Language Matters: Reclamatory Language and Word Use

Reclamatory language seems to tie people up in knots as they attempt to navigate the murky waters of words, who uses them, and how. I don’t blame people for being confused; language is constantly evolving and sometimes it feels like an ever-moving goalpost designed to trip people up, rather than a useful tool for describing ideas, actions, people, and experiences. And it becomes especially fraught when people are using language some people identify as slurs self-referentially, particularly in progressive communities where there is a strong stigma about using the wrong word.

Reclamatory language, in a nutshell, includes slurs repurposed by members of a given group as a form of self-empowerment, criticism, or ingroup solidarity. Not everyone in various marginalised groups uses marginalised language, or even approves of them; a reminder that no group is uniform in nature, opinion, or experience. Probably the classic example with which many white people are familiar is the use of the n word in Black communities; you hear it from individual Black people speaking both within their community and outside of it. Yet, use of the word by a non-Black person, in any context, is generally considered inappropriate. I, for example, wouldn’t use it. It’s not my word. It will never be my word.

I do use words like ‘crip’ and ‘crazy,’ ‘fatty,’ ‘disableds[1. As a form of ‘disabled people’ or ‘people with disabilities’ in casual speech.],’ though. These are words that allow me to identify with my own community, but they aren’t words I’d appreciate hearing outsiders use unless they were specifically invited to do so. They are our words, as members of the communities affected by them, and they aren’t designed or intended for use by outsiders.

That doesn’t mean that everyone uses them or agrees with them. Some people with mental illness, for example, feel very strongly about ‘crazy’ and wish people wouldn’t use it. I respect that; I would never use the word to refer to them, and I’m careful about using the word in their company because it’s my responsibility to make sure I use my words in awareness of who they affect, and how. If I was addressing, say, a convention of people who are largely opposed to the use of the word, I certainly wouldn’t use it as self-identification or as a general term for members of the mentally ill community, because that wouldn’t be an appropriate place to do so.

Navigating the use of these terms is hard for a lot of people. Not just members of communities affected by them, but also outsiders, who get deeply confused when they see some people using them and some people not using them. They’re not sure who is ‘allowed’ to use these words, especially in the case of those that may involve less evident affiliations and memberships. How do you know that someone is or isn’t a member of a given group, and thus might be using a word in a reclamatory way? Especially when you shouldn’t be wandering around demanding that people show their credentials to prove that they’re allowed to do a given thing?

Because these words are still used as slurs. Because when someone who isn’t a member of our community uses those words, it’s impossible to tell if it’s meant in solidarity, innocent lack of awareness that there’s a problem, or as an actual slur. And unfortunately, some outsiders get confused about these distinctions and think it’s necessary to get upset about reclamatory word use, to attack people using words their communities are taking back, sometimes to aggressively harass individuals who choose to use reclamatory language.

I flinch when I hear some of these words; there are some I will never take back, although I respect those who are trying to do so. And when I’m in a space with people I don’t know, it’s hard for me to navigate, because I don’t know the individual relationships to language that various people in that space may have, and it’s hard to feel out how and why people are using language the way they do. This is not easy stuff for anyone; and simply being a member of a given group doesn’t mean you’ll magically get it right, that everyone in your group will agree with you, or even that everyone in that group considers you a legitimate member of that group.

The swinging of the pendulum against reclamatory word use concerns me, because it serves to further stigmatise these words and alienate the people they’re used against. There may be a day, sometime, when ‘crazy’ isn’t a slur, but just a way some people choose to identify. That day isn’t going to happen if people erupt in anger every time the word is used for self-identification, or by a person with unclear mental health status who may be engaging in a small, quiet act of defiance and self-labeling to explore a community that person is just starting to learn about.

And as people demand that people stop using reclamatory language, they’re taking our power away from us. They’re demanding that we allow others to define us and our experiences, and insisting that we don’t know our own lives as well as they do. Who are they to say that? And why should we listen to them?

There needs to be room for nuance in conversations about language, because language is complex and it doesn’t bend neatly to the will of any user. In the case of reclamatory language, the discussion can be fraught and complex, and the solution isn’t to simply tell people to stop using given words because you think they’re harmful. You have to ask yourself why someone might be using a given word, in what context.