That’s how many times Madonna uses the word “bitch” on her latest album, Rebel Heart. She has reclaimed and owns it – proudly, powerfully and with panache. It is, perhaps, one of the most successful examples of reclaiming a word that exists in the dubious track record of this linguistically defiant activity.

Madonna has a dogged, playful and largely successful way of presenting the subversive to the masses in an easily digestible way. Sometimes, though, it leaves the public with indigestion and they indulge their misogyny and ageism by saying she should “just give it up”, “put it away” and is “past it”. This, of course, plays into her rebellious hands and heart. She has always refused to act according to conservative, conformist expectations of her age, gender or limited vocal range.

Currently touring Rebel Heart and dropping the B-bomb in her uniquely unmellifluous tones, Ms Ciccone has taken the word and made us sing it back at her – beating us at our own game of ever daring to dislike her. The power, as always, is all hers.

It’s a word that, to an extent, has been adopted as a sisterhood term: “me and my bitches/biatches”. Tony Thorne, curator of the Slang and New Language archive at King’s College London, calls it a “new ironic or comic positive usage mainly among young females for girl(friend).”

It hasn’t been fully reclaimed, though. A case in point: Kate Moss calling an air steward a “basic bitch” because she refused to peel her a grape (or something).

Reclaiming words, when done effectively, is all about power, Thorne tells me. “Reappropriation of ethnic and sexual slurs starts as an act of bravado by a few of the oppressed, then may become an empowering mechanism for a much wider community. It’s pleasingly ironic that those discriminated against have learned the Orwellian trick employed by the state and the establishment of hijacking everyday language (as in ‘doublespeak’) for their own nefarious purposes. Alternative discourse ousts and replaces the discourses of power.”


Paul Baker, professor of English Language at Lancaster University, agrees. “Control language and you control the society,” he says.

There are some interesting successful examples. If you see the new Meryl Streep film, pause to consider that “suffragette” itself is a feminist-reclaimed word. It was first used as a term of ridicule by – of course – the Daily Mail (coined by journalist Charles E Hands). Women reclaimed and owned the word, hardening the G of suffragette to emphasise their ambition – not just to campaign for the right to vote, but to get it.

So reclaiming words is not a new phenomenon. Thorne points out: “Reversing pejoratives has a long history going back to cavalier, sans-culotte, Tory and Whig.”

Modern reclaiming has had mixed success. He says: “Recently such terms as slut, gay and ginger (and to some extent nerd and geek) have been rebranded – perhaps with a tinge of irony.” As someone who has been all five of those things, I can safely say that some have been better reclaimed than others.

“Cunt” is still regarded as the most shocking word in the English language. Its consonants are acerbically hard, its meaning unequivocal. But those who reclaim it take that meaning from invective to inviting. When I asked a number of Guardian commentators their favourite word, Suzanne Moore was definitive: “In the beginning there was the word. And the word was cunt.”

Source: The Guardian



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