Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
18 November 2015

Why is retro bigotry making a comeback?

The evolution of racial, homophobic and transphobic slurs is a good insight into the uncomfortable relationship between prejudice and language.

By Eleanor Margolis

I don’t remember the first time I used the word “kike” in a game of Scrabble on my phone. Understandable, I suppose, seeing as I play a lot of Scrabble and none of it is memorable. But I do remember – how do I explain this without sounding like a dick? – the vibe that, err, engulfed the time in my life I started using a racial slur against my own people to win at Scrabble. It was an, “I’m not sure I like this, but I’m gonna do it anyway” vibe.

Kike is a nasty word. It’s also a useful one, Scrabble-wise. Or (and feel free to call this confirmation bias) at least it has been for me, since I discovered it was playable. It’s become a recurring theme in my Scrabble games, as if Heinrich Himmler is trying to contact me from beyond the grave, via my phone. Maybe, I reason, this is my way of reappropriating such an offensive word. There must be at least one neo-Nazi out there who’d be horrified to think that an actual kike is using the word “kike” to dominate Scrabble, while already dominating the media and international banking. On her own. From her bed. Surrounded by empty crisp packets. Well, I need something to keep me entertained while I guard my massive pile of gold.

There are lots of rules to offensive language. Being, for example, both a dyke and a kike, I have the right to sprinkle my prose with those words like politically incorrect hundreds and thousands. I just did it, in fact. And I’d do it again. And, on the off chance that you’re a) neither of those things yourself and b) reading this aloud, perhaps to someone who is, maybe you feel a bit uncomfortable. And you should feel uncomfortable, because that’s how this whole – not altogether that convoluted – thing works. It’s why I’d never use words that don’t belong to me, like “tranny” or “nigger”. Except I just did and, believe me, I feel weird about it. Both of those words, by the way, are allowable in Scrabble. Although, according to Collins, the official Scrabble dictionary, “tranny” is an abbreviation of “transistor radio”. Because that’s definitely what people mean when they shout it at everybody from drag queens to folks who don’t look exactly like those symbols off of toilet doors.

But, according to recent YouGov research, released by Stonewall, one in five British people surveyed admitted to making offensive comments about LGBT people in the past year. A lot of these remarks, of course contain words like “dyke” and “poof”, which – honest to god – I thought were dying out. I’ve been called a “dyke”, non-ironically, a grand total of once. And who, apart from actual queers with either a good sense of humour or some kind of reappropriation agenda, is still using the word “poof”? Are they old? Do they know it’s not the Seventies? Should someone tell them about 9/11 and Jimmy Savile?

The evolution of homophobic language is interesting. The most up-to-date slur for “lesbian”, for example, appears to be “lesbian”. That’s to say, the few occasions on which I’ve had a word yelled at me while, say, holding hands with a woman in public, that word has been “LESBIANS”. Which, if I were being generous, I’d say is more tactlessly observational than offensive. A bit like seeing Iain Duncan Smith and yelling, “IAIN DUNCAN SMITH”.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

So, while I’m not surprised that a lot of people are still using homophobic slurs (hey, have you met people? They’re idiots) I am surprised that me and my faggy (I can say that, right?) brothers and sisters are still known, by anyone other than each other, as “poofs” and “dykes”.

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

What’s more though, according to that same YouGov survey, no one’s really doing anything about this spate of retro bigotry. Sixty per cent of people admitted to not intervening when they hear others being loud and proud with their homophobia. Which, again, I’m going to file under “sad but not surprising”. I put it down to that very British thing of “either get extremely involved, or don’t get involved at all”. I.e. drop bombs on entire countries, but don’t say, “poor form, old chap”, when you hear someone in the office use “gay” as a pejorative. After all, they might object to your objection. It could get slightly uncomfortable. Slightly uncomfortable. Another option, of course, would be to avoid embarrassment by launching a cruise missile directly at their face.  

Bomb the homophobes? Your thoughts, Mr Corbyn?