Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

Bitch, Nigger and Gay: Exclusive Language? The Semantic Shift of Pejorative Words and Reclamation

Bitch, Nigger and Gay: Exclusive Language? The Semantic Shift of Pejorative Words and Reclamation

Emily Jelsomeno

The fact that words are mutable is immutable. Shaped by society, history and people, words can and often do experience semantic shift through the years. This paper specifically deals with the semantic shift and reclamation of three pejorative words: bitch, nigger and gay. How have these words undergone semantic shift and how, if at all, have they been reclaimed with a resultant positive connotation?

A literature review was undertaken, focusing on etymology, pejorative word usage (focusing on bitch, nigger and gay), and reclamation. Building upon the analytical works of many, including Ergun and Brontsema, this analysis investigates the etymology of the three words in question as well as current usage by both in-group members and out-group members. A member of an in-group is defined as a person who falls within the community defined or classified by a particular pejorative word. Therefore, an in-group member for bitch is a female, an in-group member for nigger is an African-American and an in-group member for gay is a homosexual.
The investigation of the reclamation of gay also draws upon the reclamation of queer for comparison. More reclamation work has been around queer, both by the gay community as well as in academia, where a significant amount of inquiry has been done into queer theory.

Interestingly, while all three words experienced semantic shift, the path the shift takes for gay differs. If one takes into account in-group reclamation, the semantic shift for bitch and nigger moves from negative to positive. However, gay has experienced multiple semantic shifts, partially through reclamation. The shift pattern for gay appears to be positive to negative to positive and now currently negative in its newest meaning ‘stupid, dumb, lame.’

While in the literal sense, no one can own a particular word, a sense of ownership and right of use does come into play with pejorative words. In-group reclamation works by creating that sense of ownership to turn a pejorative into a positive, or at least neutralize the negative word. This has been found more so with bitch and nigger, and less with gay.

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April 23, 2010 - Posted by | abstract

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