Parlance Pandemonium, Vexatious Vernacular, and Loose Lingo: Language and the Power of Words

This is a post about the relationships between language and the words that we use, writing, cycling, and feminism. Given the wide range of subject matter, you can probably guess you’re in for a meandering and possibly, though I’ll do my best not to make it, obtuse undercurrent direct from my often muddy stream of consciousness. But hey, this isn’t an academic research paper, and you probably wouldn’t read it if it were.

Trigger! Warning! Disclosure! Flashy Red Lights! I’ll be using words that most people find either offensive or bawdily humorous from here forward. Here’s a good chance for you to grab a cool beverage and maybe tab over to Twitter to check up on the current cycling race or [fill in the blank] sport updates. Or just skip down to the last couple of paragraphs that focus on writing. Your choice.

As so often happens to me—I can’t imagine why—I was recently involved in a debate about the use of the “c” word. Nope, not Clinton, the other “c” word. Yep, cunt. You see, I have this reputation as a feminist, probably not a big surprise to you, dear readers, and to many feminists, and women in general, the “c” word is considered the lowest, meanest insult there is. I don’t see it that way.

Let me back up and tell you why cunt became such a, if I may, hot topic. And this is where cycling comes into the flow. Because, yunno, cycling is just another “c” word, at least to some. (Looking at you, Novitsky and Tygart.)

Procyclist and one of the favorites for this year’s Tour de France Bradley Wiggins gave a press conference last week where he flung vitriol and expletives at those who claim any cyclist who could win the TdF must be a doper. I chimed in with my full support of his tirade, which caused a close friend to question in what universe a feminist ideology can be accepting of anyone using the “c” word, especially in the pejorative sense. Wiggo said,

I say they’re just fucking wankers. I cannot be dealing with people like that. It justifies their own bone-idleness because they can’t ever imagine applying themselves to do anything in their lives. It’s easy for them to sit under a pseudonym on Twitter and write that sort of shit, rather than get off their arses in their own lives and apply themselves and work hard at something and achieve something. And that’s ultimately it. Cunts.

I should mention that Wiggo, in case you hadn’t noticed, is a Brit and, in my understanding, the “c” word is a much more commonplace and universal pejorative in the UK than here. In other words, not quite as charged and anti-woman as in the US. I could be wrong in this assumption, however, since my closest association with English culture comes from growing up listening to the Clash and yes, cough, even Duran Duran.

So why am I not opposed to being called the “c” word? Happy you asked, because it gives me a chance to tout one of my all-time favorite books, Inga Muscio’s Cunt. Yep, that’s the name of the book. It’s usually not shelved in the children’s section at your local bookstore. However, it is one of the greatest feminist reads you’ll ever purchase, and she is a lovely and talented writer. The gist of why the title is that word is based on a sociolinguistic strategy of language reclamation. As you probably know, there is an intersection between feminist and sociolinguistic theory that revolves around language and how it is used / wielded to maintain a status quo. Part of the premise of Muscio’s book discusses the origins of the word (originally a venerated goddess), and how it was co-opted by patriarchal forces and turned into a epithet. She analyzes how and why this type of thing happens (you should read Cunt and Rianne Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade for a deeper discussion of this), and then boldly discusses how women have it within our power to reclaim the words that once stood for our strength and dynamism—cunt being one of the most loaded—and in essence, turn the tactics used to derogate them back around.

I read Cunt for the first time over ten years ago. Since then, I’ve never really considered the use of the word derogatory—in the sense that I think that anyone who calls me a cunt in an offensive way is really just saying, “I fear your strength and power and am cluelessly using this weak term in an attempt to establish dominance over you (and failing miserably).” In other words, I take it as a roundabout compliment when someone calls me a cunt. Yeah, I get that it’s NOT really a compliment, but the lesson here is that language is dynamic and requires both an actor and a receiver to give it veracity.

And finally, because I’m a writer and a lot of you are writers, let me bring this subject back around to how it relates to, well, writing.

We love words. It’s a flamboyant, fathomless, messy, challenging, salacious, and sometimes painful love affair that forces us to do terrible, terrible things. We kill people; we level buildings, cities, hell, sometimes even entire planets; we kick puppies and bury our in-laws alive in hidden coffins. Why? Because we can! Because the words are there, and we revel in leveraging them to achieve any and all nefarious deeds our demented minds can dream up. Being the wordsmiths that we are, we care A LOT about the structure and intent of our every sentence and every word. We are the type of people that will often recompose the same email dozens of times, even if it’s simply to say “I’ll be there for dinner,” in order to ensure that just the right amount of enthusiasm or reticence is beaming through our recipient’s screen of choice. We have been known to throw out five or ten synonyms at time for a single word in a heated debate because we’re too impassioned to settle for just one.

