THE BLOG

Bringing Back the Meaning of Language

30/05/2013 15:20 BST | Updated 28/07/2013 10:12 BST

I want to talk about queer and gay. Say these two words to yourself and you immediately think of those of a homosexual persuasion, and that is what these two words have come to mean to people living today. Furthermore, for younger generations they have become words used to attack and insult their peers. Go to a typical school playground and it won't be long till you hear one preteen using the terms in one form or the other. Look back in literature, however and you'll find the words taking a more positive form. Shakespeare spoke of 'the gay new coats' in Henry V, Orwell described the 'queer' inhabitants of his Parisian slum home. Even as recently as the work of Simon Armitage, writers were using these words for their original purpose; in the case of queer to describe someone or something odd and in the instance of gay to refer to something that was happy or bright.

You could take this as lesson in lexical history, as an interesting piece of evidence for the ever developing nature of language. Or you could apply this example to what happens today, every time a news feature ambiguously uses the word terrorist. Although Collins dictionary broadly defines the term as 'a person who employs terror', it has worryingly become attached to another often misused word: 'Muslim.' The unfortunate actions of radically minded people have lead to these phrases becoming intertwined and often inseparable. A look at the reaction of social media to recent events such as the violence in Woolwich or Boston and you'll find the two words used interchangeably and negatively. Terrorists are seen as violent Muslims and nothing else. This isn't just a modern day phenomena either; when my mother was studying at university the word terrorist brought to mind the IRA and those living in Northern Ireland. Although one can marvel at the malleable nature of language, its relationship with society means that one can easily shape the other, as seen in the rise of attacks on Muslim people post-Woolwich. It is the responsibility of those speaking a language to protect its integrity and beauty by using it in its appropriate context.

Recent years have seen attempts to reclaim words with a modern meaning has become associated with negativity. In the early 1990's American gay pride marches distributed flyers urging 'Queers' to 'read this'. This and the formation of the activist group 'Queer Nation' show attempts by the gay community to take the meaning of the word 'queer' back into their possession. Strangely enough a similar move was made by the show 'South Park,' although this was less well received. The show took the homophobic phrase 'fag' and attempted to twist the meaning back on those who use it, making it refer to people with annoying behaviour. Although somewhat unsuccessful this attempt marks the realisation by mainstream media outlets that some language can and should be reclaimed.

With anyone using language improperly, the only way to rectify abusive use is through correction and education; the association of the word 'Muslim' with that of 'terrorist' can only be stopped by educating and correcting those who fail to see the distinction, just as there is the need to educate those who generalise the behaviour of extremists in any religious or political movement. The modern English lexicon is a tribute to the rich history of our country; let it be shaped by diversity and triumph over misguided prejudice.