Language, Feminism and Reclaiming the Nincompoop

So, I’ve been contemplating my use of language, particularly those defined as ‘rude’, for a while now. I’ve been trying to stop using words whose origins are in disablist, homophobic, racist and misogynistic language. Words which are racist are, culturally and politically, more likely to be frowned upon; although the number of Scottish people I hear using “chink” and “paki” never fails to shock me. I also still visibly twitch when I hear British people say they are going out for a fag. For me, that word will always be homophobic. That is the context of the word where I grew up and I can not remove it from my personal-historical context. I also think its telling that the use of the word ‘gay’ as an insult is increasing exponentially in  teenagers as it is rooted in both homophobia and misogyny. They are both part of the backlash to Feminism as well as the Gay Rights movement [notably I think the issue of gay marriage has kicked off the homophobic backlash]. The refusal to remove these words is an example of heteronormative privilege (and the I’m all right so you must just be whiny bullshit favoured by those who refuse to acknowledge that their behaviour is anything less than perfect).


It’s been much harder to remove words which are disablist and misogynist. There are obvious words like ‘retard’ and ‘spaz’ which most people, with an ounce of compassion, have already removed from their vocabulary. But, there are so many common words whose origins are rooted in disablism, particularly of people suffering with their mental health, that it’s very hard to stop using them. Words like idiot and moron are so culturally ingrained that calling people on it just provokes whinging about ‘political correctness’ (that term bandied about by rude people demanding the right to be rude regardless of the hurt it causes others). But, these are all obvious terms of insults. It’s the much more casual “are you insane” or “have you lost the plot” [which I’m ashamed to say I’ve used today] which are extremely harmful because they don’t seem to cause harm. It’s the very “innocence” of their usage which reinforces the very harmful cultural practices we should be challenging.

I know there is an argument for reclaiming words used to oppress from your oppressors but I am not sure how successful this is; after all even 5 years ago gay was being used positively. Now, it is steeped in the very homophobia it was reclaimed to contravene. It is now the insult par excellence to challenge someone’s masculinity. I struggle with reclaiming words like bitch, cunt and slut. Are we not implying there are women who are still “sluts” when we try to use slut in a positive manner? How can we challenge misogyny by continuing to use words which define women by their sexuality and behaviour?  It is why I find “Slutwalk” so problematic as an anti-rape awareness campaign. The focus is on the word “slut” and not on the issue of rape. I think it reinforces the very rape myths it seeks to challenge [and that’s without getting into the issue of racism and the experience of Black and First Nations women who have always been defined by their sexuality].

I’ve tried to stop using any words that fall under this rubric and replaced them with words like nincompoop [my new favourite word] and buckethead (a la SGB). But, really, once you’ve removed insults which don’t originate in homophobic bullying, or demeaning mental illness or denigrating genitalia, you are pretty much reduced to poop-based insults like a 5 year old. I love the word nincompoop but even its origins are questionable. Yes, language evolves but, sometimes vocabulary should simply be erased rather than evolved or “reclaimed”; even nincompoop.

3 thoughts on “Language, Feminism and Reclaiming the Nincompoop”

  1. Don’t be a party pooper, nincompoop is a great word.

    As for the rest, I am guilty of using gay as an insult, which is bad as I don’t see it as an insult. I almost use it affectionately as I direct it towards friends as a josh. HOWEVER that doesn’t excuse it and I need to stop as I don’t want my children thinking it’s ok to use it even in josh.

    I have to say I hadn’t even thought about idiot as offensive and need to re-evaluate.

    I don’t want cunt, bitch or slut back either. Why do we want to reclaim words which have done so much damage?

    1. TBH I don’t think it’s possible to reclaim words which we never owned in the first place. Words like slut etc were men’s words used to control women – we never owned them.

  2. I love nincompoop. It has such a nice ring to it. But, I don’t understand how people can argue for reclaiming words which cause harm. I don’t want to own “slut” or “bitch”.

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