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Etymology - The History of Words as the Link to Communicating Inclusively.

Updated: Sep 19, 2021



Very few people actually know this about me, but I am dyslexic and have dysgraphia – that means that I had and still have a hard time reading (takes a lot of effort to read correctly and understand what I read) and writing . I wasn’t told this until 11 grade in high school by my English teacher who basically told my handwriting was the worst form of dysgraphia he had ever seen. Reading and writing has always been hard for me to do, but somehow – through practice – I have managed to write, communicate and read to get a college education and working in a STEM career. I think learning about how my brain processes words has made me obsessed with language, where words actually come from (the study of word origins is called Etymology).


You are probably saying to yourself, Ari what does this have to do with working towards being inclusive? Tons!


We often throw words around and we don’t now why we use then the way and why sometimes when we use them that it hurts others or is dismissive to other people – either do to history of past and current discrimination, cultural appropriation (taking things like words from other cultures and applying new means that water down the words origins/applies new ownership to the word) and other various reasons (like disrespect etc.). Using words correctly is a small way to own your intent and your impact.


One of those words happen to be queer. Today, most people (both straight and in the LGBTQIA+) use queer as a positive reference to the LGBTQIA+ community. In fact, the “Q” in LGBTQIA+ can mean queer (in terms of sexual orientation or gender ID). Queer didn’t always have a positive connotation to the community. The word “queer” since its origins (1500’s) has meant something or someone as not normal, odd, weird or strange. The word “queer” to refer to gay men was first used in 1895 in the oxford dictionary.


Queer was and sometimes is still used in a negative way in the LGBTQIA+ community. The word queer started being used as a negative towards the LGBTQIA+ community around 1949 in the Webster's Dictionary as slang for counterfeit money. In 1965, the Webster dictionary printed the use of “queer” as slang for gay men/homosexuals (outdated term for gay men) but just as descriptive for the community. It wasn’t until the early 1990’s, as part of the AIDs pandemic, that's when queer started being adopted by the LGBTQIA+ community as a positive term to use as reference to the community and people within the community.


If someone tell you they ID as queer now, that often means that they are sexually fluid (or gender of a person doesn't matter to them in terms of being attracted to them) or their gender identity is fluid (their ID may be outside the gender binary - gender queer can actually mean a lot of different identities).


Often times, straight, white people don’t understand why people of color and/or LGBTQIA+ people get upset when these words are used by people outside of their communities. I have been told by others that not allowing non LGBTQIA+ community members to refer to me as queer is a double standard. When approached with this discussion, I often refer back to the Irish community when people call them “Paddies” . I am not Irish as far as I know (I have a German/ Dutch/ Ashkenazi Jewish background – and maybe some English? Maybe?). Most people would say – yeah no, that’s not OK once they actually know the origin and history of the word. “Paddy” which is short for Patrick and generally a negative way to refer to an Irish person that carried negative connotation. Irish people can call themselves a “Paddy” but someone not Irish should not. It’s an extreme example, but generally it gets the message across.


Using words a community establishes ownership over us harmful; these words use to or are still used to hurt us and discriminate against us (such as queer, dyke, lesbo, tranny, etc.) Second, people in our community use these words as a form of taking power away from communities that did and still use these words to hurt us – as a way of owning the word and building a sense of pride around the reference. A way to take back the power around the word in a sense.


For example, I would describe myself as queer in terms of my sexuality. I tend to love people and gender doesn’t really matter to me and often times I don’t find that fits into the standard LGBT+ framework. I use queer as a sense of pride just like I use to use the word “dyke” as a sense of pride back when I ID as a lesbian (prior to my understanding that I was a transman). May people called me a dyke as an insult – my way of taking some of that power away from people outside of the community was to call myself a dyke and form pride around that word – basically taking ownership over who can use that word (meaning my community) and away from people who are not a part of the community who use it either not understanding how hurtful or the historical context the word come from or flat out say it as disrespect.


Some folks in the LGBTQIA+ community are still bothered by the use of “queer” so referring to the whole community as "queer" should be avoided. If someone or an organization tells you that they ID as queer, then in that situation it most likely is fine to refer to them as queer. If you do use “queer” and someone asks that you not refer to them as queer – respect their reason. It most likely is tied to a negative experience that person has towards the word and still considers it a gay slur. Overall, if you aren’t in the LGBTQIA+ community, treating the queer as a negative slang is the safest approach.


To add to the discussion, I often will default to refer to people within the LGBTQIA+ community as "queer" and correct myself every time I do so, noting that I identify as queer, but I understand others in my community do not.


Stay tuned for more word history and being inclusive through language and words. If you have any questions about this blog, feel free and reach out to me at info@thewanderingwaterbear.com.


Until next time, be you and be safe!

Sources:

  1. The Theirstory of Queer

  2. My brain/my experiences 😊

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