Occupying metaphor: the reappropriation of slurs

Marina Warner, in her book Managing Monsters: Six Myths of Our Time (essentially her 1994 Reith Lectures in book form), has a note on the practice of reclaiming slurs and insults, often called reappropriation:

Moving in to occupy the metaphorical objects of derision and fear has become a popular strategy. Sometimes this takes the form of ironical co-opting of a jibe, or even an insult – as in the open defiance of the black rock group called Niggers With Attitude, or the ironic names of women’s enterprises, like the famous publishers, Virago. In Zagreb, five writers were recently denounced as dangerous women in the Croatian nationalist press: the targets immediately accepted the label, and their supporters now wear badges proclaiming them ‘Opasna Žena’ – a dangerous woman. This is a form of well proven magic, uttering a curse in order to undo or claim its power, pronouncing a name in order to command its field of meaning.

I like Warner’s description of this act as occupying metaphorical objects, like sleight of semantics: it captures the tangle of abstraction we employ in constructing identity, while also prefiguring the global use of occupy in political uprisings and protests in recent years.

The case of virago is interesting. Jane Mills, in Womanwords, says the word is used ‘to designate a noisy, domineering woman, often used opprobriously of hated female stereotypes like the mother-in-law’. She notes that the publishing house adopted it ‘not without a little irony’. (The book I’m reading today, coincidentally, is a Virago: Marilee Strong’s excellent A Bright Red Scream: Self-Mutilation and the Language of Pain.)

Wikipedia’s page on reappropriation is patchy but has a decent list of examples. One case not included is when in 2013 the Turkish prime minister called protesters çapulcu (‘looters’), and they quickly adopted the epithet with pride; the novel verb form çapuling became a popular rallying cry. The use of reclaimed slurs is not without hazard, though, even for lexicographers, as Kory Stamper showed in a thoughtful post.

16 Responses to Occupying metaphor: the reappropriation of slurs

  1. Bisogna stare molto attenti con le parole, spesso sono più pericolose di un gesto aggressivo. Dovremmo cercare di leggere libri dove ci sono parole come: amore, solidarietà, fratellanza, amicizia. Ne abbiamo “urgentemente” bisogno.

  2. astraya says:

    In Australia, the great racial slur was ‘Abo’ (abbreviated from ‘Aborigine’). I’m not sure that anyone has attempted to reclaim ‘Abo’. By and large, Australia’s Aborigines don’t have the sort of access to media or the public mind as the groups you and/or Marina Warner mention.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I don’t know whether and to what extent Abo has been reclaimed either. I would tend to use Aboriginal people and not Aborigine(s), though, since the latter equates their identity with the categorisation. The longer phrase is usually recommended in the literature I’ve read.

    • Chips Mackinolty says:

      @ astraya. You are right, “Abo” has never been reclaimed,and has always been regarded as deeply insulting (along with other imported terms such as nigger, boong and coon). The only suggestion I have ever seen of an attempt to reclaim the word was the suggested establishment of an Aboriginal Broadcasting Organisation, which was howled down in Darwin where it was suggested (mid 1980s).
      Interestingly, the term “blackfella” (in opposition to “whitefella”) has been pretty much universally adopted/reclaimed, though I suspect was originally a derogatory term.
      @ Stan Carey, yes “Aboriginal/Aboriginal people”, always with initial caps, is the preferred term. “Aborigine” regarded as ignorant/offensive.
      Since the late 1990s, starting it would seem with the federal government, the term “Indigenous Australian” has become de riguer in government circles and the media, though it is a term resisted by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and organisations, though not with great success, unfortunately. The wheel may turn on this.

      • Stan Carey says:

        Chips: That wheel seldom fully settles. Thanks for the additional comment on this.

      • astraya says:

        Sometimes ‘Indigenous Australian’ just won’t suffice: ‘As James Cook landed on the shores of Botany Bay, he was challenged by two Indigenous Australians’.

      • Chips Mackinolty says:

        @astraya again. You have nailed it. Far better, for example, to suggest Cook was challenged by two members of the Eora nation/language group.
        But the term “indigenous” is used quite perniciously by shock jocks and others to claim “well I was born here in Australia, so I am indigenous, what’s the fuss all about?” and many similar variations.
        Which is why there is a kick back, especially from health organisations, to eschew the term “indigenous”, though oftren forced to as various programs etc are now labelled “indigenous” rather than “Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander”.

      • astraya says:

        @Chips: Do you know if our beloved prime minister has ever gone by the nickname ‘Abo’? (For everyone else, his name is ‘Abbott’, and he’s currently facing severe criticism for some recent comments about Indigenous Australians living in traditional communities.)
        I also found on the Urban Dictionary that during the 2012 American presidential campaign, ‘ABO’ was used as an acronym for ‘Any But Obama’. Hmmm …

      • Chips Mackinolty says:

        @astraya. Interesting but not to my knowledge … certainly not in the 1970s at Sydney Uni. The use of such a name would be beyond the pale, I suspect!
        The only other Prime Ministers with nick names I can recall are Ming (Menzies) and Hawke got both Hawkie and the Silver Bodgie, and both McMahon and Howard scored diminutives Billy and Little Johnny respectively.
        A federal opposition politician gets called “Albo”, short for Albanese. The habit of Australians gifting public figures with nicknames and/or classic shortening of names is commonplace.

  3. Charles Sullivan says:

    The word ‘queer’ might qualify as a slur that has been re-appropriated, at least in liberal parts of the States.

  4. astraya says:

    The opposite of this seems to be demonstrated by an all-white, all-male band called ‘Black Pussy’, about whom there was an article on the Sydney Morning Herald website yesterday.

  5. […] * First published by Virago Press, whose name I discussed briefly in a recent post about slur reappropriation. […]

  6. […] of female-marked suffixes like –ess and –ette is laced with the same kind of irony that underlies Virago’s name, albeit without probable intent to revive them. […]

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