Linguistic reappropriation, reclamation or resignification[1] is the cultural process by which a group reclaims words or artifacts that were previously used in a way disparaging of that group. It is a specific form of a semantic change (change in a word's meaning). Linguistic reclamation can have wider implications in the fields of discourse and has been described in terms of personal or sociopolitical empowerment.


A reclaimed or reappropriated word is a word that was at one time pejorative but has been brought back into acceptable usage, usually starting within its original target, i.e. the communities that were pejoratively described by that word, and later spreading to the general populace as well.[2][1][3] Some of the terms being reclaimed have originated as non-pejorative terms that over time became pejorative. Reclaiming them can be seen as restoring their original intent. This, however, does not apply to all such words as some were used in a derogatory fashion from the very beginning.[1]

In terms of linguistic theory, reappropriation can be seen as a specific case of a type of a semantic change, namely, of amelioration - a process through which a word's meaning becomes more positive over time.[4]

Brontsema suggested that there are at least three identifiable goals of reclamation: 1) value reversal  2) neutralization  3) stigma exploitation. The value reversal refers to changing the meaning from pejorative to neutral or positive. Neutralization refers to denying the term to those who want to use it, or words in general, to oppress and hurt another group. Stigma exploitation, finally, refers to the use of such terms as a reminder that a given group has been subject to unfair treatment. Those goals can be mutually exclusive, in particular stigma exploitation is incompatible with the other two goals.[1]

Reclamation can be seen as both an individual, psychological process and as a sociological, society-wide process.[5][6] In terms of a personal process, it has been discussed in the context of empowerment that comes from "disarming the power of a dominant group to control one’s own and others’ views of oneself", and gaining control over they way one is described, and hence, one's self-image, self-control and self-understanding.[6][3] Brontsema wrote that "At the heart of linguistic reclamation is the right of self-definition, of forging and naming one’s own existence."[1] Other scholars have connected this concept to that of self-labelling.[3] The empowerment process, and the denial of language as a tool of oppression as abuse of power, has also been stressed by scholars such as Judith Butler and Michel Foucault, the latter who also referred to it as a "reverse discourse".[7]

In terms of wider sociopolitical empowerment process, reclamation process has also been credited with promoting social justice,[8] building of group solidarity[7] and activists group that engage in this process have been argued to be more likely to be seen as representatives of their groups and see those groups as raising in power and status in the society.[3] Scholars have argued that those who use such terms to describe themselves in the act of reappropriation "will feel powerful and therefore see his or her group label as less stigmatizing. Observers will infer that the group has power and will therefore see the label as less saturated in negativity".[3]

Although those terms are most often used in context of language, this concept has also been used in relation to other cultural concepts, for example in the discussion of reappropriation of stereotypes[9] of reappropriation of mass, popular culture like science fiction literature into elite, high literature[10] or reappropriation of traditions.[11]

Controversy and objections

Reclaimed words often remain controversial for a time, due to their original pejorative nature. For some terms, even "reclaimed" usage by members of the community concerned is a subject of controversy.[1] Often, not all members of a given community support the idea that a particular slur should be reclaimed at all.[1] In other cases, a word can be seen as acceptable when used by the members of the community that has reclaimed it (in-group usage), but its use by outside parties (out-group usage) can still be seen as derogatory and thus controversial.[7] For example, in 2003 Brontsema noted in his discussion of the reclaimed terms that: "[the term nigger] may be acceptable for [American Slave Descendants] to use it freely, it is off-limits to whites, whose usage of nigger cannot be the same, given its history and the general history of racial oppression and racial relations in the United States.".[1] Similar argument has been made in 2009 for words associated with the LGBT movement like queer or dyke.[12] A related discourse occurred with regards to the Washington Redskins name controversy, with the US American Indians community divided on whether the term has been reclaimed or not.[7]

Those opposed to reclamation of terms have argued that such terms are irredeemable, forever connected to their derogatory meaning, and their usage will continue to hurt those who remember its original intent[1] and even reinforce the existing stigma.[3] The supporters of the reclamation argue, in turn, that many such words had non-derogatory meanings that are simply being restored, and that in either case, reclaiming such a word denies it to those who would want to use it to oppress others, and represents a form of moral victory for the group that reclaimed it.[1]

