First, because Hanna (rightly) chided me for not including it the first time around, I bring you a clip from Doctor Who in which the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) staunchly defends his non-BBC accent in the face of companion Rose's skepticism. You can carry Leeds on your lips and still save the universe: take that language snobs! (Apologies: neither Hanna nor I could find an embeddable clip of the exact bit we wanted -- maybe someday we'll learn how to rip this stuff properly!)
And on a more serious note, the passionate and articulate Sady @ Tiger Beatdown writes at length on the power of words and the importance of context in "Inappropriate Language: Some Notes on Words and Context." I cannot quote the whole piece here, but strongly urge you to click over to her blog and read the whole thing, since I admire the way she argues for a more complex understanding of how context shapes the meaning of certain terms, while not dismissing the idea that words have the power to harm -- and that some epithets simply should not be used at all. While being funny to boot! I offer the following illustrative passage:
But language is also complicated. The reason a lot of people (thoughtful people, anyway) object to language debates is that they seem to oversimplify or misunderstand how language works. I’m sympathetic to that argument, to some degree. It’s undeniably true that words get re-purposed all the time – “gay” itself being a really prime example. But it takes a long time, or a major paradigm shift, or both, for semantic shifts on that level to occur. You need what would appear to be centuries of “gay” picking up steam as a euphemism for “slutty,” you need people slyly re-purposing the word for their own particular variety of socially-unapproved sexiness so that they can hint at their sexuality without getting in trouble, you need that usage in turn to pick up steam, and you need Stonewall, and you need the decision to go with “gay,” this by now much-evolved bit of sound and code, as an alternative to other labels that are openly pejorative, either because they used to be clinical diagnoses of mental illness or because they are just plain slurs. And then – and then! - this word “gay” becomes a pejorative itself, based on the new meaning.
It takes a while, is my point, for the phrase “my, don’t you look gay in your new ensemble” to go from “you look like you are ready for a party” to “you seriously look like you are ready to put out at that party” to “we are surrounded by a room full of people at this party, and thus cannot acknowledge the way you like to put out, but I happen to be down with putting out that way my very own self” to “I hate your t-shirt, but am for some reason talking fancy.” The meanings overlap in a lot of different ways throughout the history, and it gets tricky, but the overall shift in meaning is clear – we can’t get back to the first stop from the current one. There’s no return, “gay” as “totally and asexually ready for a festive occasion” is just done.
So go forth, read, talk (in whatever accent and using whatever words you feel are appropriate to your own context) and think.
*image credit: Xeyra @ Livejournal.