Reappropriation

pansy division

guido power

Reappropriation [ree-uh-proh-pree-eyt] is the cultural process by which a group reclaims terms or artifacts that were previously used in a way disparaging of that group. For example, since the early 1970s, much terminology referring to homosexuality—such as gay, queer, and (to a lesser extent) faggot—has been reappropriated. Another example of reappropriation would be an African American collecting lawn jockeys or other artifacts of darky iconography. The term reappropriation can also extend to counter-hegemonic re-purposing, such as citizens with no formal authority seizing unused public or private land for community use.

The term reappropriation is an extension of the term appropriation or cultural appropriation used in anthropology, sociology and cultural studies to describe the hegemonic action of reabsorbing subcultural styles and forms, or those from other cultures, into mass culture through a process of commodification: the mass-marketing of alternate lifestyles, practices, and artifacts.

A reclaimed or reappropriated word, is a word that was at one time a pejorative but has been brought back into acceptable usage—usually starting within the communities that experienced oppression under that word, but sometimes also among the general populace as well (the term ‘reclaimed word’ more often implies usage by a member of the group referred to).

This can have wider implications in the fields of discourse, and has been described in terms of personal or sociopolitical empowerment. Reclaiming or reappropriating a word involves re-evaluating a term that in the dominant culture is, or at one time was, used by a majority to oppress various minorities of that same culture. In some cases, this reappropriation is so successful as to turn a previously disparaging word into the preferred term: for example, gay, previously an insult, is now strongly preferred to ‘homosexual,’ both as an adjective and a noun.

One of the older examples of successful reclaiming is the term ‘Jesuit’ to refer to members of the Society of Jesus. This was originally a derogatory term referring to people who too readily invoked the name of Jesus in their politics, but which members of the Society adopted over time for themselves, so that the word came to refer exclusively to them, and only in a positive or neutral sense.

Reclaimed words differ from general reclamation outside of language because of their deliberately provocative nature. In addition to neutral or acceptable connotations, reclaimed words often acquire positive meaning within the circles of the informed. Outside the community, such transitions are rare. As such, the use of these terms by outside parties is usually viewed as strongly derogatory. For some terms, even ‘reclaimed’ usage by members of the community concerned is a subject of controversy—for example, there is considerable debate within the transgender community over attempts to reclaim the term ‘tranny,’ usually applied offensively to transwomen.

Michel Foucault discusses the idea of reclaimed words as a ‘reverse discourse’ in his ‘History of Sexuality: Volume I.’ The New York performance artist Penny Arcade sold what turned out to be her most popular show on the basis of the title, ‘Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!,’ words she was reclaiming.

There are many recent English-language examples of linguistic reappropriation in the areas of human sexuality, gender roles, sexual orientation, etc. Among these are: ‘Bitch’ and ‘cunt’ by the feminist movement. ‘Dyke’ (and variants such as ‘bulldyke,’ ‘diesel dyke,’ ‘baby dyke,’ ‘femme dyke,’ etc.), ‘butch,’ ‘faggot’ or ‘fag,’ ‘poof,’ ‘queer,’ ‘homo’ and ‘tranny’ by the LGBT movements. ‘Slut,’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘slag,’ by promiscuous, sexual liberation, polygamous and polyamorous affiliates ‘Pervert’ by members of the BDSM and fetish communities.

However, the phenomenon is much older, especially in politics and religion. ‘Cavalier’ is example of a derogatory nickname reappropriated as self-identification, while ‘Roundhead,’ a Royalists derisory term for the supporters of the Parliamentary cause is not (it was a punishable offence in the New Model Army to call a fellow soldier a roundhead). ‘Tory’ (orig. from Middle Irish word for ‘pursued man’ Tóraidhe ), ‘Whig’ (from ‘whiggamore’ (after the Whiggamore Raid) and ‘Suffragette’ are other British examples, while Yankee is an American example.