In 2017, The Supreme Court of the United States, heard arguments for Matal v Tam. In that case, the United States Patent and Trademark Office refused a trademark registration for an Asian American band called The Slants because they deemed the term disparaging. However, the court ruled unanimously in their favor. Washington University in St. Louis conducted an extensive study on reappropriation based on the band name and found that reclaimed words could be an effective tool for neutralizing disparaging words, saying "Reappropriation does seem to work in the sense of defusing insults, rendering them less disparaging and harmful.”[13]


Sex and sexuality

There are many recent English-language examples of linguistic reappropriation in the areas of human sexuality, gender roles, sexual orientation, etc. Among these are:


In England Cavalier was a derogatory nickname reappropriated as self-identification,[16] while Roundhead, a Royalists derisory term for the supporters of the Parliamentary cause, is not (it was a punishable offence in the New Model Army to call a fellow soldier a roundhead).[17] Tory (orig. from Middle Irish word for "pursued man" Tóraidhe ), Whig (from "whiggamore" (See the Whiggamore Raid)) and Suffragette are other British examples.

In the American colonies, British officers used Yankee, from a term used by the British to refer to Dutch pirates, as a derogatory term against colonists. British soldiers created the early versions of the song Yankee Doodle, as a criticism of the uncultured colonists, but during the Revolution, as the colonists began to reappropriate the label yankee as a point of pride, they likewise reappropriated the song, altering verses, and turning it into a patriotic anthem. The term is now widely used as an affectionate nickname for Americans in general.[18]

In the 1850s in the United States, a secretive political party was derisively dubbed the Know Nothing party, based on their penchant for saying "I know nothing" when asked for details by outsiders; this became the common name for the party. It eventually became a popular name, sufficiently so that consumer products like tea, candy, and even a freighter were branded with the name.[19]

During the 2016 United States presidential election, Hillary Clinton referred to some Trump supporters as a "Basket of deplorables". Many Trump supporters endorsed the phrase.[20] Donald Trump also played the song Do You Hear the People Sing? from the musical Les Misérables as an introduction to one of his rallies.[21][22]


One of the older examples of successful reclaiming is the term Jesuit to refer to members of the Society of Jesus. This was originally a derogatory term referring to people who too readily invoked the name of Jesus in their politics, but which members of the Society adopted over time for themselves, so that the word came to refer exclusively to them, and generally in a positive or neutral sense,[23] even though the term "Jesuitical" is derived from the Society of Jesus and is used to mean things like: manipulative, conspiring, treacherous, capable of intellectually justifying anything by convoluted reasoning.[24][25][26][27]

Other examples can be found in the origins of Methodism; early members were originally mocked for their "methodical" and rule-driven religious devotion, founder John Wesley embraced the term for his movement.[28] Members of the Religious Society of Friends were termed Quakers as an epithet, but took up the term themselves. Similarly, the term Protestant was originally a derogatory term, and more recently the term pagan has been subject to a similar change in meaning.[7]

Race, ethnicity, and nationality

To a lesser extent, and more controversially among the groups referred to, many racial, ethnic, and class terms have been reappropriated:


  • cripple, crip, gimp by people with disabilities.[40]

Art movements


Words some feminist activists have argued should be reclaimed include:

See also

  • Dysphemism treadmill, the process by which offensive terms can become acceptable without deliberate intervention.


