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How Language Transpires over Time - Essay Example

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In a 1986 essay entitled The Meanings of a Word, writer Gloria Naylor notes, "Words themselves are innocuous; it is the consensus that gives them true power" (Naylor, 251). Words in themselves are meaningless; they are simply a collection of spoken sounds or written symbols that members of a society develop in order to communicate with one another…
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How Language Transpires over Time
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Download file to see previous pages She uses as an example an episode from her childhood in which a boy referred to her as "nigger". Naylor writes: "I didn't know what a nigger was, but I knew that whatever it meant, it was something he shouldn't have called me" (Naylor, 252). She notes that her extended family had used this same word in describing themselves, each other, or members of their community, and how they might give the word positive or negative connotations depending on the context. However she had never before heard it in terms that were intended to humiliate, and it was hearing the word used as an insult that caused her to question what it meant to those outside her extended family.
The most striking examples of such words tend to be those which can be used in the pejorative sense - words such as nigger, fag, or kike. Because of the way in which these words are used, and because of their historical associations, these words and others like them are encompassed by the term "hate speech". These words were not always used in this fashion, but have evolved into such terms as our language has evolved.
For example, the word "nigger" can be traced to the Latin word niger, meaning black. In English, this word became "negro", while in Early Modern French niger became negre and later negress. Eventually, the white Southern mispronunciation of the word Negro brought "nigger" into common usage. The pejorative sense of the word "nigger" was established by the early 1800s and in the context of American history and Black slavery the word has arguably become the most instantly recognizable and controversial racial slur in the Western world. Further to this, a multitude of phrases have been built around the derogatory sense of the word "nigger" (Pilgrim and Middleton, 2001).
A similar trend can be seen in the case of the word "faggot". Originally referring to a tied bundle of sticks or metal rods, the word came to be used in English public schools to refer to the younger boys who became "servants" of the senior classmen. As a result, being someone's "faggot" came to imply submissiveness. During the 20th century "faggot" became a slang term for effeminate or flamboyant men and began to be used in a derogatory fashion towards the middle of the century (GLSEN, 2005).
Despite the similarities that can be traced in their shifts in meanings, there is a very striking difference between these two words. As Naylor points out, it is the connotations that we ourselves give words that render them powerful. The word "nigger" is much more emotive than the word "faggot" due to the history surrounding its usage. The word "nigger" makes us cringe in a way that "faggot" does not, because of the associations that we as a culture have given it.
In recent years there has been substantial effort made in reclaiming words such as these, and attempting to dispel or dilute the negativity surrounding them. In The Meanings of Words, Naylor writes of how her extended family used the word "nigger" amongst themselves:

In the singular, the word was always applied to a man who had distinguished himself in some situation that brought their approval for his strength, intelligence, or drive... [w]hen used with a possessive adjective by a woman - "my nigger" - it became a ...Download file to see next pagesRead More
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