Words are an integral part of human interaction and different words hold varying meanings and sentiments to groups of people, cultures and individuals. They carry memories of the past and their origins are rich and varied. Words also evolve over time, their meanings changing. This can happen for a myriad of reasons, often beginning with an insidious agenda followed by a cultural shift which can come in the form of a reclamation of certain words by a group of people. Words are tools, and knowing how to use them can bring one great power. So in saying that it is important to know the histories of where they come from and realise the connotations you may be inadvertently invoking when using them. To quote Emma Ng, author of Old Asian, New Asian, "As long as we are allowed to forget, we will find ourselves returning to fight the same battles." Below is a short list of words to be mindful of.
The word ‘cunt’ is widely known as a ‘taboo’ word. I distinctly remember hearing the word used in a film as a preteen and my cousin telling me in a very serious tone that I was never to use it, as it was apparently “the most offensive word in the English language”. Despite its apparently offensive nature, its use is steadily increasing. The word’s origin stems from a place of describing the feminine in an empowering way; it’s found in Sanskrit and Ancient Egyptian language to describe the female sexuality and genitalia. The negative use of ‘cunt’ is common, misguided and new; in the more recent past (medieval England) it was merely used as a descriptor for female genitals. The shifting of this word into a negative context is baffling; why take a word to describe female genitalia, or the power of the feminine, and turn it into an insult? Patriarchal insecurities? Despite this, ‘cunt’ is being reclaimed by women in a significant way. It is used by women for female empowerment, in the sense of a reclamation of the original definition of the word. It is a powerful and evocative word when said aloud and it is up to us how it is used: let’s use it right and with respect to its origins.
The ‘N’ word
It may seem like a fun word for white people and P.O.C to use, but that does not change the fact that it is still a slur, one used against a very specific group of people: black people. Yet when it comes to singing along to their favourite rap song, people tend to conveniently forget this, dropping the ‘N’ word like it’s the late 80s and they’re trying to be in N.W.A. The word stems from the Latin word ‘niger’, which means black. In the centuries before American slavery became a racist institution, the word was neutral, simply describing the skin colour of dark individuals. However to use the word now as a W.P or a P.O.C is to revive its racist origins. As Andrew Barksdale said on Vice’s ‘Who is Allowed to Say the N Word?’: “I don’t want people to ever forget that, that was the last word that some black men or women would have heard before they were killed, before they were raped, before they were assaulted.”
The word ‘gay’ has lived many lives since its humble beginnings in the 12th century, when it simply meant joyful or carefree. Its first foray into sexual discourse began in the 17th century where it was mainly used to describe the more ‘unconstrained’ heterosexual lifestyles. For example, a ‘gay’ woman would have meant a prostitute and a ‘gay’ man a womanizer. It could also be used to describe a young person soliciting sex to older clients of the same gender: ‘gay boy’ or ‘gay girl’. It wasn’t until the 1920s that it began to be used by the homosexual community to describe themselves and was popularised more widely in the 1950s when it appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary as slang for ‘homosexual’. Words can be powerful terms of oppression so as a backlash against homosexuality young people in the 80s and 90s used the word ‘gay’ as a general term of disparagement. Nowadays it is still used by some people in a negative way and this either reveals a total lack of understanding of what it means to identify as gay or a more insidious microaggression against the queer community.
‘Coconut’ is a word used to describe the fruit which is commonly found on Pacific Islands. However in the 1970s it was coined as a term to describe the people from the Pacific Islands. The mid 1970s marked the beginning of what is called the ‘Dawn Raids’, a series of events which affected individuals and their families in a government attempt to ‘crack down on overstayers’. Although comprising only one third of overstayers in Aotearoa (the majority coming from Australia, Britain and South Africa), Pacific Islanders made up 86 percent of those prosecuted and arrested for overstaying. This was arguably due to racial biases New Zealand held against people of the Pacific. Therefore ‘coconut’ became a derogatory term used for Pacific Island peoples during the Dawn Raids. It was a way of lumping all Pacific Islanders under the same umbrella of ‘brown people’, a racial slur connoting bad, lazy and ultimately less than white people. Still used today, most commonly in the sports industry, the word coconut continues to be used as a racist term and a way of disenfranchising Pacific Island peoples.
An ethnic slur usually used to describe a person of Chinese ethnicity, however also used as an homogenous descriptor for people of East Asian descent. When looked up in the dictionary the definition for chink reads ‘a narrow opening or slit’, so when used in a derogatory way it is an obvious reference to the eyes of East Asian people. ‘Chink’ also refers to the sounds of hammers clanking against steel, as the hands of Chinese immigrants built the Transcontinental Railway in 19th century America. This word is yet another example of a racial grouping of people using derogatory slang to demean them. Modern day New Zealand can be notoriously racist against Chinese immigrants and it is nothing new. Between 1879 and World War II, Chinese in New Zealand were the victims of 55 race-based amendments, this included a tax which charged Chinese immigrants the equivalent of what would now be $20,000 to merely enter the country. So when this word is still used today I am not surprised, but still disgusted, as it is an unveiled attempt at belittling an entire race of people, whilst also lumping them in with vastly different races from the same East Asia region.
I’m not telling you that you can’t use these words, that is of course up to your own personal discretion. and I understand that using these words may gain you a certain amount of ‘social capital’ with different groups of people. However, I do wish to point out that the use of these words if you are not from the particular group that they were originally targeted at is dated and essentially built on oppression and systematic degradation. We are living in an age where everything you say will be scrutinised, so leave these words alone if they are not yours to be reclaimed.