slurs–includes bad language, so be fairly warned

I was reading this article about a Texas Republican who was saying something to the effect that ranchers ought to be able to shoot all wetbacks. Elsewhere in the article, is mentioned the n-word as a slur. Specifically saying, “n-word” as opposed to nigger. Now I’m using the word here because I used the word wetback. Both seem equally offensive. In fact, there are a lot of offensive terms out there for women, for races, for gays, lesbians, and so on into just about infinity. There are a lot of words out there for people to use when they are being bigoted. What I started thinking about is how willing people are to use just about every one of those words when they are discussing them, but not nigger. That has become the n-word. It’s of particular heinousness. Well, I will say that I see the ‘c-word’ used about half or 3/4 of the time with the word cunt. I hate both those words, by the way, and it’s very difficult for me to type them, because in my head, they are so taboo. And yet it seems to me that saying the “n-word” or the “c-word,” undermines how horrible the slurs really are. It almost makes them cute.  It also seems to say, when other slurs like bitch or wetback or gook or fag are used, that they aren’t all that heinous. Not comparatively. So therefore they must be more okay to use.

On the other hand–

One of the things this Texas person said in the article was that the term wetback was common usage in Texas, and therefore apparently perfectly acceptable. Because as we all know, if everybody does it, it’s a good thing. In this case, common usage creates the impression that in fact, it is reasonable to use, and not a horrible slur. Perhaps that’s why n-word and c-word are used in place of the actual words, because the people speaking them or referring to them want to rob the words of their power.

These are contradictory points of view. Generally I don’t use slurs. I also hate words like “chick,” which isn’t nearly as bad as nigger, and yet to me infantilizes and dehumanizes women, and therefore, yeah, is pretty damned bad.  I’m not really getting to a conclusion here. Just articulating my own confusions. What do you think?


  • Erik

    I think that socially some epithets are considered worse than others. Take “wetback” refers of course to Mexican farm workers, because they sweat on farms and had wet shirts, most people take it as offensive language. Well at least I do.
    But “Redneck” is very similar. It refers to whites who worked on farms who always had sun burnt necks and faces. I use this term regularly when referring to someone who is white and stupid/uninformed. But usually I am using it to the persons face and I’ve never had anyone get upset about it. Most Rednecks are proud of it. I find this amusing.

    Just as amusingly the word “Nigger” comes from the French word Niger (may have misspelled that) which means Black. One I was deployed with a bunch of Danes. One of them was trying to get my friend Toby’s attention so they could trade something and said “Hay nigger”. My whole unit stood up in unison getting ready for an international brawl. The poor guy had a confused look on his face and Toby, not being an asshole asked what the guy had said, and he repeated it. Toby waved everyone off and kindly told the Dane that those were fighting words in America and do NEVER say that when on liberty in the US. Apparently, everywhere else in the world it is fine to call someone a Nigger as it is merely a descriptive of color and has no negative connotations. Toby and the Dane then did some trading, Toby gave up a Leatherman for a Danish marine hat.

    All in all, it just depends on where you are and who you are with as to what a person can say. I just try not to offend, or to be offended.

    • Di Francis

      That’s interesting. In CA, the term wetback came from the notion that Mexicans swam up from Mexico, or crossed the Rio Grande, hence the wet back. Some people would use it frequently, but even as a kid, I found it wrong.

      • Mary Thornburg

        Di, that “swimming across the Rio Grande” was my understanding of the term too, when I thought about it, which was not often… I was pretty unconscious for much of my youth.

        And apparently still am in some regards: APOLOGIES for misspelling your first name! Dianna? Never heard of that spelling. Maybe my finger twitched. But I should have caught it (the finger & the misspelling).

  • Mary Thornburg

    Hi, Dianna ~ You’ve made me think of my own odd relationship with those words. I cannot WRITE any of them, so I’ll use “the c-word,” etc., although they sound like baby-talk to me.

    The kids I went to gradeschool with in the ’50s used the n-word with regularity, although most of them had never seen a black person. I was seven when we adopted our first kitten, and the people we got her from said her name was “n-word baby.” I used that name quite innocently and my mother was as shocked as if I’d said the f-word. Her objection wasn’t that it was an insult; she said that people who used it weren’t “nice.” (She wouldn’t say “sweat,” either– it was “perspiration.”)

    I didn’t ever hear the c-word until I was at least 21, and I doubt if my mother had, either. People were more careful with their language, in those days, around “ladies.” But when I was in college we white girls used the w-word without fail, not even knowing it was an insult, sometimes even as a kind of endearment for the Mexican kids we knew and dated– although I don’t think we did it in front of them, so we must have suspected it was insulting.

    I will SAY any of those words now, in a proper context, like the context in which you use them in your post. But I wouldn’t dream of writing them. Writing is more permanent, and someone they hurt might see them. Go figure. I, too, see both sides of your dilemma. And it’s interesting to become aware of my confusion.

