Yesterday, I posted a comparison of the role that labeling plays in the Handmaid’s Tale and the current contraception debate. A few days ago, I posted on Flannery O’Connor’s short story The Barber. Today, NPR posted a new story Slut: The other four letter word, that connects these two posts in a way I had not originally imagined — the role of memory in associating language. (Is it possible that someone at NPR reads the table?). From the story:
And like other dirty words, “slut” besmears whomever it’s applied to in earnest, particularly when it’s simply ridiculing or discrediting someone. It trails all those repellent associations, along with sister words like “hot,” “cheap” and “trashy” that populate the titles of porn videos.
Whether you’re somebody who rejects the very idea of that stigma or somebody who takes it very seriously, it’s disturbing to hear it evoked so wantonly. And however we think of the word now, we can’t help recalling the casual cruelty of the middle-school lunchroom where we first learned how vicious it could sound, even though we had only the vaguest idea of what it was about.
I suspect that that memory is another reason why people found Limbaugh’s remark so offensive. It told us more than we needed to know about what he was thinking. “What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right?” — as if we were all back in eighth grade, sneaking a smoke with him in the stairwell.
The writer is dead on. There are certain words that are used because they have the innate ability to travel back in time, thereby bringing to the current discussion all of the context and anxiety that the past has brought. Whether the word is Mother hubbard, slut, prostitute, mud-blood, or other, there is a way in which language somehow becomes a means of incorporating the past.
This semester, I am teaching a seminar on Property law. We started by discussing the foundations of property entitlements, and have considered what I have termed the aroma of property — things that we want to treat like property, but are reluctant to call property. Starting next week, we will read three short books in a section I have called “How we talk about Property” with a focus on memory. It seems that the way we remember things often is a more powerful referent than the way they actually were. Language is critically involved in that process. Labeling, as a primary act of language, is one way of remembering the past by creating large categories of agreeable or disagreeable referents.