Mark My Words: Conscious Creative Cursing

“Powerful people can do more, say more, and have their speech count for more than the powerless.” -Rae Langton

Have you ever said “that’s so lame”?  As a disabled person who has trouble walking, it’s not fun to be a cultural reference point for things that suck.  Alternative word choices are everywhere,  like “that’s so crappy.”  Or perhaps you’ve called someone a douchebag. Why exactly is it insulting to call someone a tool used to clean a vagina?  Because any word associated with female genitalia is a put-down in our society, as a method of oppressing women.  For centuries women have been labeled hysterical and crazy as a method of subordination and silencing.

psychoI’ve been with people who watched someone acting odd and heard them wonder aloud if the “oddball” was bipolar.  As someone who actually is bipolar, that’s offensive.  Mental illness is not a joke, and it’s not just “changing your mind” like Katy Perry sang in “Hot N Cold.” Do you have a “gay friend” or a “Black friend?”  Your friends and coworkers are just “your friends.” They are more than their sexual orientations and races.  And “gay marriage” is just “marriage.”

nword2Words have the power to marginalize, reinforcing “pervasive, restrictive, oppressive hierarchies… and the dominant group has the power to define reality.”  Did you know the dictionary was written and updated by white men?  This makes it an oppressive force.  Especially when its definitions are incomplete or self-serving.  The dictionary defines racism as stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination.  But that’s not ALL racism is. Many people experience those things, but only oppressed people experience all of that AND institutionalized violence and systematic erasure.  We cannot turn to the dictionary for real social justice definitions because “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (-Audre Lorde).  A more accurate definition of terms can be found in Social Justice Terminology.

“Language is an encyclopedia of ignorance. Old perceptions are frozen into language and force us to look at the world in an old-fashioned way.”                    – Edward de Bono

bitch2Oppressive slang has become such a part of language that it can be difficult to pick apart its actual meaning. Bitch, for example, is defined by Andi Zeisler as “a woman who is strong, angry, uncompromising and, often, uninterested in pleasing men. We use it for the woman who doesn’t back down from a confrontation. This word perpetuates the mindset that deems powerful women to be scary, angry and, of course, unfeminine.”

manup6Language can be used to maintain stereotypical gender norms. You may not even be aware you’re perpetuating micro-aggressions (subtle, automatic, stereotypical, insensitive behavior or comments about a person’s identity, background, ethnicity, or disability).  Micro-aggressions are present in phrases like “man up”, “grow a pair” and “ballsy”, which equate strength with male genitalia, and “throwing, running, or crying like a girl” which equate weakness with being female.   Skinny Girl Cocktails and Hungry-Man Dinners reinforce the beauty standard of thinness for women. What you say reflects your thoughts, perceptions, values, and beliefs.

welfarequeen2“Language is constantly changing, both its meanings and its connotations. Words are in flux, words many of us grew up familiar with as common terms, but which we are now being encouraged to rethink.” Thirty years ago when I was in high school, it was common to hear slurs like “That’s so gay” or “He’s so retarded.”  Thankfully our understanding of how wrong this is has evolved over time and fewer people say these particular phrases today.  But some still do.  There are still many other sexist, homophobic, and ableist terms you may not even realize are a part of your vocabulary.

no-h8Do you call women “girls”?  This infantilizes them and diminishes their power.  Notice that men are rarely called “boys.”  Girls and boys are children, not adults. Words matter. They are not harmless; words are like mirrors- they reflect and project thoughts and actions. They create and reflect our (rape) culture. Have you ever sang along to the Christmas classic “Baby It’s Cold Outside?” Did you notice the line where she asks “what’s in this drink?” (cringe) How can Bill Cosby NOT come to mind?

pussyMy favorite swear used to be “mother-fucker” until I began looking at things with a feminist lens. Why is it an insult to have sex with someone’s mother? There is no equivalent, as no woman has ever been called a “father-fucker”, nor would it be an insult if she was. Son-of-a-bitch and Bastard are also insults based on relationship to a woman. Cocksucker and “suck my dick” speak to the projected inferiority of any person who interacts with male genitalia.

You Don’t Say                                                                                                                      slut2Last year two student organizations at Duke University launched a campaign called “You Don’t Say” to spread awareness about commonly used phrases and their impact.  Their mission advocated for ending the derogatory usage of language that marginalizes women or anyone on the gender and sexual spectrum.  Since then they’ve expanded their campaign to include terms about racism, physical and mental disability, and substance abuse, among others.  Their goal is to challenge marginalizing language and bias, building safer and more inclusive communities, and validating the identities and experiences of people of all backgrounds.

PC Police vs. Inclusion                                                                                                Political correctness is externally driven; being inclusive is internally driven. 20695-Think-Before-You-SpeakWhen people are politically correct it often conflicts with their values – they’re doing it because they’ve been told they should, even if they don’t believe it themselves.  In contrast, when people are inclusive, value conflict doesn’t occur because being inclusive is a value.


