Illustration by Barbara Ott
Context and intention color our speech in ways that are far more complex than simple syntax. But where do offensive words come from and what makes them offensive? And is it possible to neutralize an insult or even turn it into a word of pride? Here are some examples of offensive words that were successfully reclaimed.
We still live in a world where blasphemy laws are enforced, but how have people in the past dealt with religious insults?
Jesuits, Methodists and Quakers
The Society of Jesus is a male religious congregation of the Catholic Church, initially founded by Ignatius de Loyola after his conversion to the faith. The religious order demanded vows of poverty and chastity, leading critics to name members of the religious order disparagingly as Jesuits. What started out as a insult was soon enough adopted by members as a neutral and even positive self-description.
Another reclaimed insult stems from reactions to a group of devout Christians led by John Wesley. John and his brother founded the Holy Club at Oxford. Fasting, visiting the sick and imprisoned, rejecting luxury and amusement, they were soon nicknamed Methodists by their fellow students for their adherence to strict rules and method in their faith. Wesley reclaimed the word and used it thereon with pride.
Also worthy of mention is the term Quaker. It was initially used as a disparaging term for members of the Society of Friends, founded by George Fox (1624-1691), a 17th century Englishman. Quakers were egalitarians in spirit and believed everybody had equal direct access to God, regardless of gender, class or race. During their gatherings, where members sat communally in silence accessing the “inner light,” some trembled in spiritual ecstasy, leading outsiders to maliciously brand them as quakers. The term was reclaimed and it stuck.
Partisan politics has a long history of disparaging terms reclaimed by targeted groups. Several have been turned into words of pride.
Whigs and Tories
During the reign of Charles II, two factions surfaced in Parliament. One wanted to exclude the king’s brother, the Duke of York, from accessing the throne based on his Catholic faith. The other supported his faith and wanted him to succeed the King and become a monarch. The former were named Whigs, short for “whiggamor” — meaning “cattle driver” and “horse thief.” The term connoted nonconformity and rebellion and perfectly describes the anti-papist creed behind the supporters of the Exclusion Bill (1678–1681), who refused to accept a Roman Catholic as a possible heir to the throne.
The other faction, who supported the Duke of York and his Roman Catholic faith, were also disparaged by their adversaries with an insult: Tories. The term derives from the Irish Gaelic word tóraidhe, meaning “pursued man” or “outlaw,” since they were unfavorably compared with the Papist outlaws of Ireland.
Eventually these two terms remained in use and general awareness of their origin was lost. Normalized, they are now part of our current political vocabulary.
Suffragettes and Yankees
Universal suffrage surfaced during the first wave of feminism in the late 19th and early 20th century. Women of mostly middle- and upperclass backgrounds organised themselves politically to get the vote. But criticism and derision were part and parcel of their struggle. The London Daily Mail journalist Charles E. Hands wrote disparagingly about these women, calling them suffragettes. They proudly reclaimed the term and it stuck.
A century before women fought for the vote, the term Yankee was being reclaimed. One theory suggests the term originates from the Dutch jonkheer (“young gentleman” or “esquire”) as the original term.
Prior to the American Revolution, it was an insult hurled at American soldiers by the English, who sang “Yankee Doodle Dandy” to tease their rivals: “Yankee Doodle went to town/Riding on a Pony/Stuck a feather in his cap/And called it macaroni.” (“Doodle” meant “fool” and “macaroni” meant “dandy” in England.)
Nonetheless, the American soldiers won the war and reclaimed the term (and the song) from their colonizers, using it to signify the courageous and plucky spirit of this newly independent people.
Artists have traditionally not only questioned aesthetic and moral norms, but they have also been subjected to considerable abuse for doing so. In some cases, they have fiercely taken on degrading terms as proud self definitions.
Impressionists and Decadents
It’s hard in the 21st century to imagine Monet and Pissarro as shocking revolutionaries. Their dreamy and tranquil paintings conjure up an atmosphere of inner peace and meditative contemplation. But when they first began exhibiting in the 1870s, critics were outraged and dismissive of their new adventurous style. The critic Louis Leroy wrote a satirical piece in a Parisian newspaper where two characters mentioned Monet’s painting “Impression, soleil levant” (Impression, Sunrise) and used the term impressionist to dismiss it. “Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape,” one of the characters retorted. But the word stuck and is now a neutral term in art history.
A similar process of reappropriation can be found with the term decadent. In the 19th century, French critics began hurling the term at specific writers for their love of artifice, excess and general disrespect for classicist conventions. By the end of the 19th century, French writers such as Huysmans and Baudelaire were self-identifying as decadents. In England, Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley also took the mantle and carried it before Modernism superseded it.