    • Di Francis

      Some communities reclaim the word–as in Queer and even within the black community, the word nigger is not pejorative. A great deal depends on who is using it and context. Because it’s a traditional term of power and oppression used by whites against blacks, it is never appropriate for whites to use, as far as I can tell. Descriptively, possibly (as in a context like this where it’s discussion), but even so, it’s incredibly uncomfortable. I wrote it again here because again, I’m struggling so hard with the notion that one has more negative value than another, or one deserves to come out of the use than another. For me, ‘fag’ deserved to be the f-word more than fuck. It’s far more offensive to me.

  • April Douglas

    The other day, my husband came home from work, and he was just furious. He works with special needs kids, and while he was out for a walk with his kid, a truck full of guys pulled over and were screaming and calling the little boy a retard. Luckily, the little boy didn’t quite get what was going on, but my husband was pissed, and it’s a word that we try not to use in our house.

    I have a hard time even typing nigger and cunt, just because those were BAD WORDS when I was younger. Wetback was never really a word that I ran into at all, but it’s one that I would never use either. In the past few years, Gypsy has become a BIG one in our house, too. I’ve had a lot of issues with that one. We have one “friend” who kept using it, and I asked her politely not to, and her only response was, ‘Well, it’s not my fault if you are offended by it. You don’t have to listen.’ So, I don’t, and she’s not a friend anymore.

    Anyway. I use c-word and n-word when I’m explaining to someone, ‘Oh, so-and-so said this’ because I just hate using them. But I wouldn’t say, ‘Man, Lisel is such a c-word…’

    • Di Francis

      Oh that’s disgusting. First to go after a child at all, and then with that. There are many names those asshats should have been called.

      Gypsy makes me sorry. I love the word. It’s always inspired a world of freedom and adventure and tough people who were competent and capable–kind of like the European frontier people. Then I found out what it was and it’s made me terribly sad. Partly because in using it I’m just wrong, and partly because I have to lose this word that I have loved.

      • April Douglas

        I was kinda surprised my husband didn’t try to hit someone. Thankfully, his kid is non-verbal, and doesn’t seem to have been upset by it. But still…he’s 12 years old, why would you do that?

        I feel the same way about Gypsy. And it’s weird, because when most people say it, they mean it as someone who is free and adventurous. But when people in Europe use it, for example, it’s full of the bad connotations. Of course, it doesn’t help to have shows like ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding…’

        • Di Francis

          I watched that show once. Well, part of it. Repulsive. I kept wondering what life as a modern ‘gypsy’ was really like. Romani? Is that more accurate?

  • Anthony

    Words–all words, not just the objectionable ones–are completely, totally meaningless. They’re just collections of sounds and squiggly lines associated with them. The meanings we assign to these abstract symbols and sounds are basically arbitrary until there is an agreement among enough people that use it.

    Take, for instance, the word ‘cool’. It’s meant as a distinction of temperature; warmer than ‘cold’, colder than ‘tepid’. However, as far back as Beowulf it’s also been used to describe an emotional state (‘stay cool’, ‘cool as a cucumber’), and in the 1940’s it became associated with jazz, then used by the Beat generation and in the 1960’s moved into teen slang as a term for something stylish, trendy, or excellent. At some point in time each of us was told by a friend, probably in elementary school, that something was ‘cool’ and we learned an alternate meaning.

    It goes the other way, too. “Gone With the Wind” was heavily criticized for its use of a foul word (“Frankly, my dear…”). As that word has become more and more common, it has lost its shock value. ‘Bitch’ was first used as a curse word on television in “The Golden Girls” and it, too, has lost its value as an offensive word: the meaning remains the same, everyone knows it’s a pejorative, but the shock value isn’t there.

    It’s also cultural. ‘Cunt’ isn’t nearly as offensive in Great Britain as it is here; it’s roughly in the same category we put ‘bitch’ into. On the other hand, ‘fanny’ is horribly offensive; both in shock value and meaning it’s on the same level as ‘cunt’ is to us in the U.S. Of course, we think of ‘fanny’ as a name for buttocks, not vaginas; another difference that exposes the ultimate meaning of a word as an agreed-upon abstract, and not something real. ‘Fag’ is the same way: in Britain it’s retained its older meaning of a cigarette, descended from a term for fire kindling, and isn’t offensive. In the U.S. we’ve associated it with ‘flaming’ as a gay term and it’s become insulting.

    Offensive racist words are, of course, the same. We’ve been told what ‘nigger’ means, and that it’s offensive. That’s what gives the word its power: it’s the agreement we have that the word is, in fact, powerful. In Texas, the word ‘wetback’ is losing its power, just as ‘damn’ and ‘bitch’ have, because it’s used so much people are becoming desensitized to it. ‘nigger’ is going the same way, but via a different route: by becoming acceptable within the black community, it has been given a new meaning. Perhaps in another dozen decades its use will be as antiquated as calling an Italian a ‘dago’, or a ‘wop’, or a ‘guinea’, or an Irishman a ‘mick’. Being of Italian descent, I know more slurs for them. I can also tell you that in most parts of the country, if you call an Italian-American one of those slurs, they’re more likely to say “Yeah? So?” or correct you (for instance, I’m a dago, but not a wop or a guinea) than be offended.

