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Loaded With Meaning
Slurs are words we use to wound
Angelica Petela
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For every race and ethnicity, there’s a slur or a “put-down” word. For me it would usually be “polack,” because my background is Polish. I’ve been called “polack” sometimes by friends but only as a joke, never as an insult. I let it slide off me, but I understand why some Polish people might get offended by the word. I’d be offended, too, if I thought the person saying it was trying to suggest all Polish people are dumb—a common and senseless stereotype.

Of course, some slurs really do sound like insults, as I found when researching common slurs to understand where their meaning and power come from. “Raghead,” for example, has been used to refer to people of South Asian or Middle Eastern descent, since many people from these regions wear head coverings (like turbans or keffiyehs) as part of their cultural or religious dress. I think it’s pretty insulting to mock someone’s style of dress just because it’s different than yours, and “raghead” is a ridiculous word.

“Spic” also sounds like a word you might spit out in anger, maybe when a person tries to cut you off when you’re driving. It’s believed that this term is a version of “speak” and originated as a mockery of how Spanish and Italian people pronounced “No speak English” (although some have argued it’s an alteration of the word spaghetti).

Sloppy Thinking

“Spic” has been used to target a huge range of ethnicities—Spaniards, Latin Americans, Italians, Filipinos, Pacific Islanders, and people of Mediterranean descent. I was surprised to learn that one slur can target so many people of totally different backgrounds. But maybe that tells you how sloppily a person is thinking when they decide to throw half the world into one meaningless category.

image by Bron Augustino

Similarly, the word “chink” was originally a derogatory term for a Chinese person, but has come to mean any person of East Asian descent. “Chink” came from the Western stereotype of East Asian people as narrow-eyed, and sounds to me like an arrogant word. But another derogatory term, “Chinaman”—which is rarely used these days—doesn’t sound so bad. I remember hearing some veterans using “Chinaman” to refer to a person of Chinese descent and I didn’t think it was offensive at all. Later I read that people who were racist against Chinese people used “Chinaman” as an insult, which shows how a word can become a slur solely because of the intentions of the people who use it.

Symbolic Power

In the same way, the slur that’s generally considered the worst of all in America got its reputation because of the people who used it. White southerners mispronounced the word “negro,” which is simply the Spanish word for black, as “nigger.” This word still has power because it became a symbol of the terrible acts that racist whites committed against black people—enslavement, lynching, and other forms of intimidation and violence.

Today, of course, “the N-word” is used as a neutral or positive term by some blacks for each other. Some people who use it this way would say the idea is to reclaim the word, so that it will no longer be a symbol of hate and injustice. There are those who disapprove of using the N-word under any circumstances, because they say its connotations are too awful. But I think it might be a good idea to reclaim the word. It shows that words don’t make meaning; people make meaning, and people can even turn a slur into a good thing.

Sources: The Color of Words by Philip H. Herbst; etymonline.com

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