Reclamation and Re-imagining Words

*or, Why Write A Wordy Comment When You Can Write A Wordy Post Instead?*

Hello faithful readers of Gender Goggles! No, we’re not dead, or imprisoned because of some fabulous radical act against the establishment, or given up the feminism ghost and Found God. We appear to have lives, oddly enough! Or enough fatigue to stare at the computer screen and try to think of something to say and end up going “fuck it, watch Doctor Who!!” *ahem* Not that I’ve been doing the latter. *whistles innocently*

I had started to write a reply to one of our commenters in eloriane’s Chivalry thread but as it was getting so long I decided to make it a post instead! Cuz, it’s a little embarrassing that nothing’s been posted for several days now. And the whole reclaiming words thing is an interesting thing to talk about afresh.

Eloriane had written about the sexism/rudeness of so-called chivalrous acts, and a discussion ensued about the meaning of the word “chivalry.” If chivalry is supposed to be showing respect, does that mean that one simply isn’t being chivalrous in those examples that eloriane illustrated were rude? Or is chivalry actually a form of rudeness (despite its claims to the contrary) in that it so often contains a degree of agency-taking from the woman at the receiving end of it?

We could go to the dictionary to look more closely at how the word is defined, searching there for more meaning. But I think one of the problems with using a dictionary definition when discussing the meanings and social ramifications of these words is that language isn’t defined by the dictionary. Rather, people who write the dictionary try to capture the existing social meaning of words. This being a sexist world, dictionaries are often incomplete in their descriptions as people are often unaware of underlying sexist dynamics. Remember,  sexism is so much a part of our social fabric that it usually goes unnoticed. Even researchers trying to be accurate with their descriptions of words can miss enormous sexist subtexts.

Chivalry is a great example of this. The dictionary describes it as being polite, but the actions that are socially described as chivalrous often aren’t merely polite but serve to reinforce women’s insubordinate status. “Chivalry” is based on the notion that women (not men) need “looking after,” need escorting, need protecting from little things – but dictionary writers rarely seem to include that aspect in their descriptions. There’s this whole “putting up on a pedestal” element to chivalry that is at once, flattering and infantalizing. As an anonymous African-American abolitionist/feminist said in the 19th Century, “a pedestal is as much a prison as any other small space.” The intent may be politeness, or respect, but the result is a taking away of our agency, either in actuality or symbolically. This is the way sexism works (and other “isms” naturally); our society says it’s polite, but it really isn’t.

I do hear what I think Ishy in the linked-to comment thread is saying, though. That if chivalry is supposed to be about politeness and treating women with respect, when one is being rude while trying to be chivalrous one is then failing at chivalry. That a chivalrous act that is also rude is thus not “real” chivalry. I kind of feel the same way about “honour.” That is also a loaded word with a lot of concepts behind it that I don’t hold to. People will excuse a lot of shitty behaviour in the name of protecting/defending one’s honour. But that’s not what I mean when I use the word. I’m trying to reclaim the word. When I speak of honour, I speak about being true to one’s convictions and behaving with (actual, real) respect to those around us, but without a lot of the “moral” crap – ie a woman can have loads of sex with lots of different men or women and still be deeply honourable. One-night stands even. One can have casual sex with someone and still do so honourably. It means not lying and treating people like shit, and treating yourself with the same respect.

But are these terms really reclaimable? Ultimately, what one might consider honourable, another might not, and I’m not sure if that will ever change. I suspect that it might be just the nature of the word that keeps it so personal. Chivalry, however, I think is different; I don’t think that what is culturally considered chivalrous changes all that much from person to person. So I don’t think it really is reclaimable, at least not yet (and I’m not sure about honour, either). In a post-feminist world, when we’ve let go of this domination fetish, perhaps one can remove the gendered history of the word and keep it as a term to describe that little extra respect we might show to people we admire, male or female and any permutation in between. But now? I lean towards thinking not.

What I then find myself wondering is whether or not showing that kind of deference has a degree of submission inherent to it? Or am I only thinking that because our world is so relentlessly based on domination and submission that any kind of showing deference is automatically loaded with that subtext? Are we are so used to hammering that everything looks like a nail?

This is the great challenge of reclaiming any word, of course. Language changes and evolves over time, and a word that means one thing in one century might come to mean something very different centuries later. Like “wife” for example. Used to be just the name for an adult female human. And “husband” means to look after livestock. *raises an eyebrow* Completely coincidental, isn’t it, what those words mean now. While trying to reclaim a word one has to constantly fight with everyone’s concept of what you’re saying. Some of these things are forms of activism, like “witch” and “dyke.” But we need a large enough number of people to generate this change. Plus time. Plus changes in our society around that which caused problems with the word in the first place. Without that larger social shift the words just keep meaning what they’ve always meant.


5 Responses to Reclamation and Re-imagining Words

  1. yinyang says:

    The thing about chivalry, for me, that makes it a no-go word in terms of reclaimation, is that it’s gendered – men being polite to women. Because, if chivalry was really just “being polite to everyone,” then we already have other words for that – respect, politeness, etc.

  2. yinyang says:

    Also –

    Are we are so used to hammering that everything looks like a nail?

    Yes. 😛

    • Crowfoot says:

      if chivalry was really just “being polite to everyone,” then we already have other words for that – respect, politeness, etc.


  3. Llencelyn says:

    Really good post, Crowfoot. Thanks for putting it in the Shakesville blogaround.

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