Language Expresses Our Identities
In the opening to this chapter, I recounted how an undergraduate class in semantics solidified my love of language. I could have continued on to say that I have come to think of myself as a “word nerd.” Words or phrases like that express who we are and contribute to the impressions that others make of us. We’ve already learned about identity needs and impression management and how we all use verbal communication strategically to create a desired impression. But how might the label word nerd affect me differently if someone else placed it on me?
The power of language to express our identities varies depending on the origin of the label (self-chosen or other imposed) and the context. People are usually comfortable with the language they use to describe their own identities but may have issues with the labels others place on them. In terms of context, many people express their “Irish” identity on St. Patrick’s Day, but they may not think much about it over the rest of the year. There are many examples of people who have taken a label that was imposed on them, one that usually has negative connotations, and intentionally used it in ways that counter previous meanings. Some country music singers and comedians have reclaimed the label redneck, using it as an identity marker they are proud of rather than a pejorative term. Other examples of people reclaiming identity labels is the “black is beautiful” movement of the 1960s that repositioned black as a positive identity marker for African Americans and the “queer” movement of the 1980s and ’90s that reclaimed queer as a positive identity marker for some gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. Even though some people embrace reclaimed words, they still carry their negative connotations and are not openly accepted by everyone.