Words like "rape" are being casualised - especially on social media

Jan 22, 2014

[WARNING: this article discusses a taboo word]

 The discussion on 666 ABC Canberra was in response to Jamie Bartlett’s article:

The word 'rape' is becoming a joke on Twitter. Are we in danger of sanitising the crime? | Jamie Bartlett | The Telegraph 

I had a most unusual request from an ABC presenter. It seems that the word rape has acquired various colloquial meanings which sparked a discussion as to whether this weakened the abhorrence of the community towards the act of rape.  While we were at it, the presenter suggested that we might as well discuss the use of cunt which seems to have become only mildly offensive when used by one young woman to another.

After ABC management had been consulted and with various warnings given, we proceeded to discuss the use of these words. I argued that the colloquial use of rape was following the pattern of use of massacre and murder, both of which could mean ‘defeat overwhelmingly’ in a sports context. And that the language community was clever enough to cope with the seriousness of the basic meaning while at the same time employing the word in a different register and context with a different meaning. Rape was causing a shock because it was new. Murder and massacre had become unremarkable because the usage was common.

My fellow speaker disagreed completely. For her any meaning other than the basic one was a watering down of the act of violence. Someone texted to say that the act should not be confused with the word. Someone else texted to say that such words should not be in the dictionary, so we had the whole range of points of view.

Cunt is a very old word of Scandinavian origin in its basic meaning. More recently it was used by men as a term of abuse for others, and, in the expression a cunt of a …, a term of exasperation with things. Feminists of the 1980s reclaimed the word quite successfully arguing that the word had become taboo only because men had such a low opinion of women. At the same time other feminists demanded the right to swear just as long and loudly as men, and so cunt became a term of abuse issuing from the mouths of women. 

Meanwhile, on quite another front, there was a general tendency to shed the taboos associated with sex and parts of the body, so that the next generation grew up with no sense that these words were unspeakable. I have to stress that there is a distinction between a taboo word and a derogatory word. A taboo word provokes a visceral reaction. Indeed the two women on the radio program kept mentioning how much they were blushing as they bravely soldiered on saying these words out loud. A word can be used to belittle or demean another which is not a taboo word. Most racial abuse falls into that category. The young women who were quoted as using cunt as a mild putdown for one another obviously felt that, while they were clearly intending a derogatory use, seriously or in jest, the word was not taboo. Their mother felt differently.

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