How do words we give a completely new life to, such as the “N” word or even the “L” word liberal, color our thinking and judgments? How do these words come to be, and how does their use change? The words themselves are just words. But some words become ascribed with a special sense of power, authority, and connotation that replace any sort of true definition. In that way, even the most innocuous of words can become offensive.
Human beings have a constant tendency to objectify things. Now often, this is not a bad thing. When it comes to inanimate objects, there rarely is any backlash about it. That is, unless you are dealing with a very snooty so-called sophisticate. These are the sort of people who have a different word for every kind of cushion or every sort of toothpick or whatever.
But trouble arises when it comes to people being classified with words that become objectifications and oversimplifications. What essentially happens is labels become assigned to individuals because of their creed, ethnicity, skin color, or sexual orientation. Then, those individuals who become so labeled have a difficult time escaping the connotations and subtexts that become assigned to such labels. Is it right? Of course not, but it just happens.
Why do we ascribe so much to one word that we cannot even truly give a single definition to, but yet carries with it so many different connotations and subtexts that we just simply take for granted? When you look at the words that society has deemed unusable in polite, everyday conversation, many of them began as simple, harmless words with innocuous definitions. Did you know that the word “faggots” used to simply refer to bundles of wood? “Niggardly” used to mean “tight or cheap.” Of course, now those words are used to objectify individuals for reasons beyond their control.
As Alicia Caldwell pointed out in her Denver Post article, “The N-Word,” even the “N” word began as a simple Latin adjective. This word “niger,” meaning black, was used to describe dark-skinned people. Originally, it was not intended as a slur. It gained the connotation over time, as slave owners began to use it in derogatory ways, and it evolved into the “N” word that we know today.
Discriminatory classification, if we call it that, is a human thing. It has existed in societies all over the world. It would be nice to educate everyone to the point that such labels become extinct. But as history shows, that does not seem particularly possible. What is important is to realize that these words are just words, and nothing more. We cannot take offense to the use of these words. Seriously, they become obvious cliché. People only use them because it is far easy to objectify than it is to explore what a particular individual or group of individuals is really like. Such words that have become insults are only words unless you allow them to have such meaning.
Perhaps we should watch what we say ourselves. But when other people want to run their mouths and throw derogatory terms out there like bullets, just let them. Why take offense to it? It’s ignorant. It is a problem, though. But what can be done to solve the problem? You can only do so much to ban a word. And when words like the “N” word are ‘reclaimed’ so to speak, how do you react to that? Can we eventually just redefine all the curse words? Perhaps. But then there is the ultimate question, what words will be next to fall victim to discrimination?