  1. Brontsema, Robin (2004-06-01). "A Queer Revolution: Reconceptualizing the Debate Over Linguistic Reclamation". Colorado Research in Linguistics. 17 (1). doi:10.25810/dky3-zq57. ISSN 1937-7029. Linguistic reclamation, also known as linguistic resignification or reappropriation, refers to the appropriation of a pejorative epithet by its target(s).
  2. Croom, A.M. (2011). "Slurs". Language Sciences. 33 (3): 343–358. doi:10.1016/j.langsci.2010.11.005. ...that slurs are in certain cases felicitously used to mean something non-derogatory (e.g. in an appropriative manner) is now a well documented linguistic phenomenon.. For instance Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam Records, reports from the perspective of hip-hop culture that "When we say ‘nigger’ now, it’s very positive. Now all white kids who buy into hip-hop culture call each other ‘nigger’ because they have no history with the word other than something positive..."
  3. Groom, Carla; Bodenhausen, Galen V; Galinsky, Adam D; Hugenberg, Kurt (2003-01-01), "The reappropriation of stigmatizing labels: implications for social identity", Identity Issues in Groups, Research on Managing Groups and Teams, 5, Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp. 221–256, doi:10.1016/s1534-0856(02)05009-0, ISBN 0-7623-0951-2, reappropriation, the process of taking possession of a slur previously used exclusively by dominant groups to reinforce a stigmatized group’s lesser status
  4. Anne Curzan (8 May 2014). Fixing English: Prescriptivism and Language History. Cambridge University Press. pp. 146–148. ISBN 978-1-107-02075-7.
  5. Godrej, Farah (2011). "Spaces for Counter-Narratives: The Phenomenology of Reclamation". Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies. 32 (3): 111–133. doi:10.5250/fronjwomestud.32.3.0111. ISSN 0160-9009. JSTOR 10.5250/fronjwomestud.32.3.0111.
  6. Godrej, Farah (April 3, 2003). "Spaces for Counter-Narratives: The Phenomenology of Reclamation" (PDF). Paper prepared for the Midwest Political Science Association Meeting. University of Indiana. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2005-10-25. Retrieved July 25, 2011. Citing Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 1991)
  7. Coles, Gregory (2016). "EMERGING VOICES: The exorcism of language: Reclaimed derogatory terms and their limits". College English. 78 (5): 424–446. ProQuest 1787109531.
  8. Herbert, Cassie (2015-11-01). "Precarious projects: the performative structure of reclamation". Language Sciences. Slurs. 52: 131–138. doi:10.1016/j.langsci.2015.05.002. ISSN 0388-0001.
  9. Reyes, Angela Rosario (2003-01-01). ""The other Asian": Linguistic, ethnic and cultural stereotypes at an after -school Asian American teen videomaking project". Dissertations Available from ProQuest: 1–347.
  10. Tamás, Bényei (2001). "Leakings: Reappropriating Science Fiction--The Case of Kurt Vonnegut". Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. 11 (4 (44)): 432–453. ISSN 0897-0521. JSTOR 43308479.
  11. Christine A. Meilicke (2005). Jerome Rothenberg's Experimental Poetry and Jewish Tradition. Lehigh University Press. pp. 23–. ISBN 978-0-934223-76-8.
  12. Gerald P. Mallon (2 June 2009). Social Work Practice with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People. Routledge. p. 388. ISBN 978-1-135-26686-8.
  13. "Toward a more civil discourse | The Source | Washington University in St. Louis". The Source. 2019-11-14. Retrieved 2019-12-06.
  14. "Trademark Office says no to Dykes on Bikes". National Center for Lesbian Rights. Archived from the original on 2011-07-18.
  15. Wong, Andrew D. (November 2005). "The reappropriation of tongzhi". Language in Society. 34 (5): 763–793. doi:10.1017/S0047404505050281. ISSN 1469-8013.
  16. Anonymous (1911). "Cavalier" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 5 (11th ed.).
  17. Worden, Blair (2009). The English Civil Wars 1640–1660. London: Penguin Books. p. 2. ISBN 978-0-14-100694-9.
  18. Okrent, Arika (5 Nov 2013). "Mystery Solved: The Etymology of Dude". Slate. The Slate Group. Retrieved 10 Aug 2015.
  19. William E. Gienapp. "Salmon P. Chase, Nativism, and the Formation of the Republican Party in Ohio", pp. 22, 24. Ohio History, p. 93.
