North America rise up to reclaim the word “slut” for their own. Their aim is to destroy its negative connotations and pave the way for its use as a symbol of feminine strength.
Since the European Renaissance of the 15th Century many historians have claimed that language has become more static, more set and established; that is to say that certain ‘rules’ and expectations began to dominate its use. Prior to this language was seen as in ‘flux’- syntax frequently changed, words dropped in and out of use and spellings varied dramatically. Take the “greatest wordsmith of the seventeenth century”, here are just a handful of ways his name was spelt: Shakespere, Shakspe, Shaxpeare, Shakspere, Shackspeare.
But is language really so static? Sure there may be standard expectations today that didn’t exist six hundred years ago, but spelling is far from standard, words are far from concrete and syntax remains an ever personal feature of speech and writing. Barely a child has been called ‘Ronald’ or ‘Margaret’ since the 1970s and education remains, as ever, the precursor to the syntax of received pronunciation. If language is still ever developing, then why can’t we consciously change it and fight back?
There are many words that are seen as offensive, inappropriate or plain vulgar (poor ‘vulgar’ such an interesting word), how can these be made positive? For movements such as Gay Pride the re-appropriation of the term ‘queer’ has created a sub-connotation of shared affection. The problem is that some words, such as swear words, are affective not because of their connotative meaning but because they sound so…well good.
Most swear words are short, one or two syllables, with strong consonants sounds and powerful stresses. They take emphasis, effort. Technically they are cacophonic (harsh or rough sounding) and that is partly why shouting them when you are emotional is so satisfying. This is at an instinctive level even if you feel morally guilty afterwards. Yelling ‘Su-gar!’ when you stub your toe just doesn’t feel as good.
So if we are going to re-appropriate a word the most successful words are going to be ones that feel good to say, but they also need to fit their purpose. So romantic words should be flowing and graceful (beautiful) and angry words short and sharp (kick, fight). The shorter and stronger the sound the more likely it is to catch on. But then what? The word needs an audience, so we need a significant group or sub-culture of people to get behind the word. It needs cult status. But to hit the mainstream we need media support and finally the nod of approval from the Oxford English Dictionary.
Simple. So I am just off to tweet, poke and IM my subscribers to see if we can’t start a language revolution.