In linguistics, reappropriation, reclamation, or resignification is the cultural process by which a group reclaims words or artifacts that were previously used in a way disparaging of that group. It is a specific form of a semantic change (i.e. change in a word's meaning). Linguistic reclamation can have wider implications in the fields of discourse and has been described in terms of personal or sociopolitical empowerment.
A reclaimed or reappropriated word is a word that was at one time pejorative but has been brought back into acceptable usage, usually starting within its original target, i.e. the communities that were pejoratively described by that word, and later spreading to the general populace as well. Some of the terms being reclaimed have originated as non-pejorative terms that over time became pejorative. Reclaiming them can be seen as restoring their original intent. This, however, does not apply to all such words as some were used in a derogatory fashion from the very beginning.
In terms of linguistic theory, reappropriation can be seen as a specific case of a type of a semantic change, namely, of amelioration - a process through which a word's meaning becomes more positive over time.
Brontsema suggested that there are at least three identifiable goals of reclamation: 1) value reversal 2) neutralization 3) stigma exploitation. The value reversal refers to changing the meaning from pejorative to neutral or positive. Neutralization refers to denying the term to those who want to use it, or words in general, to oppress and hurt another group. Stigma exploitation, finally, refers to the use of such terms as a reminder that a given group has been subject to unfair treatment. Those goals can be mutually exclusive; in particular, stigma exploitation is incompatible with the other two goals.
Reclamation can be seen as both a psychological, individual process and as a sociological, society-wide process. In terms of a personal process, it has been discussed in the context of empowerment that comes from "disarming the power of a dominant group to control one’s own and others’ views of oneself", and gaining control over the way one is described, and hence, one's self-image, self-control and self-understanding. Brontsema wrote that "At the heart of linguistic reclamation is the right of self-definition, of forging and naming one’s own existence." Other scholars have connected this concept to that of self-labelling. The empowerment process, and the denial of language as a tool of oppression as abuse of power, has also been stressed by scholars such as Judith Butler and Michel Foucault, the latter who also referred to it as a "reverse discourse".
In terms of the wider sociopolitical empowerment process, reclamation process has also been credited with promoting social justice, and building group solidarity; activists groups that engage in this process have been argued to be more likely to be seen as representative of their groups and see those groups as raising in power and status in their society. Scholars have argued that those who use such terms to describe themselves in the act of reappropriation "will feel powerful and therefore see his or her group label as less stigmatizing. Observers will infer that the group has power and will therefore see the label as less saturated in negativity".
Although those terms are most often used in the context of language, this concept has also been used in relation to other cultural concepts, for example in the discussion of reappropriation of stereotypes, reappropriation of popular culture (e.g., the reappropriation of science fiction literature into elite, high literature), or reappropriation of traditions.
Controversy and objections
Reclaimed words often remain controversial for a time, due to their original pejorative nature. For some terms, even "reclaimed" usage by members of the community concerned is a subject of controversy. Often, not all members of a given community support the idea that a particular slur should be reclaimed at all. In other cases, a word can be seen as acceptable when used by the members of the community that has reclaimed it (in-group usage), but its use by outside parties (out-group usage) can still be seen as derogatory and thus controversial. For example, Brontsema noted in 2003 in his discussion of the reclaimed terms that while "[the term nigger] may be acceptable for [African Americans] to use it freely, it is off-limits to whites, whose usage of nigger cannot be the same, given its history and the general history of racial oppression and racial relations in the United States." Similar argument has been made in 2009 for words associated with the LGBT movement like queer or dyke. A related discourse occurred with regards to the Washington Redskins name controversy, with the American Indians community divided on whether the term has been reclaimed or not.
Those opposed to the reclamation of terms have argued that such terms are irredeemable and are forever connected to their derogatory meaning, and their usage will continue to hurt those who remember its original intent and even reinforce the existing stigma. The supporters of reclamation argue, in turn, that many such words had non-derogatory meanings that are simply being restored and that in either case, reclaiming such a word denies it to those who would want to use it to oppress others and represents a form of moral victory for the group that reclaimed it.
In 2017, the US Supreme Court, heard arguments for Matal v. Tam. In that case, the US Patent and Trademark Office refused a trademark registration for an Asian American band, The Slants, because it deemed the term disparaging. However, the court ruled unanimously in its favor. Washington University in St. Louis conducted an extensive study on reappropriation based on the band name and found that reclaimed words could be an effective tool for neutralizing disparaging words: "Reappropriation does seem to work in the sense of defusing insults, rendering them less disparaging and harmful."
Sex and sexuality
In England, Cavalier was a derogatory nickname reappropriated as self-identification, in contrast to the term Roundhead which, despite being used by the Royalists for the supporters of the Parliamentary cause, remained a derisory word up to the point of it being a punishable offense if used to refer to a soldier of the New Model Army. Tory (originally from the Middle Irish word for 'pursued man' tóraidhe), Whig (from whiggamore; see the Whiggamore Raid) and Suffragette are other British examples.
