Are words “claimable?” Or do they HAVE to belong to everyone.

Simcha Fisher has a brilliant piece on the need for feminism and yes, calling it that word over at Patheos. This has engaged an entire conversation about the use of the word “feminist” or “feminism” and if the word can be “reclaimed” or if it “belongs to everyone.”

Simcha, in her piece, shares this brilliant insight:

People do dreadful things in the name of democracy, and people do dreadful things in the name of beauty. People do dreadful things in the name of Christ our savior. That doesn’t mean we abandon the name. That means we rescue it, we rectify the misuse.

Back in college I was a Creative Writing major, I nearly could have been a double major in English if it didn’t mean I’d have to take a second senior seminar. Anyways, there were three classes, one of which I was required to take for one or both majors. My options were Linguistics, Structure, or Semantics. I ended up in structure which involved diagramming sentences (boring but I got an A) because I was deathly afraid of the linguistics professor. Sadly, during the semesters I was eligible to take it, semantics was not offered. It was the one of the three I REALLY wanted to take. Why? Semantics is defined as ( in terms of linguistics): a. the study of meaning. and b. the study of linguistic development by classifying and examining changes in meaning and form. How words and meaning change over time fascinates me. So this current discussion of “claiming” and “reclaiming” of feminism or of it “belonging to everyone” to use as they like is of particular interest for me.

We’ve most frequently heard of words being re-claimed in respects to marginalized groups. Certainly those thought of as “radical feminists” felt that by defining feminism and femininity in their own way gave them power. Those in power make the decisions and definitions for sure. Similarly we find the use of the “n” word, a word used once by whites to degrade anyone with dark skin, “re-claimed” by African Americans using it in rap lyrics or even in language to refer to friends. Whether these uses are correct or justify broader use of the word by anyone not in the marginalized groups is not for me to decide but it certainly says a lot about power, rebellion and control. When a word describes oneself, one does have a tendency to feel they should have some say in the usage and meaning of the word. That choice to “re-define” or “re-claim” a word can be made in defiance or to stir up controversy or because someone feels really upset.

But what about words belonging to everyone. Even the words we choose to describe ourselves as? I live in the southeast surrounded by Baptists. Southern Baptists, Free Will Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Missionary Baptists, Bible Baptists and yes, Westboro Baptists. Among others. Now, those first groups will loudly protest that last one. Can you blame them? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone who attends a Baptist church say that “those are NOT ‘real’ Baptists.” But, the if the word belongs to everyone, particularly everyone who believes even just the smallest sliver of doctrine, then no bother for these Baptists to loudly stage their own re-claiming of the word through their actions contrary to those of Westboro. Right?

Let’s go a little closer to home. When we say we’re Roman Catholic, well does that term belong to everyone? Does it belong to those ordaining womyn priests? How about sedevacantists? SSPX? How about abusive priests who celebrated the sacraments and those that shuffled them from parish to parish? What about the couple who baptizes their children and then turns around and donates to Planned Parenthood or a pro-choice politician? Does it belong to the diocesan school with the openly lesbian gym teacher and openly gay male assistant principal? Do we get to decide who is more faithful and allowed to claim the title of “Roman Catholic?” Is someone who is only betraying Catholic teaching in one area of their life (say birth control pills for bad menstrual cycles but not actually having the sex to go along with them) able to claim the title of Roman Catholic or not?

I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking you. Technically, we all disobey Catholic teaching at some time or another. I haven’t we all told a lie at some point in our lives? Shouted an obscenity in frustration or taken the Lord’s name in vain and not immediately realized we’d done it and feel bad. I’m sure some of you out there are saying, “No Kristen, I never do ANY of those things?” But you do sin, in your own way right? And does your going to Confession mean you can still claim the title because you’re engaging in the sacrament? But what if you go out and do that sin again and again and again? And you keep going to Confession but for some reason this sin keeps coming back to torment you?

Words have meaning. I’m a writer. I deal in words. But so do motivations and actions and the states of our souls and a lot of other things. Human words FAIL to describe accurately God’s infinite love and mercy. So my telling God I love Him falls very short of the feeling I feel in all my being. Is God going to condemn me because my words and actions don’t always align? Even though I say I’m sorry and I’m going to try my best to NEVER do that again? Do I get to call myself Catholic because some other people say I shouldn’t because I’ve never been to a TLM? Eek.

The truth is I have no idea if you get to claim or re-claim a word. And yes, the idea of a word belonging to everyone is troublesome sometimes, but, thankfully, it’s not JUST our words we are judged on on that final day. And we aren’t the ones responsible for making the decision as to which “feminist” or “Christian” or “Catholic” gets into heaven. And thank God for that.