On a comment about one of my previous blog posts, Dr. McCoy raised the question about whether or not “the additive meanings [of words can] survive without being informed/poisoned by the roots?” My previous post focused on the word “family” but Dr. McCoy’s suggestion got me to think about the origins of other words and specifically, as she pointed out, the U.S. Constitution.
I am both an English Major and a Political Science major, so Dr. McCoy’s mention of the Constitution recalled me to a class I took called Politics of Judicial Process with Dr. Herold. One of the prevailing questions throughout the semester was whether or not the Constitution should be viewed as a “living document” meaning that we take the essence of the document’s meaning and apply it to modern day or whether we should view the Constitution strictly based on its original meaning. I think the Constitution serves as a perfect basis for looking at whether modern uses of words can ever fully evolve from their original meanings.
After taking Politics of Judicial Process, I walked away seeing the Constitution as a mostly living document, constantly evolving as America does as well. However, this evolution always has roots in the original intent of the Founding Fathers. In this way, the Constitution is always evolving while also being tethered to its original meaning. Language has to be considered “living” or the words used in the past would not be adequate to represent the feelings of the present. However, this does not mean that the origins of words do not continue to attach themselves to modern definitions in some contexts.
The word “rogga” in Jemisin’s work very closely resembles the n-word in our own society. And just as some have attempted to reclaim the n-word to give it a positive connotation, multiple orogenes attempt to reclaim rogga as well. What is interesting is that the negative connotation of both of these words never fully goes away, and the context of the speaker and the environment decides whether the words are being used in a hateful manner or a positive one. Ykka referring to her caste name as rogga shows her embrace of the term to match her identity. A word that historically would be used to pin a negative representation to someone’s identity is switched to an embrace of that same identity with a positive connotation. Similarly, Alabaster’s frequent use of “rogga” serves to remove the stigma through constant use. As The Fifth Season progresses, Essun becomes more accustomed to hearing the word and some of the embedded insult is removed.
African-Americans have made strides in reclaiming the n-word as a term of love and positivity over its cruel historical meaning. However, if a white person uses the word, even if no harm is meant by it, there is still an inherently negative connotation attached. As Dr. Neal Lester says, “If you could keep the word within the context of the intimate environment [among friends], then I can see that you could potentially own the word and control it. But you can’t because the word takes on a life of its own if it’s not in that environment“. Context is everything, and the hateful origins of the n-word never fully disappear. Part of the explanation behind this is that the history behind oppression cannot be ignored and so when a word is attached to that history, its origins can never fully be ignored. Reclaiming historically negative language is important because it prevents hateful language from being used to completely define someone’s identity. The reclamation of the n-word by the African-American community allows a hateful word to become a term of endearment when used in the correct context; however, even this can never fully erase the possible negative contexts that can occur.
Looking back at the Constitution, I still feel it follows a similar pattern of language taking on new meaning while still retaining some of its original intent. Areas like privacy rights that have no firm written basis in the Constitution I still feel fit with the overall intent when implied to modern-day. However, it is harder to fully disregard what is actually written in the document. Regardless of my own feelings towards guns, I can’t deny that the 2nd amendment does give the right to bear arms. Reflecting back on my views of the Constitution, I now apply that same theory to individual words as well. Historical precedent and modern interpretation exist simultaneously in language and depending on context, one half sometimes takes precedence over the other.