What’s in a word?

A set of metal types

A set of metal types (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.


[Aside] Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?


‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.


I take thee at thy word:
Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized;
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.

I often call political correctness, and many in the Social Justice crowd (note the capital letters, lower case, wherein we’re talking about people actually seeking justice within society is a whole other conversation and one I’m in favour of) … well, I call them some very not-too-politically-correct things, the word ‘derogatory’ comes to mind.

Do you say “Indian”, “American Indian”, “Native American“, etc?  Well, if you ask them they would rather you just called them by the bloody group they belong to, e.g. Cherokee, Apache, Seminole, etc.  Though they seem to be willing to accept, as a collective term for “them folks what lived here before Eurpoeans came along” almost anything that isn’t meant in disrespect; some have a preference in one direction or another, but the concensus seems to be “there’re bigger problems”.

Do you say “black” or “person of colour”?  According to most of the black people I know, they’re “black folk” or “black people”.  Oddly enough the people who insist on “person of colour” because “black person” means they’re their colour before a person … or some idiotic thing like that which completely ignores the gramatical convention of the language they’re speaking (news flash: in a lot of other languages it’d be “person black”, English just puts adjectives and adverbs first, sheesh!) will, often in the same sentence say “white person”.  Gotta love it.

Lame, cripple, etc.  These words have meanings, both specific and slang.  That’s what language is.  A person who is crippled or lame is just as disabled as they are ‘differently abled’, in fact, in many a case, they are not ‘differently abled’ they haven’t suddenly gained new super powers to make up for that limp, or the missing leg, or whatever.

In most cases the political correctness and Social Justice bullshit is semantics.  It doesn’t matter what you call the little retarded kid, the new term is going to end up with the same ‘negative connotations’ as the previous one becuase you don’t make a rose not beautiful by calling it ‘shit’ nor shit any better by calling it a rose – people still won’t want to be around someone taking a rose, and will think a dozen long-stemmed shits are very romantic.

Words, by themselves, aren’t anything but sounds.  Full stop, end.  Call me a dyke, a bitch, a tranny, a ho, or any number of things that are derogatory and I won’t be insulted in many a case – for me, those noises carry no value.  Well, I may thank certain people for calling me a bitch, and the rest of the words may illicit tears if from certain individuals or laughter if from the rest of humanity.  However, for some people, those words do hurt.

Let’s have some fun with ‘tranny’, because a lot of the others are vulgar or don’t even sound like a nice thing to call someone.

Let’s start with this portion of a conversation Rush Limbaugh (yes that Rush Limbaugh) had on his show not so terribly long ago (full thing here)

CALLER:  Well, I’m really glad to hear that you are not, you know, saying that transgender rights is a bad thing that conservatives should oppose.

RUSH:  Oh, no, I’ve been for trannies for a long time.  I don’t know if you’ve heard otherwise.

CALLER:  Yeah.  Well, actually I did hear you using that term, and a lot of us do find that to be rather offensive, because of the way it’s been historically used.

RUSH:  Oh, I didn’t know that.  Tranny is offensive?

CALLER:  Yeah.  It’s kind of an argument, and RuPaul has taken a position.

RUSH:  I heard Alec Baldwin use the term, you know, when he was in trouble because he has made a lot of homophobic comments.

CALLER:  Right.  Yeah.

RUSH:  He wrote this big apologia that ran in one of the New York area publications. He used the term “tranny” as though it were hip and an inside baseball term that made him cool with the transgender community.

Thing is, ‘tranny’ does sound hip and modern and nice.  Hell, I kind of like the word; it’s cute!  I’ve never really encountered it used as a derogatory, though.  Others have.  Oh sure, it’s used in porn, but so are a lot of words like ‘shemale’ (that one, not so nice) and thing is, there I’m pretty sure it’s just being used as the shorthand it looks like (hell, shemale, ‘chicks with dicks’, etc … catchphrases.  I, for one, can’t take what the porn industry does seriously enough to be offended by any of it).

But it’s not a nice word.  Some transgender use it, either like myself because they’d never heard it as anything bad nor knew that anyone ever used it as bad, or in the same way some gay man call each other ‘fag’.  And, linguistically, it is just a cute word, it’s a diminutive of trans[sexual/gender/vestite/etc]; and look at the overwhelming number of people named something like Tamlin or Tamara who happily go by Tammy.

Thing is, what’s in a word is sounds.  Phonemes, is the fancy word for it.  That’s it.  Chunkadooklemugs means nothing; it’s not nonsense, though, for anything at all inherent in the word – it’s nonsense because it is meaningless, literally, it is in no dictionairy and is not a part of our language (or any other language, as far as I know, though in the broader universe I suspect it has to have at least one meaning).  Now if I did this:

Chunkadooklemugs (n) – the small, often dried, bits of mucus found in the corner of the eye usually after a night’s sleep.  See Also: eye bogies

Now it’s not meaningless, and it’s not nonsesne.  Before and after that definition, it was a word.  It was a collection of syllables.  Now it’s a collection of syllables with a meaning.  It’s not part of the language, it’s not a meaningful word, because it hasn’t been absorbed into any group’s parlance yet; and I sincerely hope it never does as I’d hate to find myself going down in history as the woman who invented that goofy assed word for eye bogies //shudders.

It’s all down to language, and language has to have meaning.  “Eskimos have 200 words for snow”.  No they don’t.  They have 200 words to describe the frozen precipitation that we so inelegantly call “snow”.  As I understand it they have either 1 or 0 words for ‘snow’.  And let’s not get into the conversation about the word ‘Eskimo’, okay? In their world they had a lot of snow, so it influenced their language because they needed to meaningfully communicate about what the snow was doing, and sooner or later the adjectives and adjectival phrases get a bit cumbersome, to say nothing of being difficult to shout, quickly, in an emergancy.

My point is, changing the words for things doesn’t change perceptions.  On the flip side, a word’s only a word, it only means something insulting if you let it insult you.

Tranny can be used in a derogatory fashion, but if you refuse to take offense … well, now is it an insult, a compliment, or a cute little word for trans*?  It’s suddenly all at once!  Oh noes!  The person saying it means one thing, but it’s not the speaker who dictates the meaning of things.  Well, philosophy and coining terms aisde. Meaning is in the ears of those hearing it. Once it was insulting to call someone German, now it isn’t. In both cases they meant “person from Germany”, but it carried negative connotations. What changed? Not the word, they’re still Germans. It was the perception. I could still call someone a German and mean all the badness it indicated in the 1860s, but what difference? No one will hear that.

You want to change society, the world, and minds it’s not through the language.  You want to track these things, you do it through the language.  Just like in Juliet’s lament, Romeo by any name would still be Romeo.  In her case, if he cast off his father’s name, then their love would cease to be forbidden, in her case it works out to just rename a thing … sort of, to her family it’d be quite likely he’d still be one of those bloody Montagues just as she’d still be a Capulet to his family no matter what she called herself.  Lighten up about what a thing is called, what you are called, etc.  If you want to make a difference change the way people see and think about the thing, instead.

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