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A Note on the Etymology of Slurs

Content Warning: This post contains the use of misogynistic and homophobic slurs.

The etymology of a word defines where the word was originally drawn from, including its linguistic and cultural context. For example, the word ‘chair’ is drawn from the Latin word ‘cathedra’ which meant ‘seat.’ Etymological origins are not always as simple and can often prove surprising. For instance, Plato’s ideas of love were not necessarily the non-romantic ‘platonic’ feelings that we harp on about today, but an ideal built on a sexual knowledge relationship between teacher and student.

So why is etymology relevant today? Why does it still matter and how is it used as a tool to invalidate the oppression of others?

Many words that are considered slurs today have benign and non- violent origins. However, this does not take away from the (very real) lived experiences of people where they have been used to dehumanize groups of people.

The word ‘bitch’ is the most obvious instance of this. Originally — and still, if you happen to be a vet — used to designate female dogs, the word became synonymous with the most tyrannical and hated of women, usually viewed this way by men. Although the word is currently towards the tail end of a long process of reclamation, there is no denying that it hurts when it is used as an insult and no amount of waxing poetic about how female dogs are great creatures and to be synonymous with them is a compliment will change that.

A more apt example may be the word ‘pussy.’ Its origins are hotly debated between a Norse word meaning ‘pocket pouch’ and a German word meaning ‘coward’. Either way, the fact remains that this is a slur used to refer to female genitalia as well as to call someone weak. The fact that female genitalia has become attached to the idea of cowardice is necessarily derogatory. There is nothing inherently weak about female genitalia. Simply put, saying that you meant ‘weak’ and not that you are calling a person weak because you believe that they are comparable to female genitalia is irrelevant. If you used the word ‘pussy’, you would still be giving into a patriarchal tradition that hierarchizes anatomy.

We also have the word ‘faggot.’ A faggot originally referred to a bundle of tied-up sticks. When women were burnt for being witches in the middle ages, gay men were also burnt. Except gay men were not considered ‘worthy’ of enough importance to be tied to the stake. Instead, there was a call to simply throw them in with the faggots.

This is why it doesn’t matter that faggot was originally just used to designate tied- up sticks. It doesn’t matter that you just want to call your friend a burning pile of wood, because you cannot ignore the way the word ‘faggot’ has entered modern vocabulary to dehumanize gay men and treat them in derogatory ways. The word still carries the pain of generations of men who have been oppressed, harassed, and bullied using the word. Your intent does not take away from people’s lived truths.

This is why etymology does not matter. What a word is ‘supposed’ to mean or where it came from has little to do with how it is used today and, as such, we would all do well to remember that. Words have infinite power to hurt and heal and the slightest misstep would mean creating the wrong impact.

Photo: Patrick Tomasso via Unsplash

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