[Content Warning: slurs, ableist, homophobic and transphobic language]
I will preface this by saying I have used the language discussed in harmful ways in the past. I am as much a victim of my upbringing as anyone. I have however learned from my mistakes, and changed my vocabulary as appropriate.
Let’s start at the beginning: all language is predetermined, all language is made up. People who rail against these “new” words and pronouns often forget this. But then these are usually the people with the privilege and the power.
Language is also coded, in that it will often refer to a certain type of thing: words for colours, for articles of clothing, and for people. It is again telling that language is coded by the people with the privilege and the power.
That deserves to stand alone:
LANGUAGE IS MADE UP AND CODED BY THE PEOPLE IN POSITIONS OF PRIVILEGE AND POWER.
And in history, as is often the case these days, the people with the most privilege and power are cisgender, heterosexual white men.
That language is coded is immediately obvious when you look for it. Take “woman” and “she” – they’re just extensions of “man” and “he”. Almost derivations, making those assigned female somehow lesser. And who were the people taught to read and write all those years ago, when language was first being codified?
It goes much deeper though, and becomes much more abusive and violent. Insult language is so often coded towards minorities or those who are differently-abled so that even seemingly “harmless” words help perpetuate the myth that the best thing you can be is masculine: everything else is failure.
We see ableist language such as “dumb”, “lame”, and “crazy” thrown about to describe all sorts of things, situations and conditions, all of them negative, that we would rather didn’t exist. These words are so seemingly harmless that we see kids throwing them about on a daily basis. And yet, they turn very real conditions, disabilities and mental health disorders into catchphrases for failure without a thought for how it trivialises the lives of those actually affected by these things.
For example, people who like things to be neat and tidy proclaiming themselves to be “so OCD” without having any idea how life-destroying the condition can actually be trivialises it to the point that those who really do suffer with the condition aren’t taken seriously, and are mocked for their inability to “get over it”.
When it comes to language of violence, so much of it is coded towards women, and those who don’t identify as heterosexual.
Society, at least Western society (I do not claim to speak here for other, it is not my place), still upholds the stereotypes that men are strong, stoic and the moneymakers, whilst women are soft, pretty and should know their place. The worst thing we are taught a man can be is effeminate, and the worst thing a woman can be is confident and outspoken, so naturally insult language is geared toward enforcing these stereotypes.
Words such as “pussy” for someone who is not stereotypically strong, “bitch” for a woman who stands up for herself, “slut” for a woman who is either sexually confident or spurns unwanted sexual advances. Women being told they look like “whores” or “tramps” if they wear make-up purely for their own reasons, but being told they are “ugly” or “butch” if they don’t.
Insults like “twat”, “cunt” or “tit”, all parts of the female body, all used to put someone down and given negative connotations. I would suggest that the fact “cock/dick” can also be used as an insult has much less to do with negativity connected to the male body and much more to do with the lingering religion fear of sex that Western society is still fighting to shake off.
Words thrown at queer people with violent intent are also used as insults, often “playfully”, by straight people, which some people would tell you is justification. Words like “faggot”, “dyke” or the ever-hateful “tranny” are used to belittle and other people, often with violent or abusive intent. The number of incidences of self-harm and suicide amongst queer people is staggering, and the normalisation of language like this has a large part to play.
I will note there have been movements to reclaim these words, to take the sting out of the tail, but just because there are a few people (often white and decidedly note working class) who are in a position where they feel strong enough to do so, it does not mean they speak for everyone.
Language is ever evolving, just as society should be, but there are still people who use the “but in my day/when I was your age/when I was young” excuse to continue to pepper their vocabulary with violent and derogatory language. My da is one of them, it’s an almost daily battle we have. But allowing language like this to become normalised means it will be passed on, and people who aren’t cisgender heterosexual white men may never feel safe in their own skin.
And yes, I haven’t offered any alternatives, because I don’t think there should be any. So much of the language mentioned is lazy shorthand for covering violent bigotry at worst, and woeful ignorance “at best”.
We shouldn’t have ridiculously ignorant views on differently abled people to the point that we use their conditions as shorthand to mock people.
We shouldn’t be so violent towards women that it is seen that the worst thing a person can be is feminine.
We shouldn’t deride the love of others just because it doesn’t fit into the cisgender heterosexual mould of the patriarchy.
We can create words. We can also choose to destroy them. Coded language, especially in the case of insult language, should be eliminated.