Is ‘dyke’ offensive?

Richard Madeley has been criticised by Ofcom and apologised for using the word ‘dyke’ on the Richard and Judy show recently. Apparantly, Richard thought the word was now in common usage and no longer considered offensive or homophobic. I have to say I agree, but then I am reminded, again and again, of what a sheltered life I live here in London. Get out of the city, away from media liberalism, and I’m sure that words such as dyke are still used in anger and with malice.

I used to find the word offensive, and still wouldn’t often use it to describe myself, but in my eyes it’s a word that has got past the exclusive use of the group it describes. That is, for a while, only dykes could use the word dyke, if you get my meaning. Then gay men could, then friends. Richard obviously put himself in the friend category, which is cool with me.

3 Replies to “Is ‘dyke’ offensive?”

  1. Are you saying that if someone calls you a ‘dyke’ without malice or anger, but as a statement of fact or an adjective to describe you, then you don’t find it offensive? In which case, if I were to say, for example: ‘I think you’re dull’ without malice or anger, but as a statement of fact, wouldn’t that be offensive?

    There are a number of things here to take into consideration:
    1) The implication for the person on the receiving end.
    2) The perception of the person on the receiving end AND the perception of others around them.
    3) Whether words can be ‘reclaimed’.
    4) Who words might be reclaimed for.
    5) Who has ‘permission’ (by the individual, group or society overall) to use reclaimed words.
    6) The motivation behind the words used.

    Given this list, whether something is offensive or not is subject to a sliding scale dependent on, say, circumstances (see above list!)

    I would argue that some words cannot be reclaimed, regardless of intent, or motivation, or permission – by dint of the fact that there is such a breadth of history behind them, this can’t be eradicated. Oh, and then there’s the issue of power.

  2. I agree with your list and think you have expressed the factors far better than I did. However, I’m not sure about the ‘dyke’ / ‘dull’ thing. Dull is obviously a negative thing to say about me (however true), while dyke can be either positive or negative, depending on some of the points you mention. Thinking about it, even dull, I suppose, could be a positive in the right context.

    I also agree that there are words that cannot be effectively reclaimed, but I’m having difficulty thinking of any that people haven’t tried to reclaim.

    Power of course plays a huge part and I’m glad you raised it. I think part of the politics of language and reclaiming words is to do with groups trying to reclaim some power along with the words. If I call myself a dyke, it goes some way to remove the power that someone else has when they use it in anger.

    “Hey, dyke!”

    “Um, yes?”

  3. Whether words can be effectively claimed and whether people have tried to reclaim words or not are two different points entirely? What I find interesting is that within communities, the reclaiming of words is contentious.
    Some members of a community for which an ‘offensive’ word is being ‘reclaimed’ don’t agree with reclaiming that word. I think this is important. If reclamation is not considered effective or legitimate by a member of a community, and is subjected to such reclamation from other members of the same community, perhaps this becomes a secondhand form of abuse? For example, the power shifts from one individual within one community, to another individual in another community, but the victim still remains. An own goal maybe?
    The crucial distinction here lies in the fact that ‘you’ choose to call ‘yourself’ by this expression.
    However, doing so can also be a signal of permission to whoever’s listening to you. I once used an expression of myself which, out of context would be considered offensive. My good friend saw this as a valid term for me and used the same expression. Result – offense because power can be momentary and dissipates, after all. I think this is where the reclaiming of words to regain power and take the sting out of the term comes a cropper.
    In addition, treating an individual who has a particular history and identity as uniformly part of his/her community is naïve at best, makes gross assumptions and is open to inaccuracies (hence Mr Madeley’s blunder) Far better, I think, to consider alternatives as expressions of identity than to wrestle away the tools of an oppressor for one’s own use.
    Incidentally, words are positive or negative because culturally we invest this in them. A concept all rather zen in my opinion. I think that one of the first points I made, about other people’s perception of words is immensely important. After all, none of us exist in a vacuum and no one is an island. ;oP

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