Inappropriate Word Use: Don’t Do It

“I got raped on this test the other day.” “Oh, man, I totally raped this guy on WoW last night.”

Do you know what I do when I hear statements like this? (Or read them, because it’s usually people talking to me on IM.) I cringe. There are some instances of inappropriate word use which make me physically recoil, they annoy me so much. And this is one of them.

There are two possible senses in which I find use of the word “rape” to be appropriate.

The first is in the sense of forced sexual intercourse. That’s rape. We’ve been saying it since the 1300s in English. Example: “When your partner forces you to have sex, that is rape.”

The second is in the sense of plunder, particularly environmental plundering. This use can get a bit more tricky, for reasons I will get into in a moment, but it’s a use I personally accept (not least because it’s widely accepted in English). Example: “Maxxam’s rape of the environment in the interest of profits is deplorable.”

“Rape” is actually a pretty problematic and tricky word. The roots it is derived from refer to seizure and force, but it also carries an overtone of shaming. It’s not about violation, it’s about despoiling women. It’s not about the denial of bodily autonomy, it’s about damaged goods. These implications have kind of been lost with time, but they’re there.

I think it’s important to examine, for a moment, the fact that both women and the natural environment have been historically viewed as property without rights or autonomy. That’s one of the reasons I find the second usage of “rape” a bit tricky and problematic. Because, in a way, it reinforces the idea that women are inanimate objects which can be owned and controlled, because this is how most people think of the environment. The environment is considered to be something which is here for our use and benefit, not a distinct individual with rights all its own. Whether that thinking is correct or not, it’s pervasive, and that means that it might not be such a hot idea to link women’s bodies with the Earth.

Obviously, there’s a long history of connecting women and the Earth (the concept of the Earth as “mother,” for example). Some of that connection even comes from positive associations. But in general society, the positives of that linkage have been lost as our thinking about women and the environment has changed. Thus, it makes me a bit uncomfortable to be reinforcing that connection in a way which I think carries some problematic implications.

So, could we not use this word outside these contexts? That would be absolutely terrific.

It’s interesting to note that “raped,” “fucked,” and “screwed” are all words used to refer to sexual acts, which are also used to refer to disgust, irritation, frustration, worthlessness. “We’re so fucked,” people say when things aren’t going well. “Dude, you’re screwed,” someone says when something isn’t going to work out. It’s a troubling set of parallel word uses and I think it says a lot about the societies which have this dualistic use.

To use a word referring to forced sexual intercourse to talk about conquering someone, to talk about having a tough time at something, etc. is pretty offensive. It cheapens the word itself, and it’s not really terribly accurate, either. It’s fascinating to see that so much of the slang we use doesn’t actually make sense if you think about the literal sense of the word in the sense where it is used. “Oh, man, I totally forced this guy into sexual intercourse on WoW last night” sounds pretty wrong, and also pretty awful, right? Seeing as how we’re all not fans of forced sexual intercourse here.

I’m guilty of using “fucked” and “screwed” in contexts where they don’t really belong myself. It’s pretty engrained in my speech because it’s such a part of my society. We use these words unconsciously because we think that they are divorced from their original meaning.

But they aren’t, because we use all three of these words to refer to actual sexual acts. Which means that our unconscious use of them in non-sexual contexts is reinforcing some very interesting and troubling messages. We use “fucked” as an intensifier a lot, but should it be one? We use it to refer to destruction and failure, but should we? What are we really saying when we say “fuck you,” “fuck this,” “fucking toaster broke again”?

The way we structure our language use has a profound impact on our culture. The things that we say, and how they say them, matter. The way we think about things is, in part, influenced by the words we use to talk about them. So, when you have words like this used in this context, it reinforces some bad things. It reinforces rape culture. It reinforces shaming. It reinforces sexuality-as-negative. It reinforces dominance and control.

How can a word describing the sexual act also be used to describe utter contempt and disgust without reinforcing fear, hatred, and shaming? What does it say about us when sexuality is used as punishment, over and over again? This is a culture in which we are still dealing with issues like “corrective rape,” slut shaming, and overwhelming contempt about sexuality. Our society is extremely sexualized, but at the same time, sexuality is a fierce taboo. It’s so terrible and taboo that we can use crude words which refer to the sexual act as intensifiers, as insults, as condemnations, and people understand what we mean. They understand perfectly.

9 Replies to “Inappropriate Word Use: Don’t Do It”

  1. Along the same lines I find myself trying to eliminate the phrase “that sucks” from my vocabulary. Most people understand the problem with “suck it” or are uncomfortable with the more scandalous companion, “that blows,” but people (myself included) still use “sucks” as a synonym for “is bad” when in actuality sucking is… well, pleasant when done willingly and correctly. So why do we use it as an insult (“you suck”) or even an expression of empathy (“that sucks, I’m sorry”)?

    I’m trying to replace it with “bummer,” but who knows the root of that. Plus it makes me sound like I’m in a time warp, but I use it anyway.

  2. “Bummer” is actually pretty exclusionary word use, because it’s linked with homeless/tramps/etc. Alas, another seemingly good alternative bites the dust. (I’ve been going with “that’s sad.”)

  3. It is HARD to find words that won’t discriminate against somebody or something.

    In Britain, ‘it’s sad’ has been taken to a couple of extremes. Someone might get the image of a mentally distressed person in their heads when the word refers to an activity.

    About ‘rape’: which came first? The use for the environment (the ‘pillaging’ use) or the one for the women?

    I do have a few substitutes for the f-word. I say fishface or fishcakes. Probably cute substitutes will not work either – especially for the fish!

  4. It’s actually a complicated question to answer, as you can see from the entry on “rape” at the Online Etymology Dictionary, the two meanings are very closely entangled. I’ll ask my Word Origins Expert and get back to you.

  5. I’m glad you’ve been writing about language lately. It’s something I struggle a lot with, because I tend to be crude and use totally weird/inappropriate language without realizing it. I’m working on it.

  6. I’m actually using way more totally weird language now, since I am trying to be more careful about my language usage. I’ve been having a lot of fun making up odd curses and epithets.

  7. As a substitute for “sucks”, I’ve sometimes (because mostly, I’m still using sucks, alas) used “blows chunks” — because I’m really OK saying vomiting = bad.

    For “fuck”, I try using “frak” or its equivalents — which really doesn’t actually fix the problem, because it’s just a sideways step, but at least in current vocabulary, it doesn’t *actually* mean (forceful) sex. I’ve also used “I’m so hosed”, because it makes me think of being beaten with a hose, which, again, I’m willing to say is bad. Not that violent imagery doesn’t have its own set of problems…

  8. On “bummer”, it might be related to “homeless/tramp” but in British English, “bum” more often means “backside”/”posterior”, and another common exclamation of frustration (as one might also use “bummer” to express) is “arse” (which is the Anglo version of American “ass”).

    A word I’ve taken to using is “Plard”, which appears to be in Sims-talk an expression of frustration (they also seem to use “Om, Rack!” as another such expression) going by the tone of voice my Sims used when saying that word.

  9. You’re right about the use of the word in British English, and “bum” in the sense of “posterior” actually predates the use of the word to describe a tramp. That said, the roots of both words are actually different, despite the fact that they look the same, and “bummer” is most definitely derived from the “tramp” context. So, sorry, still exclusionary.

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