“Nowt so queer as… language”. Reclamation of the word ‘queer’.


“Nowt so queer as… language”. Reclamation of the word ‘queer’.

Language is perpetually changing its meaning as different connotations, different levels of appropriateness and new buzzwords are introduced. Following UK actress and presenter Jameela Jamil recently self-identifying as queer earlier this year, national pride month (June 2020), and the pride celebrations that had been due to take place in summer, the use of the word has skyrocketed.

‘Queer’ is now generally seen as a neutral umbrella term for sexual and gender minorities who are not heterosexual or cisgender [whose identity corresponds with their birth gender], but its controversial nature still prevails. It is a prime example of linguistic reclamation, a cultural process where a group reclaims words previously used in a derogatory way. It has started to be used in a highly proud way, so why all the controversy?

Where did the term originate?

“There’s nowt so queer as folk”, goes the old British expression once used to describe how people may behave in strange ways. The term seems to be derived from the German word ‘quer’ meaning ‘oblique’ or ‘perverse’ but the British English usage of ‘queer’ reportedly dates back to the 16th century, being originally defined as odd, strange or peculiar. It was first used to mean homosexual by the Marquess of Queensbury in 1894, yet its negative connotations stem only recently from the mid-20th century when it began to be used as a slur.

It was first adopted as a non-pejorative term in the early 1990s, embodying the spirit of gay pride. This was mainly sparked by the gay rights movement. Queer Nation, a group combatting homophobic violence consciously chose to adopt this name to bring about a positive shift in perception and meaning.

“By reclaiming the word ‘queer’ “, says Justin Bengry, lecturer in Queer History MA at Goldsmiths, University of London, “people redefine themselves and hit back against those who used the term as an insult. They’ve decided it’s their word and they’re taking it back as a form of activism.”

So, what does it mean to identify as ‘queer’?

The word now generally identifies people whose sexuality is defined as anything other than straight. The term is often used by people who do not feel fully represented because it is seen as more inclusive than the nebulous, full LGBTQQIAAP acronym that is seldom used.

In some ways, it is less harmful than traditional labels as it is less restrictive and more open to fluidity around the identification of sexuality. Similarly, new compound words are assisting in this shift of perception with the likes of ‘genderqueer’ becoming more popular.

If it’s been reclaimed, why is it still controversial?

As much as they have a positive influence on those who don’t want to be labelled, reclaimed words often remain controversial due to their origins, sometimes even within the reclaimed community. People in the wider community still strongly associate the word with a means of aggression, so it needs to be used with caution. It was only 2018 when Twitter caused an uproar for banning users who tweeted the term ‘queer’. This was understandably disputed as many users of the site, particularly millennials, use the term to label their sexual orientation.

Language reclamation such as this example highlights how language evolves over time. It reinforces how we must have cultural understanding when using language to ensure we are not being offensive, while at the same time remaining progressive and well informed.

At SEL Business Languages, the translations for our customers are not only technically accurate, they also take into consideration the culture and perceptions of the target language. Ensuring the people we deal with are not offended by what we say and write, but rather trust us more, which is paramount to what we do.