  23. Pollen, John Hungerford (1913). "The Society of Jesus". Catholic Encyclopedia. 14. New York, NY: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved 30 November 2016.
  24. Peschier, D. (21 June 2005). Nineteenth-Century Anti-Catholic Discourses: The Case of Charlotte Brontë. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 49. ISBN 978-0-230-50502-5.
  25. Stevenson, Angus (19 August 2010). Oxford Dictionary of English. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. p. 940. ISBN 978-0-19-957112-3.
  26. Aikio, Annukka; Vornanen, Rauni (1982). Uusi sivistyssanakirja (in Finnish). Otava.
  27. March, Francis Andrew (1906). A Thesaurus Dictionary of the English Language Designed to Suggest Immediately Any Desired Word Needed to Express Exactly a Given Idea. Philadelphia, PA: Historical Publishing Company. p. 1089.
  28. Atkins, Martyn (2010). Discipleship... and the people called Methodists (PDF). The Methodist Church in Britain. p. 9. ASIN B006OA0XRU. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-03-15. be a ‘Methodist’ was originally a term of ridicule because of the zeal and rigour with which they pursued a life of holiness and sought to be the best disciples of Christ they could.
  29. Kennedy, Randall (18 December 2008). Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. p. xvii. ISBN 978-0-307-53891-8. OCLC 838223786. Retrieved 16 January 2018.
  30. Kwai, Isabella (2018-12-11). "How 'Subtle Asian Traits' Became a Global Hit". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-10-23.
  31. Stephen Paul Miller; Daniel Morris (2010). Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture. University of Alabama Press. p. 153. ISBN 978-0-8173-5563-0.
  32. Allen, Irving L. (1983). The Language of Ethnic Conflict: Social Organization and Lexical Culture. Columbia University Press. p. 127. ISBN 978-0-231-05557-4. OCLC 469875261. Retrieved 16 January 2018.
  33. Carceral, K.C.; Bernard, Thomas J (2006). Prison, Inc: A Convict Exposes Life Inside a Private Prison. Alternative criminology series. New York: NYU Press. p. 118. ISBN 978-0-8147-9954-3. OCLC 748855316. Retrieved 16 January 2018.
  34. "Peckerwood | Hate Symbols Database | ADL". ADL. Anti-Defamation League. Retrieved 16 January 2018.
  35. McKeown, Sarah (22 June 2009). "Ich bin ein Smoggy: reclaiming regional pride". Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Retrieved 30 September 2013.
  36. Lawson, Helen (21 March 2013). "Janoaworramean? Frustrated Teesside mother pens 'Smoggie dictionary' with translations into Standard English to help others understand her". The Daily Mail. Retrieved 29 September 2013.
  37. Griffin, Larry J.; Hargis, Peggy G.; Wilson, Charles Reagan (1 July 2012). The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Volume 20: Social Class. Univ of North Carolina Press. p. 370. ISBN 978-0-8078-8254-2. OCLC 852835385. Retrieved 16 January 2018.
  38. Galinsky, Adam; Schweitzer, Maurice (29 September 2015). Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both. New York: Crown Publishing Group. p. 129. ISBN 978-0-307-72025-2. OCLC 919338995. Retrieved 16 January 2018. In a movie (8 Mile), Eminem declares, 'I'm a piece of white trash; I say it proudly.'
  39. Clark, Andrew (12 October 2005). "A bad word made good". the Guardian.
  40. Baglieri, Susan; Shapiro, Arthur (2012). Disability Studies and the Inclusive Classroom: Critical Practices for Creating Least Restrictive Attitudes. New York. Routledge. p. 49. ISBN 978-0-415-99372-2. OCLC 768335668. Retrieved 16 January 2018.
  41. Cigainero, Jake (October 29, 2014). "Dating a Seminal Painting Paris Exhibition Traces Origins of Monet's 'Impression, Sunrise'". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2014-11-15. Retrieved 2015-12-28.
  42. Thomson, Charles (August 2004), "A Stuckist on Stuckism: Stella Vine", from: Ed. Frank Milner (2004), The Stuckists Punk Victorian, pp. 7–9, National Museums Liverpool, ISBN 1-902700-27-9. Available online at "The Two Starts of Stuckism" and "The Virtual Stuckists" on
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