We, above most, understand that language, dialect, syntax, accent, and inflection are all key components of our writing, especially vis-à-vis characterisation. Applied carefully and deliberately, they become critical components in how we shape our readers’ grasp and impressions of our characters’ personalities, attributes, tastes, thoughts, intentions, and overall existence. Without unique and specific applications of language, all characters would sound, and thus in our readers’ minds BE, the same. And this strict attention to language doesn’t stop at characterisation, but extends as far as the tone of our novels and stories. The way we develop our narrators’ patterns of speech and the words they use flavors our works, making them either light and rich, like a banana cream pie, or heavy and dark, like a Kells Guinness Stout Cake.

In summary, words are the magic wand that we, as writers, wield with all the dexterity of a Hogwarts graduate. It’s a heavy and shifting responsibility, but we embrace it because we are power-hungry despots whose one goal in life is to bend and warp the minds of our minions. What better way to achieve this than through the thing we all share: language.

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All content copyright unless otherwise specified © 2008-2013 by Tammy Salyer, writer. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to use short quotes provided proper attribution is given.

16 Replies to “Parlance Pandemonium, Vexatious Vernacular, and Loose Lingo: Language and the Power of Words”

  1. Pingback: Uptalking Writing with Horror Author Martin Lastrapes – Tammy Salyer

  2. Henry Hyde

    Tammy, as a Brit, I can tell you that the “cunt”, “fuck”, “shit” (I’m on a roll here) and other short expletives have largely been drained of their misogynistic overtones through familiarity. They retain power simply because of their sound – short, hard, almost onomatopoeic, like a slap in the face or a punch. I have a number of highly intelligent female friends, some of whom would describe themselves as feminists, and their reaction to this Anglo-Saxon vocabulary is largely based on the fact that it is usually delivered in a verbally violent context, which triggers a physical defensive response, perhaps even more than a linguistic one.

    What’s interesting is hearing just how ‘taboo’ such words still are for some people. Perhaps we Brits have become rather blasé about the sensibilities of other English-speaking nations.

    As for “wanker”, that’s often used amongst (male) friends as a very gentle ribbing indeed, along with “tosser”. Let’s face it, it can even be found in BBC comedies!

  3. Debra Eve

    Tammy, I’m a feminist from way back with a background in archaeology and mythology (I worked for Dr. Marija Gimbutas), so like you, the word cunt doesn’t phase me (I’m sure you’ve seen photos of the astonishing sheela-na-gigs on Irish churches). My husband’s a Brit and they’ve definitely moved the word into general parlance. If they’re being polite or around children, you hear “See You Next Tuesday,” which cracks me up. So glad I found you in my rare trawling of the Twitter hashtags! Congrats on your successful debut novel, will definitely check it out.

    1. Tammy Salyer Post author

      Hi Debra! I’m thrilled to have met you too! Wow, that’s some serious cred to have worked Dr. Gimbutas. She’s cited quite a bit in that Riane Eisler book I mentioned. And seriously, “See you next Tuesday,” that’s just awesome. I’ll never hear someone say that again without cracking up. I have my homework now though; need to look up the sheela-na-gigs. Hope you’re having a great weekend! Cheers!

  4. LauraLyn

    Hi Tammy, you have put it well: “We, above most, understand that language, dialect, syntax, accent, and inflection are all key components of our writing [and speaking], especially vis-à-vis characterisation. Applied carefully and deliberately, they become critical components in how we shape our readers’ [and listeners’] grasp and impressions of our characters’ personalities, attributes, tastes, thoughts, intentions, and overall existence.”

    So what should we think of Mr. Wiggins tirade, of his characterization: his personality, tastes, intentions, . . . overall existence? Do you believe him?

    Perhaps some of us fair ladies are less (more?) of a feminist than you. Is this the language we (re)claim for our dignity, almost regardless of gender (dare I say)?

    Susan understands well the degradation of character to outrageous insults. Perhaps Mr. Wiggins’ character was simply at a loss for more clever words; perhaps that character felt intimidated by the question; perhaps there was a need to disguise insecurity and fear; perhaps he felt the very truth itself (or a lie?) was under threat.

    Language is wonderful, intoxicating, especially in its myriad of intelligence, emotion, rhythm, sensitivities, and color. A voyage through one’s own language and the languages of others – in speaking, reading, and writing – is as adventurous and rewarding as a trip around the world, probably even more.

    With deference and apologies, from your ‘Wiggo’ I will not be taking lessons on language, character, or feminism.

      1. LauraLyn

        Amen to that, Tammy. Go for it. I’ll be your biggest fan.

        By the way, your character is making amends. See his piece in today’s Guardian. (Still rubs my feminist side a bit the wrong way, but let’s be generous and allow the men their small steps.)

        1. Tammy Salyer Post author

          Thanks! I’ll check out the Guardian comment. I certainly don’t think many people think about their language as much as sociolinguists, feminists, and writers do. That doesn’t excuse bad behavior/language, of course, but it helps put it in context.

