Occupying metaphor: the reappropriation of slurs

March 9, 2015

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.

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The green stuff

July 11, 2011

If you’re a regular visitor, you might know that I’ve been writing weekly posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. June was Green English month – that is, the language of the environment and all things eco-friendly – so a few of my recent posts focused on this.

First up, “It will all come out in the greenwash” looks at some of the jargon that has emerged from the green movement, such as greentailing, greenwashing, and eco-bling:

Some companies are unscrupulous about jumping on the green bandwagon in an effort to boost their profits. This has given rise to the term greenwash – formed by analogy with whitewash. Just as whitewash indicates greater concern with appearance than with what lies beneath, and indicates attempts to cover up incriminatory facts, so greenwash refers to superficial activities intended to show concern about the environment and distract from damage being done.

As Kerry Maxwell points out in her BuzzWord article, greenwash has been around since the early 1990s, and its use has spread from advertising contexts to political and personal ones. [more]

In “Have I seen you be -vore?”, I examine the –vore suffix, which comes from French –vore, from Latin –vorous, from vorare (devour, swallow quickly) and with which we’re familiar from words such as herbivore, carnivore, and omnivore. This pattern is greatly extended in scientific terminology, where we see

words like insectivore, piscivore, nectarivore, frugivore (fruit-eater), detritivore, and granivore (eats seeds, not grandmothers), and their adjectival forms: insectivorous, etc.

In these cases, –vore signals the act of eating, and what precedes it indicates what is eaten. But more recent coinages work differently, signalling a shift (or lapse) in how the suffix is used. One of these is locavore, sometimes localvore. Although superficially it has the same form as the traditional –vore words, it does not work quite the same way: it has nothing to do with eating locals. [more]

Out of the red with the green stuff” takes a different approach to green English by noting the colour’s association with money. Green is where the language of the environment and the language of business overlap, and now it seems

the “green economy” is spreading to unexpected quarters: a recent article in Time magazine reports that Sicily’s mafia want in on the act.

The article discusses clean energy and dirty money, phrases that draw on particular metaphors I’ve written about before. Its title mentions the mafia’s “hunger for power”, a metaphor that refers in this instance to renewable energy but is apt in other ways. For one thing, when we talk about money, we often talk metaphorically about food, as Diane Nicholls’s article shows. Also, Italy is where the Slow Food movement, which promotes green living, is said to have begun. [more]

Finally, in “Cut me some slacktivism” I write about different kinds of modern activism, how online life has affected it, and some of the words used to describe different types of involvement. Among these are astroturfing, clicktivism, hacktivism and slacktivism, the last of which

was formed by blending slacker with activism. Whereas activism is all about active engagement, slacktivists prefer to limit their involvement to the bare minimum. . . .

Given the ease of manipulating online information, underhanded tactics are inevitable. One technique that has attracted a lot of attention is astroturfing. This extends a familiar metaphor: since AstroTurf is fake grass, astroturfing is a fake grass roots campaign. It’s a deceptive form of advocacy that appears as a groundswell of passionate opinion, but is often secretly financed by corporations or other well-organised groups with a vested interest in swaying political policy or the public mood. [more]

You can click here to read previous round-ups of my posts for Macmillan Dictionary Blog, or here to go directly to the archive. (The second link is also in the “Elsewhere” box in the top right-hand corner of this blog.)

Comments, whether here or there, are always welcome.