For the purposes of this post I am not starring out any of the "language" in this post. I believe the message here is extremely important and should be examined and not dismissed due to the dialogue engaged below.
I think Chelsea Pitcher has done an amazing job addressing this slang topic, which, in case you're curious, I did pitch to her first and am proud to host here on MPB.
In her own words, "Don’t censor yourself, but rather, take time to think about the meanings of slang."
I’ve always been fascinated by slang. I think if someone visited America from another country, they could learn a lot about our values based on our slang. For example, positive slang like bomb, money, and having balls indicate what people see as valuable, while negative slang like gay, pussy, and lame illustrate what people think of as inferior or bad. Even if we don’t fully believe these things (that male is better than female, or straight is better than gay), these words have a way of getting under our skin, affecting how we view the world. We might find ourselves saying, “You screamed like a girl!” or “Man up!” without really thinking about how these sayings affect our perception, or how they affect young boys and girls growing up in the world.
One of the most interesting things about my job is I get to uncover the origins of different words, what they used to mean, and how they’re used today. Sure, most of us know that gay started out meaning happy, and bitch technically means “a female dog.” But what about words like faggot, retard, and slut?
According to Etymonline.com (the online etymology dictionary), faggot once meant “a bundle of sticks:”
late 13th century., "bundle of twigs bound up," from Old French fagot "bundle of sticks" (13th century.) Especially used for burning heretics (emblematic of this from 1550s), so that phrase fire and faggot was used to indicate "punishment of a heretic." Heretics who recanted were required to wear an embroidered figure of a faggot on their sleeve, as an emblem and reminder of what they deserved.
In other words, “faggot” started out meaning a “bundle of sticks”—specifically those used to burn heretics. When I was in high school, I heard that the word “faggot” was eventually attributed to gay men because they were also burned beneath these bundles of wood. But scholars have since argued that the time periods (between heretics being burned, and gay men being executed) don’t necessarily line up.
late 15th century., from French retarder (13c.), from Latin retardare (see retardation). The noun is recorded from 1788 in the sense "retardation, delay;" from 1970 in offensive meaning "retarded person," originally American English, with accent on first syllable.
I love that the etymology dictionary links the meaning of “retard” to French, because the first time I really thought about the origins of the word was in French class. In French, the word means “to delay” or “be late.” Once I started thinking about this, I realized the word had been attributed to people with certain mental disabilities because their development was interpreted as “delayed.” Obviously, the word morphed into something else after that, and is now used in a way that is derogatory to the target of the word and people with mental disabilities.
14th century, "a dirty, slovenly, or untidy woman," probably cognate with dialectal German Schlutt "slovenly woman," dialectal Swedish slata "idle woman, slut," and Dutch slodder "slut," but the ultimate origin is doubtful. Chaucer uses sluttish (late 14c.) in reference to the appearance of an untidy man. Also "a kitchen maid, a drudge" (mid-15c.; hard pieces in a bread loaf from imperfect kneading were called slut's pennies, 18c.). Meaning "woman of loose character, bold hussy" is attested from mid-15c.; playful use of the word, without implication of loose morals, is attested from 1660s.
Our little girl Susan is a most admirable slut, and pleases us mightily. [Pepys, diary, Feb. 21, 1664]
So slut started out meaning an untidy woman or a maid (i.e. someone who cleans untidy things). The really interesting thing is that, even when slut meant “someone who was slovenly,” it appears to have been used in a playful, joking way. In fact, all three words—faggot, retard, and slut—started out with more positive, or neutral, meanings. Why then are their meanings so much crueler now, in a time when we allegedly think better of women, gay people, and those with disabilities? Why is it that people in the fourteenth century were using “slut” in a friendlier way?
In The S-Word, the students of Verity High brand Lizzie a “slut” without batting an eye. Even when it becomes clear that the word is doing great damage to her mental and emotional health, they refuse to let up. Why? Why is it so important for us to use labels and call people names? Does it allow us to treat them as less than human somehow?
If this is the case, I ask everyone to proceed with caution. Don’t censor yourself, but rather, take time to think about the meanings of slang. Where did these terms originate, and how are they being used today? Are certain words used to control one group of people over another? Are you contributing to this in some way?