          I also meant to say that I thought your comment was a fabulous description of language and the gifts it so generously gives us ~~> “Language is wonderful, intoxicating, especially in its myriad of intelligence, emotion, rhythm, sensitivities, and color. A voyage through one’s own language and the languages of others – in speaking, reading, and writing – is as adventurous and rewarding as a trip around the world, probably even more.”

    1. Hina

      Hey Tammy. This is another interesting post you have. To some degree, I agree that we are the one’s that give words such as ‘cunt’ the power that they have, by choosing to either not let it impact us, or to impact us.

      I think what you are saying is that we can strip words of their agency so to speak, if we so choose, and that a term like ‘cunt’ that is meant to demean us, can actually have little to no impact on us, thereby, giving us the power over this exact word.

      This also makes me think of other words, such as the ‘n word.’ In my circles, I have noticed that it is ok for people of color to throw this word around among themselves, but as soon as a white person uses it, it is beyond derogatory, and considered to be hate speech warranted of being attacked.

      As women, we don’t refer to each other as ‘cunts’, and I don’t think that would be ok with us.

      Why use a word that was created by the patriarchal forces toward one another? Why continue the use of that word, with the intent that it was established in? Although we may be redefining it, we need to remember the context in which these terms are coined.

      I guess that is also my issue with the n word being thrown around by people of color. Using it among Black communities, still does not strip the word of its historical context, to do so, would be considered historical amnesia.

      However, based on conversations I have had with some of these people that do this, they also feel that they are reclaiming the power of the word from their colonizer.

      I guess this is a similar qualm I have about the word bitch and cunt when used toward women.

      We can choose to redefine it for ourselves, but it still will never take away the negative intent in which it was created in.

      Language that is created in the heart of a colonialist, or the heart of a patriarch has parallels between them.

      Thank you for the thought provocation and I am looking forward to your response.


      1. Tammy Salyer Post author

        Hi Hina,

        Thanks for the great comments. You gave me a lot of food for thought. I’ve heard the arguments in favor of specific communities absorbing and claiming words, such as the “n” word, that were coined as epithets or slurs for them and using them within the community to refer to each other (thus, taking power away from the original colonizers or whichever group coined the pejorative in the first place.) There’s a parallel example with women who identify as queer being absolutely okay with being called and calling others within their circle “dykes” (such as Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For). I think there’s a lot of veracity in this type of activism, which is a good way of reframing the argument I was attempting to make in this post. The other thing I was trying to say, and didn’t get across very well, is that the word “cunt” existed in a positive form before it was co-opted by the partriarchy. Thus, it’s not a term that women are trying to take from the patriarchy, but a word that we can consciously decide to *take back*. The difference is subtle, but in terms of activism, I think it’s important in that it is a victory and reclamation of the positive, rather than a defeat of the negative. In other words, it’s women reclaiming what was already ours to begin with, and *not* becoming the “colonizers” of another group’s (in this case the partriarchy’s) language or tactics of oppression. That’s the distinction I’m trying to make between a positive form of activism and a negative form of activism. I hope that makes sense.

        Thanks again for the thoughtful and thought-provoking comments!
        Best 😀

  5. Susan Spann

    Nicely said. I’m actually in full agreement with the idea of reclaiming language, and I happen to agree with your interpretation of most high-level insults. Most people resort to what I call “high impact expletives” when they’re at a loss for more clever words – usually because of intimidation or in an attempt to disguise insecurity and fear. You nailed this one exactly, where I’m concerned.

    1. Tammy Salyer Post author

      Hey Susan. I’m glad to have your opinion on this post. I was thinking of your comment a couple of weeks ago about not using foul language just for it’s shock value (except for where that’s the intent), so I especially appreciate your take on the subject. Just two months to RMFW! O/

      1. Susan Spann

        Ironically, I think there’s a lot to be said for the power of language to shock, especially (and primarily) when it’s done deliberately for that reason. The first time I heard my father use a high-impact expletive I almost fell over. Literally. I also thought my mother’s head would explode. (I was 18, by the way, which tells you something about his use of language – and his use was totally cool and deliberate, not done in anger.)

        It taught me a serious lesson about the power of words, especially when wielded by someone with a purpose. My father could have expressed his opinion about the topic in question in hundreds of ways – I’d heard him express disbelief for years, and in a variety of ways. But his use of “BS” (full word, not abbreviation) stopped the conversation cold – and he knew full well it would do so.

        Curiously, I was then in the early stages of changing from “person who wants to write” to “writer” (this was over 20 years ago) and I realized at once just how powerful something like that could be in the right kind of moment. It made me think a lot about word choice.

        Totally unrelated: “wanker” is just a brilliant insult/curse word. We in the states don’t use it nearly enough.