Academic journal article College English

EMERGING VOICES: The Exorcism of Language: Reclaimed Derogatory Terms and Their Limits

Academic journal article College English

EMERGING VOICES: The Exorcism of Language: Reclaimed Derogatory Terms and Their Limits

Article excerpt

On 2003, the San Francisco Women's Motorcycle Contingent, a lesbian motorcyclists' club, applied with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) to trademark the name "Dykes on Bikes." The following year, the PTO denied the application, citing section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, which forbids the registration of any trademark that "may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute" (Title 15, Sec. 1052). The club appealed the PTO's decision, compiling sixty-six pages of exhibits showing that the lesbian community had reclaimed the traditionally derogatory term "dyke"1 as a title of pride (Anten 420). PTO examiner Sharon A. Meier denied the appeal: "The fact that some of the disparaged party have embraced or appropriated the term DYKE," she wrote, "does not diminish the offensiveness of the term that has historically been considered offensive and derogatory" (qtd. in Anten 420). Dykes on Bikes continued to battle the decision, appealing to both the PTO and the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) and ultimately submitting more than three hundred pages of exhibits, twenty-six expert testimonies, video evidence from Pride parades, and precedents from previous PTO decisions involving the term "queer"-all to demonstrate that "dyke" had been reclaimed so completely that it was no longer disparaging and that it now constituted a legitimate trademark (Anten 420; "Dykes"). The TTAB remanded the case to the PTO, which reversed its decision in 2005. "Dykes on Bikes" became an official trademark ("Press Release").

The battle over "Dykes on Bikes" was not finished, however. In 2006, San Francisco resident Michael J. McDermott submitted an appeal to the TTAB opposing the trademark's registration because of what he called a "widespread documented understanding of the term 'dyke' as describing hyper-militant radicals hateful toward men" (qtd. in Egelko). McDermott argued that the reclamation of "dyke" by lesbians was in fact so complete that the term had become inversely derogatory, reflecting the "misandry" of those who self-identified as dykes and their "deep obsessive hatred of men and male gender traits" (Michael J. McDermott v. San Francisco Women's Motorcycle Contingent). His appeal was rejected first by the TTAB in 2006, then by the US Court of Appeals in 2007, and finally by the Supreme Court in 2008 (Egelko; "Dykes").

Legal battles like this one illustrate the complexity that accompanies acts of linguistic reclamation. Many now-familiar terms were once used to derogate marginalized groups: for example, religious names like "Quaker," "Protestant," and "Pagan" (Moore 16; Zeitlin 113; "Pagan"); ethnic and cultural labels like "Black," "Indian," and "Yankee" (Robbins 157-8; Hughes 248-51; Allen 72); and designators of sexual orientation like "gay," "queer," and "dyke" (Hughes 236, 375-6; Zwicky 22-3).2 While some of these terms now seem to have completely escaped their former negative valences, others remain contested. The political implications of reclamation have recently received national attention due to controversy over the name of Washington, DC's professional football team, the Redskins, with some Native Americans arguing that the name is permissible because it serves as a kind of reclamation (Steinberg), while others continue to see the term as derogatory ("Ending"). Even more hotly contested are words like "nigger" and "faggot," which some members of the derogated groups have used in reclaimed ways but which are almost universally considered derogatory when used by non-group members.

Many scholars of English studies have acknowledged the significance of reclamation. Some emphasize its role in establishing group solidarity: H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman describe the term "nigger/nigga"3 as part of a "language reclamation project" by black youth (114), and David G. Holmes discusses the same term and its use as a term of endearment in his reading of Carl Van Vechten (296). …

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