On the power of words

In one of my book reviews, I have argued that ‘words are powerful tools’ (Go 2014, 117). This is under the presumption that the meanings surrounding every word we utter have an impact both from the speaker, the source of the word and meaning, and the receiver, who in turn tries to make sense of what meaning was made. Of course, we do not really ponder so much everyday normal conversations. There is an assumed language game that both parties subscribe to and, therefore, have a common understanding of words and meanings.

The power of words, however, does not only belong to the speaker, but also to the receiver. The speaker may impose a meaning on a word. And yet, the receiver can create a new meaning different from that of the speaker. The difference I am talking about here is not binary difference. There could be an intersection of meanings, but there is a significant twist or alteration that meaningfully changes the meaning or at least the essence of it. Let me cite some examples.

Instik. Instik has a negative and derogatory connotation. When used, it usually demeans a person who happened to have a Chinese ancestry or ethnicity. Instik, as scholars Hau (2014) and Tan (2007-2013) noted in their works, can be traced to the phrase: ‘Instik viejo, tulo laway’. This refers to the hardworking Chinese migrants in the Philippines, who in their sleep fails to notice their saliva spilling from their mouths. Instik, which originally refers to an uncle or elderly man, has morphed into a term of insult and humiliation.

Bakla. Bakla does not necessarily have a negative meaning, but some people use it in insulting people, usually gay men or males who may have homosexual tendencies. However, bakla is supposed to mean a positive impression, not an insult. According to the UP Diksiyunaryong Filipino, bakla means ‘pagkabighani sa anumang maganda, at lalo pa, bago sa paningin’ (2001, 79). On how the term was used to refer to homosexuals, I am not aware. Another entry in the dictionary already appropriates the word bakla (with a different accent/stress) to its current usage. I am sure there is academic literature available to explain the change in meaning.

Reclaiming and re-appropriation of words and their meanings are usually the courses of action in these cases. If the receivers will take the use of these words differently, i.e., different from the intent of the speaker, and take them positively, then the meaning would change. Instead of being offended by instik or bakla, what the receivers can do is to reclaim the term and alter its meaning. This is a reassertion of power on the part of the receiver. In the case of instik, Chinese should not take offense, but instead reclaim the use of the word. In the first place, it was used to refer to hardworking Chinese migrants. Likewise, bakla can be taken positively. Its original meaning should overpower its current meaning. To be called bakla is to be rendered beautiful.

On the power of words

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