As my journey to be more a sensitive/less hurtful individual continues, I notice that more and more words are offensive to many different marginalized/oppressed groups of individuals. It is easy to ignore these hurtful words if one surrounds themselves with only heteronormative people. Thankfully, I have been introduced to a diverse group of people and had to the chance to engage in dialogues which have made me realize that language is meaningful. I do have to admit, I just read your article “Lame is so gay — a rant.” The logic you use to assert that lame is an offensive word makes perfect sense to me. One thing I do not understand, however, is your use of the word “sucky”as a potential synonym for the word “lame” which you say should not be used. This is the second time I have read an article claiming that lame is an offensive word, followed by using “sucky” as an adjective that one should use to describe a situation that they find to be uncool, or whatever. From my understanding, “sucky” is actually a homophobic slur, which originated to debase gay men who performed oral sex…or “sucked” penis. So…sucky is actually just as hurtful of a term. I just wanted to bring that to your attention because I’ve noticed several bloggers arguing against the word lame, while suggesting one swap out that word with another homophobic offensive term. What do you make of this?
What follows is not an excuse—clearly I’ve upset some people; that’s on me; I apologise—but it is an exploration of word use.
I grew up in England, where as a child sucky could refer to, among other things, a bog that sucks you down; an early and mid-20th-C school playtime taunt, “Oh, sucks to you!” which might, in turn, come from either sucking air at the bottom of a glass instead of squash—coming up empty, in other words—or being the runt of the farmyard litter and so sucking on the dirtiest or most inconvenient teat. And so on.
But by the time I was in my teens I understood it also as a reference to fellatio, mainly of the straight variety. Before one of my first radio interviews in this country, in 1995, at an NPR affiliate in Portland, OR, Kelley reminded me: This country has strict rules about certain words (she gave me the usual list) so don’t use them! As it would be
We talked about it afterwards. I came away three things. One, you can push the letter of the law where necessary. Two, sometimes it’s really not necessary; in the same position now I would use a less inflammatory word, like rubbish. Three, at the time, less than 20 years ago, it sucks, or sucky, was not a queer pejorative.
Obviously language use changes. And, just as obviously, I don’t always keep up.
Realising I haven’t kept up makes me defensive. When I first read your email I thought, Huh. Just fucking typical: a perfectly gender neutral word is now all about Teh Menz and what they do to each other. Then I laughed at myself for the idiotic response.
I’m guessing we all go through some version of this, though: to feel vulnerable about being corrected in public and getting cross as a result. It’s a human failing. I am absolutely not above it (sigh). But I’ve been an idiot a lot in my life, and it no longer worries me; I tend to get over it fast. However, understanding of that vulnerable-to-defensive-to-angry reaction is something that informs my own approach when bracing someone about a word that they think is perfectly harmless. It’s the reason that I try to speak in informational and impersonal mode rather than being accusatory. (Try being the operative word: I have failed spectacularly on occasion.) Good people tend to feel bad about hurting others through their own ignorance. They also feel bad when they think that someone believes they hurt another knowingly. So I try not to provoke that response. I want people to be their best selves, not their defensive worst.
Having said all that, you did it very nicely: carefully, respectfully, and unapologetically. You’re the first person to talk to me about this. I hear you: Some people now, here, today think/feel that sucky is a homophobic slur, and so its use upsets them. Just as lame used as a pejorative pisses me off.
So I’ll delete sucky from the list and I’ll try to remember not to use it. Please feel free to remind me if I slip—because I probably will; new habits can be hard to integrate. But, again, I apologise to any I’ve upset by using the term.
Thanks for letting me know.
* See comment below.