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I once saw an email in which a colleague and I were referred to as “a pair of cackling harridens” (sic). It was a startlingly unprofessional and not very nice thing to have seen, but what actually offended me far more than the choice of insult, was the idiocy of my attacker in his inability conduct a spell-check.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a harridan (please note the spelling, if at any point you plan to use this in writing) is:

a strict, bossy, or belligerent old woman.

Although I am not old or, I’d like to think, belligerent, I make no denial of the fact that I am bossy and I can be (if you ask me very, very nicely and you aren’t scared of a stern look over the top of my glasses) rather strict. I’m sure there are some people for whom a strict lady is something of a thrill. Whatever tickles your pickle, boys and girls. I’ll fetch my mortar board…

It could be argued, I suppose, that to be more offended by someone’s poor spelling than their attempt at insulting me is a little belligerent. And generally-speaking, I do prefer a vaguely-Shakespearean insult over many of its modern-day equivalents; I’d rather be a harlot than a whore. But let’s not get side-tracked. The author of the email was a fully-fledged member of the fist-shaking shouty outburst club, and the fact that I found his ill-constructed email to be a source of amusement will have, I’m sure, sent him into a red-faced, apoplectic rage.cropped-bridge.jpg

The question is: are words more offensive by their definition, or their intent? In conversation, I swear like a sailor. Not to shock; simply because I think no particular word is more upsetting than any other word, unless you consider the intent with which that world was chosen. I would much rather you called me a harridan than you told me that you hate me. Because, in my opinion, to use the word “hate” to someone’s face is far more serious and designed to hurt the soul, than any amount of effing and blinding.

I have however deduced, from the startled faces of people who aren’t used to my propensity to use words that would send your Nanna rushing for the smelling salts, that not everybody is quite as liberated.

Stephen Fry, who is far more qualified than most to offer an opinion on words, has a very clear way of thinking about offence:

It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. “I find that offensive.” It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what.

I couldn’t agree more. I honestly believe that you can choose to take offence, or not, at whatever words you hear and read throughout your day. However, if you find that a word does seriously offend you, might it be that this has more to do with your perceptions of and associations with that word than it has to do with the definition of the word? If so, can the person using the word be expected to a) predict your reaction and b) take responsibility for it?

I quite often refer to myself as a “cripple”, due to the fact that I have a poorly leg. I feel quite justified in using a word that many people find offensive, because its definition (wowzers – how I love the Oxford English Dictionary!) is as follows:

a person who is unable to walk or move properly through disability or because of injury to their back or legs.

Now, admittedly the OED does also state that this word is considered to be dated and/or offensive. But clearly the offence is in the history of its use, rather than its definition. There are many people in various disabled communities and schools of disability theory, who consider the word to have been reclaimed, re-appropriated and cleansed of all negative intent. Rather than banish a word that has been sullied by its use as an insult, they have taken back its power and turned around its meaning.

So when I refer to myself as a cripple, I mean no disrespect to myself. I am stating a fact: I have an injury to my leg. But often other people, almost always people who do not identify as disabled, are horrified. Outraged that I would use such a terrible word.

Their concern, you understand, is not for me. It is their sensibilities that have been so heinously wounded, by my using a word about myself, which I do not find offensive. The concept that I should change how I describe myself to avoid triggering a possible negative connotation in somebody else’s head? Well that just bloody baffles me.

So, dear reader, it would seem that society prefers us to pick our forms of expression from a carefully-selected list of approved words. I feel in my heart that Stephen Fry’s response to that would probably be less than polite and I personally don’t think that society has any right to specify what are and are not acceptable ways for me to describe myself.


And anyway, I think there’s a certain romance to the word “harlot”. Don’t you?