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Column: Strong language – can we ever 'reclaim' slurs and terms of abuse?

After Tottenham fans were cautioned over the use of their traditional ‘yid army’ chant, Christie Louise Tucker writes that we are constantly renegotiating the use of language in our ever-evolving society.

Christie Louise Tucker

FOOTBALL HAS LONG been known as an arena where prejudices are apt to flare, and this season looks to be no different. Barely a month from the start of the season, Tottenham fans have been cautioned over the use of their traditional ‘yid army’ chant over fears that the term is anti-Semitic. The Football Association has issued a statement advising that fans heard using the word would be banned from future games or prosecuted, which supporters flouted at last Saturday’s Premier League match – also Yom Kippur, the most important day of the Jewish religious calendar.

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron has said that there should be no arrests, but Jewish writer and comedian David Baddiel opined: “It’s a race-hate word. It was daubed across the East End by Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts.”

It’s true, there were once a lot of Jews in that part of London. But Brighton has one of the UK’s largest gay communities – and their team doesn’t adopt a homophobic slur as a nickname. If one of Manchester’s teams were rebranded to reflect the large Jewish diaspora in Salford, the outcry would be both deafening and instant.

Chanting songs about Auschwitz

And it seems like one simple word can be used as an excuse to progress to more serious acts of aggression. Fans of opposing teams have been heard chanting songs about Auschwitz and mimicking the hissing noise of the gas chambers, both of which can be prosecuted as hate crimes under UK legislation.

Other teams, too, have associated religious affiliations that bring dramatic consequences. Take, for instance, the long-standing rivalry between Rangers and Celtic supporters which led one Rangers spokesman to use the term “90-minute bigot” to characterise the religious intolerance that accompanies matches between the teams.

Who does a word belong to?

But this isn’t a uniquely British problem; in Ireland and the world over, discussions like this raise important questions about language and how we use it.

Does a word belong to the people it refers to, and do they decide how it may be used? Does language belong to everyone, and is its use decided by consensus? Certainly, dictionary editors admit their works must reflect and respond to trends in usage, which is why the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of ‘literally’ was recently altered to include an informal figurative meaning.

It’s never just been religious terms that have been used as weapons; words describing race, gender, sexuality, and physical ability have all been misused, as well as less tangible characteristics such as home town and subcultural identity. It’s even difficult to discuss these issues without causing offence. Words that have been use to incite hatred and violence appear safely bridled by quotation marks, like an animal in a cage; less threatening in captivity, but still with the capacity to injure if handled incorrectly.

The power of language

In wartime, we give our enemies nicknames because the ability to laugh at something diminishes its power to intimidate us. In recent years, formerly pejorative terms like “queer” and “cripple” have been reclaimed by the groups they once hurt, robbed of their power and re-employed as totems, trophies stolen from their enemies. Once you’ve claimed a word for your own, the theory goes, it can no longer be used against you; it becomes your word, to use about yourself as you please.

Our ability to ‘get away with’ using certain words, as with telling edgy jokes, depends on our relationship to the group in question. Take, for example, a term like ‘plastic Paddy’. While it can be good fun use the phrase to send up those whose idea of Irishness is based more on St Patrick’s Day caricatures than real experience, a man from Birmingham was given a suspended sentence after using the term to insult a police officer of Irish origin.

Defining our own identities

Within Ireland, the greatest divide is based on which side of the Pale – or the M50 – you were born on. Is being a ‘culchie’ or a ‘Dub’ a thing to be proud of? Can each side still use the opposing term to insult their opposite number, or should they be reclaimed and celebrated as unique facets of modern Irish identity? Within Dublin, the ‘northsiders’ v ‘southsiders’ divide is alive and well, and a cursory glance at the comments section under any online local news story will confirm that smaller-scale local rivalries are as popular as ever.

We use our relationship with other social groups, other towns, other countries, to define our own identities. Language has always been a part of this, and will continue to define both our own identities and our understanding of the identities of others for many years to come. Censorship is undesirable, but deliberately causing offence is equally disagreeable. Use of language, like behaviour, is a balancing act that we must constantly renegotiate in a fluid and ever-evolving society.

Christie Louise Tucker read Journalism at the University of Essex between 2004 and 2007. Originally an entertainment writer, her attention has since shifted to subjects as diverse as feminism, atheism, equality, health, and society and culture. Christie has been a guest blogger at the F Word and  the Quail Pipe, is a regular contributor at Femusings, and has her own blog at www.elwellpress.blogspot.co.uk.

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Christie Louise Tucker

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