    And therein lies the secret to pejoratives, one that unfortunately will never be used to eliminate them. We change their meaning by agreement, change their value by our reaction. If those who are offended by a term agreed not to be offended any more, then the people using it to offend would be deprived of their weapon. We can take the power away from these words, by refusing to acknowledge them as powerful. Doing so only gives them power, and gives the people who *do* use them power over you, because you’ve just told them exactly how to offend you.

    As I said, though, this will never happen intentionally. People are too unwilling to let go of their own preconceptions, to cast aside that which they learned as children. Words change their meanings organically, and any shift in the words we find offensive now is not likely to be seen in a short period of time.

    • Di Francis

      Language is made up of signs, which are embedded in the various cultures from which they arise and within which they are used. A sign includes the signifier and the signified and the thing itself, which is often different in communication than the signified. My point being, that yes, you’re right, until language is set in context, it’s meaningless. Foucault would say that we don’t know something until we’ve named it. Given then, that he believes (and I do too) that knowledge is power, therefore language is knowledge is power.

      What that means is that language is always loaded. It accumulates meaning and never divests it. That’s Derrida’s point. That there is no such thing as language that doesn’t have acquired baggage, meaninful to the users/listeners/readers according to how they are culturally/hegemonically situated (Uh oh. Clearly you’ve woken the academic in me). Anyhow, hegemony seeks to prevent itself from changing. It grows out of the people who create it, and then becomes a kind of entity in itself, which seeks to promote and protect itself, patrolling those who would change and undermine it–those who would create ruptures in the various ideologies comprising the hegemony.

      And that brings me to your last point, which is that change comes about when more and more people join in and make the choice. They have to be taught that it’s a choice worth making. That using the words is hurtful, not just a thing for political correctness (see my other comment on that). It is how equal rights came about. How women getting the vote came about. Hegemonic sea changes.

      I shall no go back to editing. I will say this, too. Too often we think that what we learned as children is right and pure and hesitate to turn away from it.

    • Gregg

      Anthony is right on here, in my opinion. Though it is a different category of words, so-called “dirty” words have taken on their negative connotation largely through agreement. So, while Shakespeare and Chaucer, Washington and Jefferson used words such as shit, fuck and cunt in their writings, “Her C’s, her U’s N even her Ts, by which she makes her very great Ps..” (Malvolio in Twelfth Night), later usage began to pile up the connotations against such nouns and verbs on the negative end of the slate. This has strangely occurred in the opposite direction however, wherein the Gay community has embraced the word “gay” (once a pejorative for ‘prostitute’), and we now speak of Queer Theory in literature without batting an eye. I suspect we will go a long way before we consider the concept of Nigger Theory or Chink Theory, and I can’t imagine why we would, but words gain and lose their pejorative power through usage and agreement of their connotations and even denotations. Denotations obviously change as well over time. Words are always cultural markers, because they evolve as time goes by. They are always markers of current history. In fact, this is the singular definition for something “making” it to a dictionary: mere current usage. When one observes the OED, then we see how usage morphs over time, and words are added and discarded, as well as their denotations and connotations. Today’s pejorative may well be tomorrow’s compliment. By the way, “Gaishan,” the Japanese word for “foreigner”, translates roughly to “The stinking of foreign hair.” Who knows? Such denotations may have already passed, and the concept now is merely that of “visitor”.

      • Gregg

        However, I got side-tracked: gender slurs are always, without exception, about power. Again, they define, and “put one in one’s place” as a result. They may reinforce stereotypes: (“Broad”, referring to the broadest part of the female anatomy, and thus reinforcing the idea of a singular function as breeder/child-rearer), or they may establish hierarchy: “Bread-winner” (Which gender leaps to mind?)

        A Big Indian and a Little Indian sat on a fence. The Little Indian was the Big Indian’s son, but the Big Indian was not the Little Indian’s father. How can that be?”

  • Adrianne

    I’ve been trying to figure out how I want my characters to cuss. The bad guys do slur the good guys. What’s hard about that is that so very many of our offensive terms denigrate women, and there are no correlated words for men. For example, “bitch” is emotionally loaded and terribly negative. But guys who are “dogs” are often encouraged by other guys. And I don’t want to go down that road with my characters.

    I hadn’t thought of the whole racial thing. That has endless potential in a world where I have a dozen different races.

    But to have terms like wetback and the n-word pop up on the news? That ought to be utterly forbidden.

    • Gregg

      Douglas Adams had some interesting and humorous insights on that score, thou base football player, and eater of broken meats.

  • Gregg

    Slurs, of all sorts, have been around for quite some time. They are almost always an obvious form of denigration, but more importantly, a form of definition. Once something has been labeled, then its identity is secure. We do this not only we things we reject, but also with things we embrace. We of course fights wars to “protect your freedoms” (though I can’t imagine which one of my freedoms this might include), but once a “value” has been established, in this case a positive one (how can anyone be against ‘freedom’?) then it justifies anything. Similarly, those words which define a negative value (broad, chick, nigger, queer, liberal, conservative) have merely identified that which must, by default, be rejected or set aside as something “other” or “lesser”.

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