Our generation is obsessed with progression. We spend inordinate amounts of our time driving to improve the society that we inhabit, and, in this progress, we see tangible cultural changes that occur as often as those in Kim K’s weave. Perhaps most significant is the progress seen in our language—not necessarily the words we say, but the connotations attached to them. Most notable in recent months has been the campaign calling for an end to the use of the word “bossy.”
Understandably, the word is seen as an implication of a double standard between the genders. When men possess the qualities synonymous with the term, they are seen as powerful and assertive. As a result of centuries of reinforcement, women who wield the same power are merely domineering; “bossy” women are, more often than not, females who possess historically male traits and the result is a pejoratively phrased reversal of gender roles.
In this way, we give words immense strength. When they affront, we fight to make changes that have an impact beyond a revision to the dictionary. However, fierce campaigning is not the most effective way of permanently reassessing our language. Advocating the elimination of an offensive phrase will never be wholly successful. Whether it’s a sexist corporate board member or a homophobic media figure, some ignorant someone, somewhere will insist on the continual employment of hurtful slurs without abandon. Obviously, the solution to handling the misguided and intolerant is not to become one of them — just because the problem will likely never be completely solved absolutely does not mean we should contribute to it. However, fighting against the seemingly endless cycle of degrading terminology can be at least a fair fight using the language itself.
As it is wont to do, history repeats itself. The desire to eradicate a word based on its offending nature isn’t new, nor is the reasoning behind “banning bossy.” In the not-too-distant past, the term “bitch” was seen as the height of disrespect. Associated with the same pejorative definition as that of bossy, little was more outrageous to a self-respecting woman than being called bitchy. While the term (rightly) isn’t universally recognized as complimentary, women on the receiving end of such an epithet have begun to take back the power we so intimately associate with words. How? Let’s take a moment (or an eternity) to consider Beyonce. In a number of her most familiar songs, the Queen describes herself as a “bad bitch.” Glaringly absent are any negative associations that once plagued the use of the b-word.
Victory over language, it seems, lurks just below the horizon as previous victims of a phrase assert control over it and establish a novel, antonymous definition.
While the word bitch is still lobbed insultingly, the victims of that particular linguistic A-bomb have robbed the word of its power. We use it to refer to our best selves and our most independent friends, and its use as a synonym for Knowles-like authority now replaces its appalling meaning with an appealing one. Being a bitch may not be something we strive for, but being a bad bitch means reaching personality transcendence. And, as time passes and opinions and assumptions evolve and the next generation of name-callers acknowledges the power of words, it is uncertain as to whether “bitch” will even find a place in their likely-loathsome lexicons.
As for now, whether we’re talking bossy, bitchy, or any of their derogatory counterparts, words carry with them only the meaning we allow them to. It’s up to their subjects to decide just what that may be.