Intentions vs. outcomes                                                                                         balls“Intentions are theoretical while outcomes are real.” People often have good intentions and don’t intend to offend.  When they offend anyway, they “jump from the Political Correctness frying pan into the Victim Blaming fire.”  Nobody likes to be wrong and defensiveness ensues. Regardless of what you were trying to accomplish, if someone tells you they find your language offensive, believe them.  The concrete impact is what matters most.  If you’re not sure if a word may be offensive, check it out before you say it! Look it up first in a Slang Dictionary to determine origins and whether or not it may be derogatory.

Lighten Up! It’s Just A Joke!                                                                                       get over itWhen a “joke” covertly or overtly expresses violence against a group of discriminated people (those of a different gender, race, orientation, or ability), we need to hold up a mirror to make the invisible visible. Ask if this is really the intended reflection because *this reflection* from this *one joke* is how our culture continues to be consciously co-created by each of us. Micro-aggressions like “jokes” are the bedrock of our subtle oppressive culture.  Ridicule is a suppression technique that diminishes and belittles its victims. Words reflect real world opinions, beliefs, prejudices, and discriminations that affect people from marginalized groups.

“Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.” – Benjamin Lee Whorf

Offensive Words and Phrases

Type Examples
Stereotypical Gender Norms Throw, Run, Cry, or Act “Like a Girl”, “Man Up”, She’s so bossy (not used to describe a man)
Gender Slurs Bitch, Bitch-Slap, Son-of-a-Bitch, Bastard, Shemale, Tranny
Genitalia “Grow a Pair”, “That took Balls”, Ballsy, “Don’t be a pussy”,  cunt, Twat, He’s a Prick, Dick, Mangina
Interacting with Genitalia Motherfucker, Cocksucker, “Suck my Cock”, “Suck my Dick”, Douchebag, Douche, Douchecanoe
Sexuality Gay, Faggot, Fag, Homo, Pansy, Slut, Fuckboy, Skank, Whore, Hoe, Thot (That Hoe Over There), Hoebag
Racist The n word, Oreo, Mulatto
Ableist Retard, Retarded, Lame, Cripple, Crazy, Mental, Mental Case, Nuts, Psycho
Classist Welfare Queen

Replacement Alternatives:

Inoffensive Insults

R rated PG











Sack of Shit







Diaper biscuit


Fart basket




Pond scum




Snot Face


Trash muncher


Call to Action

words have power2If you believe in social justice, there are many avenues to take to make a difference.  Some are easier than others.  Sherryl Kleinman clarifies that “language is one (thing) we can work on right now, if we’re willing. It’s easier to start saying “you all” instead of “you guys” than to change the wage gap tomorrow.”

imagesAIWTK6U2This one situation, this moment, matters. It is a creative moment so let’s make it a conscious moment! Each one of us is individually responsible for the words we choose and the language we use to communicate with the world.  We impact other people, sending ripples into our collective ocean. Let us hold each other accountable.

untitledYou can, in this moment, make an impact by calling out oppressive linguistic forces. Speak up when necessary and call attention to a lack of awareness and empathy when you see it.  Self-awareness is critical for without it, how can we shine the flashlight on our own or others’ language choices?  If you hear oppressive language, CALL. IT. OUT.  Naming it raises awareness and allows discussion, opening the door for information and alternatives.

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language And next year’s words await another voice.” – T.S. Eliot


21 thoughts on “Mark My Words: Conscious Creative Cursing

  1. The first agreement: Be Impeccable With Your Word. What we say has power…and words have the power to be constructive or deconstructive. I once interviewed Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, the director of the New England Center for Non-Violent Communication. It was an eye opening interview to say the least. Powerful post Kerri Lyn.

  2. This is one of the best articles I’ve read about the importance of watching what you say! As a former corporate diversity practitioner, I know how painful this kind of language can be. Hat’s off to you Kerri Lyn!!! I’ll be sharing this one everywhere!!

  3. Kerri, I love your posts and your very clear and firm stand against oppressions of every kind. Powerful post, think before you speak.

  4. Wonderful post, Kerri. I couldn’t agree with you more about the importance of the words we use – both to ourselves and to others. Great job taking a good look at some of our cultural practices that could afford a re-think.

    1. Reba, thank you so much! You bring up an important point, that the way we talk to ourselves is also
      often so hateful, and that needs work too. I wish I could send a giant wave of self-love to everyone.

  5. Kerri, powerful, gut-wrenching post! You nailed it! So many of us can learn from this when it comes to things said with a cavalier attitude, but no thought to what they actually mean. And I love the THINK acronym..may have to borrow that for my own page! 🙂

  6. Fabulous and very important post Kerri! I plan to share it all over and continue to spread this empowering message of the power of mindful communication in creating a world with peace, compassion and justice. Thank you so much!

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