Words That Hurt

Over the last few years, the LGBT community have voiced concerns over the misappropriation of the word ‘gay’ by modern tweens. Originally, ‘gay’ meant happy and carefree. Then, homosexual men took the word as their own and gave it an entirely different meaning. Now, tweens are using the word in a negative sense.

But don’t despair, my LGBT brethren… tweens will drop usage of the word in a pejorative sense as education and awareness improves, just as usage of the word ‘retard’ has fallen out of favour. Or alternatively, the word ‘gay’ will end up with yet another completely different meaning to its original purpose. It’s a little confusing at times, however. If you call a man ‘gay’, is he happy, homosexual, or bad in some ill-defined way? It all really depends on how old you are.

This phenomenon does open the door to a discussion on the etymology of words that cause pain and suffering. Many words used in our everyday lexicon actually vilify some segment of our global community, and the person uttering the word is often completely ignorant of this vilification. Language is a living, evolving construct that changes with norms and contextual usage. Some words that hurt were never intended to cause pain and vilification, yet customary usage over time has twisted the word into something hideous and reviled. Other words were deliberately introduced, either through maliciousness or ignorance.

Let’s take a look at a few examples:

Fag: This word harkens back to the days of homosexual people being burned alive at the stake. A ‘faggot’ is a unit of measurement for firewood, typically a large bundle. As soon as a man was discovered to be homosexual, he was branded as just another faggot and burned. Although in current usage calling someone a fag is considered to be quite insensitive, homosexual men often call each others fags as a sign of solidarity.

Gypped: Have you ever felt cheated or swindled and uttered “I’ve been gypped!”? It’s a word that causes great offence to the gypsy, or romani, people. ‘Gypsy’ is a term created by Europeans to mean ‘Egyptian’, and was applied to the wandering nomads that entered Europe from India (for some bizarre reason… India and Egypt are so close… not!). These bands of wandering folk have a rich culture and history, yet were treated very poorly by the Europeans. They were blamed by miscreants for misdeeds and thefts that they had no responsibility for, and as a result developed a reputation for cheating people. So in future, if you feel you’ve been cheated or swindled, try to avoid the word ‘gypped’… it’s very inappropriate and disrespectful to a proud, noble people.

Heebie-Jeebies: In our modern lexicon, people sometimes use the expression ‘heebie-jeebies’ when they feel vaguely uncomfortable in a situation. “He gives me the heebie-jeebies”. This expression was originally derived from the term ‘Hebrew Jebrew’, and refers to the uncomfortable feeling that people have in the presence of Jewish people. How insulting is that? If you feel uncomfortable in a situation, what’s wrong with the word ‘uncomfortable’?

Retard: Originally, ‘retard’ was used to describe a person with an intellectual or developmental challenge, but iunfortunately morphed into a slang word that meant ‘stupid’. Bullies would call other children retards, creating the general perception that all people with intellectual and developmental challenges were stupid… which we all know is absolutely not the case! Although there are some ignorant pockets of society that still use this word in a pejorative sense, it has largely dropped out of common slang usage… thankfully! In modern society, people that use the word ‘retard’ often have the word backfire onto themselves.

Nigger: I felt dirty and disgusted just typing that word. It is the hurtful word that polarises people the most. Originally the ‘N’ word, and all its derivatives, variations, and sources, was not intended to be hateful and cause so much suffering. It was derived from the latin word for ‘black’, and was used purely to refer to black-skinned people. Unfortunately, over the centuries, the word has been twisted through contextual misuse into something hateful that any sane, reasoning person completely avoids the use of. Like ‘fag’, black people often refer to each other as ‘nigga’ or ‘niggah’ as a sign of solidarity.

People often use words and expressions without being aware of their history and true meaning. We pick things up from our parents, our peers, and cultural entertainment, and use these things in complete ignorance. It is time to educate ourselves. If you aren’t completely certain what a word or expression means, investigate it. If a more appropriate and less hurtful word can be used, then use it. In our modern global community, hateful speech is becoming more intentional and less accidental. Education and awareness help combat the problem, as does pulling up your friends and family when they use a hurtful word in ignorance.

So which type of person are you? Someone enlightened and socially aware, or someone who still uses words like ‘retard’ and ‘fag’ as insults? It would be interesting to chart the happiness and quality of life of each group. Do you think more socially aware people are generally happier and enjoy a better quality of life?