‘It’s just a word’ is a fairly common protest when I point out problematic language. It’s frustrating, because the truth is that language, power, society, and structural discrimination are deeply entwined. As someone who has studied linguistics and social information practices, I can absolutely speak to the fact that language is a powerful and insidious tool for keeping people down, whether it’s hissed at you by a passerby on the street, or spray-painted on your house, or used jokingly by your peers, or used to describe you in legislation, the language that describes and defines us has consequences that ripple through our lives, right down to our bones.
The flip side of this is that when you’re aware of the power of words, it becomes important to be able to take control of that power by self defining and reclaiming language. People get weirdly upset at ‘made up words’ for gender and sexual orientation without understanding the history of criminalizaing, pathologizing, misinterpretation, and discrimination that the ‘normal’ words carry. We are aware of this power, and we’re using the power of language to self-identify. Apparently that’s very threatening.
“it’s only a word” – so, it won’t be a big deal for you to stop using it, right? Right?