Well, this is excellent timing. I read and fully understood and agreed with your “Lame is so gay” post. And I’ve long been aware about the pejorative use of saying something sucks, though I’m less certain about “sucky.” I’m always willing to change my speech if people, especially marginalized groups, feel offended by it, although I know I’ll probably continue to slip up.The Right always asks “how far are we going to go with this political correctness?” and I always put this down to the arrogance of those who are unwilling to acknowledge their own power and privilege and the way they can hurt others.However, I’ve finally found an example that I think does go too far. It was shared on the Facebook site Garret’s GIFs to the World, but I can’t tell if the original post came from Tumblr or where, or whether it was serious or meant to be a send-up of politically correct speech. The link is below, but the gist of it is, we should never use the word “bad” because it is a shortening of the Old English word for hermaphrodite. It doesn’t mention the word, but Oxford has it “possibly representing old English baeddel, ‘hermaphrodite, womanish man’.”Since this is right in your wheelhouse, I thought I’d ask you, should we take this seriously? Is anyone actually being harmed by this word? (And again, it’s entirely possible that I’ve been taken in by a poster attempting mocking humor.) How dormant does the original meaning of a word have to be before it can be used without harm? For instance, 20 or 30 years ago, no way could I say the word “queer” in any context. Now I can say “my friends in the queer community” and offend no one, except maybe extreme right wingers.Curious to hear your thoughts.
I just spent a happy 30 minutes fossicking about with the OED and various glossaries online. I think you could argue that there’s room for doubt about the etymology. Here’s what the OED has to say on the matter:
Prof. Zupitza…sees in bad-de…the ME repr. of OE bǣddel ‘homo utriusque generis, hermaphrodita’…and the derivative bǣdling ‘effeminate fellow, womanish man…’ […] this is free from the many historical and phonetic difficulties of the derivation proposed by Sarrazin who, comparing the etymology of madde, mad, earlier amd(de:—OE. ᵹemǽded, would refer badde to OE ᵹebǽded, ᵹebǽdd, ‘forced, oppressed,’ with a sense of (…) ‘miserable, wretched, despicable, worthless’
If we apply Occam’s Razor then, yes, we should go with the first one: it’s cleaner and more elegant. But, frankly, I would much rather believe it wasn’t true. So I looked around some more and stumbled across the fact that bǣdan, which is a verb that means to constrain, to incite, to compel—which is very similar to the meaning ᵹebæded, ‘forced, oppressed’. And quite divorced from gender. So I’ll plump for that.
While etymology is interesting (etymology is always interesting! see, for example, the comments on this post), the question, “Is anyone actually being harmed by this word?”, is the heart of the matter.
Etymology matters in terms of how words make people feel only if those words drag those connotations with them. So, for example, I’ve talked about the word wife, and how I feel about it. And I’ve talked about flesh, and why the word, for me, is paired with the notion of corruption (as in swine flesh) rather than, say, sex. But in this case I would say, on balance, that bǣdling goes too far back to have any relevance. At least for most of us, most of the time. I’m guessing if you’re a newly-minted Anglo-Saxonist, and trans or genderqueer or queer or a serious ally of any of the above, you might occasionally resent the word. Otherwise, no. A millennium is a long time. Today’s use of the word bad doesn’t as far as I’m aware generally bring with it gendered overtones (except when talking about women being bad, which I’d argue has slightly different connotations).
For those few who do feel personally offended by the word, then I suggest two possible courses of action. One, tell those who are close to you to to not be surprised if you occasionally get bent out of shape when they use the word, and why. And, two, consider thinking of bad as a reclaimed word—much as today dyke and queer are reclaimed: so perhaps bad equals transgressive, deliberately, admirably so. Channel George Thorogood.
When it comes down to it, though, I think it’s important to listen to someone who says: That word upsets me, and here’s why. And to then make up our own minds about how to use the information. But first, listen. So I want to hear others’ thoughts on this.
5 thoughts on “Etymology and insult”
I think that calling attention to terms that have readily identifiable sexist, ableist, or classist roots can help us understand patterns of power and subtle forms of oppression. However, language is a flexible thing, and the meaning of words change a lot with use. When a term has offensive roots that take fairly specific and deliberate study to find, it seems to me that more attention is being paid to what the word may have been, rather than what it is today, and may be in the future. There are some words in common usage that leave the listener feeling a little smaller, worth a little less when they hear them, no matter what the speaker intended. I'm not sure that has been the case for 'bad' for quite some time. All that said, though, I still find this an interesting and valuable thing to know. Thank you.
I agree: if a word can be used as weapon against a class of people without anyone having to reach for a dictionary, I don't care to use it.
When someone says something I find hurtful I respond based on whether they intend to offend – *anything* said with the intent to hurt is hurtful. If they're not trying to be hurtful I usually let it slide unless there are other factors or people involved. I agree, you need to be aware of how people feel – it's easy to be inadvertently offensive or irritating.
I don't let it slide too often because then they'll use it again and hurt someone else inadvertently. If yo do it the right way, it's sort of like discreetly pointing out someone's fly is open, or that they have spinach in their teeth: it's a kindness.
I agree that it's important to listen to someone who says “That word upsets me,” but I'm not necessarily bound to agree with them. Bigots object to being called bigots, racists get quite overwrought at being called racists. Sometimes I use a word because it “can be used as a weapon against a class of people.”
This question of the word “bad” is not, it seems to me, a question of “political correctness gone too far.” (Have you ever heard the Brit standup comic Stewart Lee's take on that?) Etymology doesn't tell you meaning of a word; it tells you its history, which is often fascinating but not determinative. As you point, etymology is often contested. And even if “bad” were a shortened version of the word “hermaphrodite,” by etymology “hermaphrodite” is the compound of the names of two gods, Hermes and Aphrodite, so it couldn't possibly be negative. Saying that it's pejorative is an attack on the old earth-based, moon-drawing religions that were exterminated by patriarchal Christianity! Your patriarchal monotheism is killing me! …. And there I am being sarcastic. It's not political correctness, but a reductio ad absurdum. But then, do we know that “bad” for “hermaphrodite” was necessarily a putdown? I mean, didn't people in pre-modern earth-based, moon-drawing cultures honor the third genders among them? Maybe a baed was an honored shaman. We have to get back to the original meanings. (And there I'm being both serious and snarky.)
I once got into an online argument with someone who declared that you are responsible for the full etymology of every word you use, in case there's something bad lurking back there. I pointed out that she didn't really want to be responsible for the etymology of every word she used, and gave her a couple of answers. She evaded the point; it hadn't occurred to her that she might be using words that once upon a time meant something different than they do now — only wicked Others did that.
The reason why “sucks” (or “fuck,” for that matter) is problematic as a metaphor has nothing to do with etymology; it's about the present use of the word, right now. When someone says “Fuck you” as an expression of aggression, it tells me something about what they think fucking does to the fuckee, and in general I've found that assumption to carry over into other areas. Women who are fighting against police violence, for example, ought to listen to who in their movement is saying FUCK THA POLICE! (even or especially when it's themselves). I don't believe that slogan means that they love the police and want to give them pleasure. And yet the same people known to me who crow FUCK THA POLICE are very sensitive about gender and trans issues and inclusion and everything else. Except when they want to abject someone else.
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