In the American colonies, British officers used Yankee, a term originated in reference to Dutch settlers, as a derogatory term against the colonists. British officers created the early versions of the song Yankee Doodle, as a criticism of the uncultured colonists, but during the Revolution, as the colonists began to reappropriate the label yankee as a point of pride, they likewise reappropriated the song, altering verses, and turning it into a patriotic anthem. The term is now widely used as an affectionate nickname for Americans in general.
In the 1850s in the United States, a secretive political party was derisively dubbed the Know Nothing party, based on their penchant for saying "I know nothing" when asked for details by outsiders; this became the common name for the party. It eventually became a popular name, sufficiently so that consumer products like tea, candy, and even a freighter were branded with the name.
During the 2016 United States presidential election, Hillary Clinton referred to some Trump supporters as a "Basket of deplorables". Many Trump supporters endorsed the phrase. Donald Trump also played the song "Do You Hear the People Sing?" from the musical Les Misérables as an introduction to one of his rallies, using a graphic captioned "Les Deplorables". Subsequently, Trump called Clinton a "nasty woman" during the final presidential debate, resulting in that expression being described as a "rallying cry" for women. It was soon featured on merchandise and used by Clinton's campaign surrogates.
One of the older examples of successful reclaiming is the term Jesuit to refer to members of the Society of Jesus. This was originally a derogatory term referring to people who too readily invoked the name of Jesus in their politics, but which members of the Society adopted over time for themselves, so that the word came to refer exclusively to them, and generally in a positive or neutral sense, even though the term "Jesuitical" is derived from the Society of Jesus and is used to mean things like: manipulative, conspiring, treacherous, capable of intellectually justifying anything by convoluted reasoning.
Other examples can be found in the origins of Methodism; early members were originally mocked for their "methodical" and rule-driven religious devotion, founder John Wesley embraced the term for his movement. Members of the Religious Society of Friends were termed Quakers as an epithet, but took up the term themselves. Similarly, the term Protestant was originally a derogatory term, and more recently the term pagan has been subject to a similar change in meaning.
Race, ethnicity, and nationality
To a lesser extent, and more controversially among the groups referred to, many racial, ethnic, and class terms have been reappropriated:
- Baster, the name is derived from bastaard, the Dutch word for "bastard". They are a Southern African ethnic group descended from White European men and Black African women. The Basters reappropriated it as a "proud name", claiming their ancestry and history.
- Black, negro, nigga, or nigger by African Americans
- Curry, used a derogatory term for South Asians (often in conjunction with muncher or slurper), reappropriated by some members of the South Asian expatriate or American-Born Confused Desi community.
- Jew by the Jewish people (the word used to be seen as pejorative in English). That process is still not complete in some Slavic languages, where the word Zhyd can still be seen as pejorative.
- Kugel, playful South African English slang for a materialistic young woman, originally was a derogatory term used by the elder generation of South African Jews for a young Jewish woman who forsook traditional Jewish dress values for those of the ostentatiously wealthy and became overly materialistic and overgroomed. The term was then reclaimed by those women.
- Peckerwood, originally black slang in the Southern United States for poor whites, reclaimed by white prison gangs
- Smoggie, originally a derogatory term for people from the North East England town of Middlesbrough, in reference to the town's notorious industrial pollution, now commonly used in self-identification.
- White trash, a racial slur referring to poor white people, reappropriated by some as a cultural symbol and badge of pride
- Wog by Australians of Greek, Arab or Turkish descent.
- Impressionists In 1874 during their first independent art show, critic Louis Leroy penned a hostile review of the show in Le Charivari newspaper under the title "The Exhibition of the Impression-ists". In particular he used the painting Impression, soleil levant by Claude Monet to ridicule the painters for their lack of seriousness preferring to paint "fleeting impressions of the moment" rather than allegorical or ultra-realist themes.
- Stuckism is an international art movement founded in 1999; its members produce figurative art. Tracey Emin, one of the Young British Artists known for their conceptual art, accused her then-boyfriend of lack of imagination or reach, of being "stuck". He took on the term.
Words some feminist activists have argued should be reclaimed include:
- Détournement, a similar strategy used for images.
- Dysphemism treadmill, the process by which offensive terms can become acceptable without deliberate intervention.
- Gaysper, reappropriated LGBT symbol
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Linguistic reclamation, also known as linguistic resignification or reappropriation, refers to the appropriation of a pejorative epithet by its target(s).
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reappropriation, the process of taking possession of a slur previously used exclusively by dominant groups to reinforce a stigmatized group’s lesser status
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