Tuesday, 23 August 2011

This is what a real hate word looks like

    A few weeks ago I wrote a piece on the theme of the word "tranny", with particular reference to its comparison with the N-word as a hate word. As I said then, I believe that there is no parallel between the two experiences and to make such a comparison between the two words is not only rather offensive, it will not help our cause.
    As so often happens when a subject excites my interest, I've since found a couple of other places in which the comparison is being made. I was alerted to one by a reader of this blog and the other I encountered in another forum. I didn't have to look for either so I have to conclude that it is a widespread thing.
    I think that this is unfortunate if true, so I would like to examine some of the language involved in more detail. Corpus analysis refers to the science of examining huge bodies of text to find answers to linguistic questions. In short it treats language not as something to read but as a series of statistical relationships that can be extracted using a computer. Best of all, there are public corpora available for free, so anyone with a computer can gaze into the intricacies of language for themselves. (I should warn the reader at this point that I am about to examine some offensive language, if you are easily offended then look away now)
    The collocates of a word are the words that most often appear alongside it. Here is a word cloud for the collocates of the N-word.
   Take a look at the words. 'Lousy','Uppity', 'Dirty', 'Dopey', 'Lazy','Stupid'. This is the language of overt racism writ large in American English, words written purely as insults and with no other possible explanation as to their use. I had expected to see some evidence of the reappropriation of the N-word in for example rap culture, but those use cases are so far outshadowed by the offensive collocates as to render them invisible. The fact is, almost nobody uses the N-word except as a hate word, so it comes as no surprise that its collocates are all also from the lexicon of hate. This is what a real hate word looks like.
    So we've seen the context the N-word is used in and it isn't very pretty. How about the T-word by comparison? Here is the corresponding collocate cloud for 'tranny'.
    Straight away you can see that this is a very different set of words from those in the other cloud. There are three main sets of words appearing here: those associated with sex work and pornography such as 'webcam''she-male','hardcore', or 'whore', those from within our community such as 'MTF', 'post-op', and 'chaser', and finally those from another sense entirely referring to automotive transmissions. 'Auto', 'manual', 'shack' (edit, struck out 'shack'. though it turns up in the auto sphere it might equally be for a popular drag club!) and 'gauge' are not relevant to us.
    So we're left with words relating to porn and sex work, and non-offensive words we use within our community.
    At this point it is very important to recognise that there is a huge difference between a word that is universally offensive and a word that can be found offensive within our community but has yet to reach levels of universal opprobrium.The collocates in the N-word cloud are mostly the former, they are offensive by nature. The T-word cloud by comparison contains some words which we may find offensive if applied to us but which are not in themselves offensive in the context in which they are used. I would be offended were I to be associated with porn for example, but those words are legitimate when used in the context of a porn star. I may not like what she does for a living but if I have the right to earn a living as a programmer with my own associated collocate cloud of tech words then so does the trans porn actress with her associated porn words. By contrast I can not think of a legitimate non-offensive use of the collocates in the N-word word cloud.
    To attempt to co-opt some of the sympathy contained within all the history that the N-word represents is downright offensive in itself. If we as a community attempt to do that it will not be long before we are quite rightly called out on such folly. Not a course that this tranny thinks will do us any favours.

(I've turned on comment moderation for this post. If you comment, please keep your use of language as I have.)


  1. This is a very good idea, well executed and with results that speak for themselves. Well, results that you can see. Cor.

  2. You must be about halfway to your doctorate with this work, look forward to writing to Dr Jenny. People have made careers with less!

  3. Mmm....From my persepective Jenny a word is only offensive to the ear of the listener. Sticks and stones notwithstanding. It isn't the word that hurts, it's the inference. We focus on the word far more than the person delivering it I think whereas perhaps, that should be the other way round.

    Shirley Anne xxx

  4. Still not sure whether the straightforward comparison is that helpful. The thing that's rarely spoken of is that tranny is in constant use as an insult within the gay community to mean an overly hyper feminised gay man : a hot tranny mess. I know a couple of drag queens who react very badly to having the word used about them because they see themselves as ordinary gay men and see trans people as simply weird. Personally I've only ever heard the word used by gay men as a rather patronising put down, an assumption that we're on the same continuum as queens in the gay world.
    The comparison might be more apt in terms of how ethnic asians in the US might react to being called N...

  5. I have to say, my target here was people who try to co-opt the black American experience to bolster the trans experience, rather than the insult level of the T-word itself.

    For me I know too many within our community who use the T-word like confetti to dismiss it as a universal hate word. Yes, insult is in the eye of the insulted, but to change sense in the wider language it has to have evidence of universal meaning, and the T-word not only has several senses outside our community but has plenty of non-offensive use within our community.

    I still know enough people who do see it as an insult though to rarely use it myself.

    @Deena, now you're just being subversive :)

  6. This is an interesting approach but you do need to be careful with context and range of sources. The T-word may be over-represented by the sheer volume of porn sources and not represent popular culture at all outside this or the club scene. Similarly the N-word has changed over time, and representation and association will have changed from historical contexts where it was used liberally, to the rather more restrained and therefore filtered usage more recently. So to then compare these as similar hate contexts isn't accurate. The N-word context is one of almost universal disdain historically. The T-word might also be a fond representation from "the scene".

    Are black people insulted because the N-word associates them with dirt and laziness (now)? Or because people only use it in a demeaning way? So the T-word. It is primarily hurtful if its use demeans or diminishes by relating an individual to a false context (sex and sexual activity) thus inhibiting understanding, categorising, othering.

    Hate is a very strong word, but I might still argue that the insult a black person feels is really no different from that a trans person feels, when addressed in a demeaning way and in such a way to reinforce misconception and wrong attitudes.

  7. This research used only current English, and from a large enough corpus to have removed bias towards a particular set of sources.

    The interesting thing it shows for me about the N-word is how the rest of the world has moved on but the language of racists has stayed in a timewarp.

    The T-word's offensiveness depends on the context in which it is used while the N-word's doesn't. I hear the T-word constantly being used within the trans community so while I agree it can be offensive in some contexts and I don't use it much myself I can not describe it as an intrinsically offensive word. To do so would be to ignore completely the evidence of my own ears.

    It is easy to fall into the trap of prescribing language use based on one's preconceptions about it. With this little piece of research I hoped to show here that the real-life evidence of how this word is used in the wild does not quite match those preconceptions.