The Words We Left Behind
by Abby Parsons
Thanks to the internet, new words and phrases are constantly dropping into our language. We are part of a generation so prone to neologisms that sometimes a word enters our vocabulary without us even knowing how to say it in real life (meme, anyone?). But what about the words that we’ve stopped using, or have let fade into the background?
I can’t work out if my teenage generation was particularly bad for using derogatory words (or certain words in a derogatory way) when we were younger, but phrases like ‘that’s so gay’ are nightmarish echoes from my school days, and make me physically cringe. For the main part, the words were divorced from any real meaning, having been parroted around the school corridors so many times. We were just repeating what we heard – using the exact same phrases as everyone else was just one more way to make sure you fitted in. Either way, phrases like ‘that’s so gay’ were said so many times that they can crop up in conversation even now, unexpectedly, a hangover from teenage obliviousness, leading to an awkward pause.
Another phrase that is oddly bound up with my memories of secondary school is the delightful term ‘slag’ (yep, the language we used was about as classy as noughties fashion). But unlike with ‘gay’, a term we were definitely instructed not to use in a derogatory way and the reasons why, I can’t recall any instruction or condemnation about ‘slag’, or explanation of what the larger effect of using it as a casual insult was. And so we carried on using it, perhaps even when we left school behind.
Thankfully, as adults, we’ve moved on from using these words so casually, although again, it’s hard to say how much of that is down to the fact we’re no longer jealous schoolgirls, and how much is a result of the recent attention to rape culture. And yet the words do still crop up. Sometimes in their sincere forms, and sometimes from the mouths of female friends, which is always a bit sad. But, more often still I see these kind of words used ironically on the internet. Let me demonstrate with a meme or two:
Neither of these make me feel uncomfortable. And yet I don’t think the same thing would be okay with me if the word used was ‘slag’. For me, that word is so particular to a time and place (i.e. being a teenager in Northampton, and not knowing any better) that it would come too close to the bone, reminding me of what I once didn’t know: that those words were designed to keep women down, keep them in a certain place – and we were using them against each other; I was using them against myself.
But the real problem with continuing to use these words, ironically or sincerely, is that the language we use is so closely bound up with our thoughts and ideas; if we can’t move on from the words themselves, and put skank, sket, slag and all its synonyms to bed once and for all, how can we ever move on from the ideas behind those words?
Even if we stop saying the words, they might not stop being spoken by others, but it seems like a good place to start.
Abby Parsons | @abby_aap
Abby is an editorial assistant and co-founder of Dear Damsels.