Sunday, November 2, 2014

Etymology and insult

From: Larry

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. emǽded, would refer badde to OE ebǽded, ebǽdd, '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.
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