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Interesting Etymologies 26: Reappropriation

Updated: Oct 24, 2021

"Hello again Word Lovers!" after diving into some insults (see IE23) we can explore some words and phrases that started as insults but have been claimed back by victims returning it back into language without a pejorative meaning, this is called "reappropriation" in etymological circles.

Tory: The political party in Britain called the Conservative Party are often referred to as the Tories. This is originally an Irish word meaning possibly "thief" or "pursued man" (Outlaw?) - Tóraidhe.

Impressionism: The artistic school gained the moniker after a critic damned an early exhibition as the exhibition of the impression-ists. Louis Leroy wrote his acerbic dismissal in the Le Charivari newspaper in 1874 in response to the first independent art show of Claude Monet and his cohort. He played on the title of the painting Impression, soleil levant by Monet which graces the front cover of this edition of Interesting Etymologies.

Menshevik: A strange decision to accept the title of "the minority" or "those who are fewer" despite numbering more than the "Bolsheviks".

Roundheads: Cavalier was perfectly acceptable but Roundhead was considered a term of abuse by the anti-Royalists and was even forbidden in the New Modern Army.

Gay: After so many words with pejorative inflection have been used to label homosexuals how did Gay become a self attributed title?

A theory exists that all sex workers in London in the early 19th century used the phrase "Are you gay?" meaning "would you like a good time?" to proposition clients. At the same time in the US, casual workers were known as "Gay cats" so was attributable to young men and by reputation homosexuality was prevalent among the population.

Gay is hardly an insulting term, the word itself meant "happy" or "innocent happiness". The word emerges from Middle German.

Queer: Also comes from German, meaning oblique, perverse, odd and even back to PIE terkw - to twist.

Dyke: To get diked out or go out on a dike meant to get dressed up in your best and go out. Probably an adaptation of "decked out". How it got appropriated to mean female homosexual is unclear although the wikipedia page on the topic discusses possible theories that are perhaps not suitable for a family friendly audience.

Big Bang Theory: Another derisory label that stuck! Fred Hoyle, the English astronomer, thought the theory was nonsense and sought to ridicule it with his disparaging description highlighting the differences with the Steady State Model.

Quaker: People who quake before the word of the Lord and the founder of the movement suggested there was nothing wrong with such a sentiment.

Methodist: A route of scientific enquiry from Meta- "in search of" + hodos - "a method" from Greek. Also meant a travelling. A disparaging reflection of the methodical approach of these preachers and the name was adopted.

Recent adjectives such as bad, sick and wicked have effectively reversed their original meaning among younger speakers.

Geeks: meant a freak until the 1980s, from Dutch, Gek, which meant to "croak" or "cackle".

Nerd: Dr. Seuss referred to a nerd in 1950, possibly a heavily accented form of nut.

Dude: In the 19th century this was an insult meaning "affected" or "foppish"

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As well as being the host of our Interesting Etymologies series, Charly Taylor is a stand up comedian and author. His latest offering is available now:

SkipDeLirio's Worst Ever Gig : A novel by Charly Taylor

Caesar’s army has returned from the long campaign in Gaul and the enemy has been all but defeated. Some of Pompey’s army, however, remains in Africa. Together with straggling Roman rebels and the local king Juba, they are gathering forces to prepare one last attack on what is now Caesar’s Rome. But there is one problem – a descendant of Scipio Africanus is fighting on the side of the Africans. And without a Scipio of their own, the superstitious Romans refuse to go to Africa to fight.

So Caesar sends out soldiers to find himself a Scipio. Luckily, there is a man of such name right there in Rome – a local drunkard and tavern entertainer distantly descended from the legendary warrior. Kidnapped solely on account of his ‘heritage’, the lowly clown is forced to lead out the troops in the battle of Thapsus. There, ‘history’ tells us, Scipio ‘disappears from the historical record’.

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