The Dutch and German languages actually have a separate word for such a term, ‘geuzennaam’ (Dutch, commonly used) and ‘Geusenwort’ (German, used among linguists). These words derive from the geuzen, i.e., Dutch opponents to Spanish rule in the 16th century, who eventually created the Netherlands under William of Orange. Being derisively called ‘beggars’ (‘gueux’ in French of the era) by their opponents, they appropriated a Dutchified form of the word as their own ‘battle name.’ In French during the French Revolution the word ‘Sans-culottes’ (literally ‘without knee-breeches’) gained a similar meaning.

More recent political examples include: ‘Tree hugger’ by environmentalists; ‘Vast Right Wing Conspiracy’ originally used as a pejorative term by Hillary Clinton, but now routinely used as a positive self-identity by Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives; and ‘Redneck’ by political movements from the American South, especially conservative movements.

Terms reappropriated in religion include: ‘Jesuit’ as a term for members of the Society of Jesus; ‘Christian’ by Early Christianity, Acts 11:26 implies that the word ‘Christian’ was first used in Antioch, possibly by its opponents; ‘Jesus freak’ by Christians, and especially Christian teens; ‘Methodist, originally a slur directed at John Wesley, who founded that denomination; ‘Moonie’ by members of the Unification Church, especially the Unification Church second generation; ‘Mormon’, by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; ‘Mormon fundamentalist,’ by those who broke away from the LDS Church to continue practicing polygamy; ‘Papist’ by Roman Catholics; ‘Quaker’ by the Religious Society of Friends; ‘Kike’ or ‘Yid,’ by people of Jewish descent and/or faith; ‘Witch,’ ‘pagan,’ and ‘heathen,’ by the wiccan and neopagan communities; ‘Godless,’ and ‘heathen’ (with a different meaning than in the neopagan sense), by irreligious people.

To a lesser extent, and more controversially among the groups referred to, many racial, ethnic, and class terms have been reappropriated: ‘Flip’ by Filipino American youth; ‘Nigga’ by the Black movement; ‘Mutt’ by people of mixed race; ‘Guido’ by Italian Americans (‘Guidette’ for women); ‘Wog’ by Australians of Southern European descent; ‘Gaijin’ by westerners living in Japan; ‘Farang’ by westerners living in Thailand; ‘Bule’ by westerners living in Indonesia; ‘Mic’ by Irish Americans; ‘Paddy’ by Irish Americans; ‘Tim’ by Glaswegians of Irish Descent; ‘Paki’ by Pakistani-American youth; ‘Heeb’ by Jews (in a cultural rather than primarily religious sense); ‘Chink’ as a term used by Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans; ‘Fenian,’ used in Scotland and Northern Ireland for a Catholic or an Irish republican; or, especially in Scotland, someone of Irish descent; and ‘White Trash’ by lower-class caucasians; traits of this group often overlap with ‘Redneck.’

More generally, any kind of community can reappropriate words referring to them: ‘Geek’ by individuals heavily involved with a hobby, science, or trade; ‘Nerd’ by technophiles and people with a deep interest in science fiction, video games, and other obscure hobbies and interests; in Japan, ‘Otaku’ translated as ‘geek’ and ‘nerd,’ but more accurately as ‘anorak’ (British slang for a person who has a very strong interest, perhaps obsessive, in niche subjects) due to the more obsessive meaning and the fact that it can be used as an insult; ‘Pirate’ by the peer-to-peer filesharing community; ‘Bastard’, by adopted people; ‘Brat’ (as in ‘military brat’) by children of U.S. military personnel; ‘Crip,’ ‘cripple’ or ‘gimp’ by people with disabilities, particularly in the inclusion movement; and ‘Fat’ by the size-acceptance movement.

A closely related phenomenon is the recontextualization of material objects, as for example when the anti-racist Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University displays such Jim Crow Era artifacts as golliwog marbles or Sambo masks. Other such examples are the display of an anti-Semitic poster in a Holocaust museum, or the removal of the Coat Of Arms, featuring animals sacred to Australian Aborigines, from the Australian Federal Parliament building by Aboriginal elder Kevin Buzzacott.

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