I was 14 years old when I smoked my first cigarette and I remember it so clearly. I studied in a Catholic School then, and there was a statue of a rather wistful looking lady of stone. She was called the "Lady of Perpetual Succour" but my nihilistic tendencies as a teenager did not let me treat her with any respect. She stood, her arms palms outwards, fingers slightly spread as though gathering invisible children beneath. Her face was cast down, her expression sad but pious. She stood on top of a wide, fat block of stone surrounded by topiary, and enterprising students hid behind to furtively puff on cigarettes, the smoke obscured behind the green and grey. Eventually when `rumors' broke out that students were smoking, and bags were searched we used her slightly spread fingers to hide our stash as well. And we attended school with expressions of youthful innocence, expressing well practised and entirely fake shock and surprise that any student was sinful enough to engage in such filthy activities.
I grew up in countries with a decidedly British turn of phase. We never smoked cigarettes, we smoked fags. It was only when I came to America that I realized that culture can dicate what fag meant. That when I say, I am craving fags, or wish to blow on one, or when I asked if there is a designated area for smoking fags, or what was the legal age for doing fags, it meant something entirely different.
One person said rather heatedly that I was being sick. That whatever it meant in some other country did not matter, I was in America now, and when I speak in that way it is entirely inappropriate. From my history, it is typical that I cave in immediately. In this case, I didn't.
I say African American instead of Black. Why? Because some people said using black is offensive. I didn't say mate (Thats quite alright, mate!), because some people said it alluded to a sexual act. I stopped using torch, lift, and queue. I do not put up swastikas when I move into new apartments, because though it is auspicious for me and my culture, I appreciate what it has become a symbol of. I once said "oriental" and I got lamblasted. ("carpets are oriental not people"- only I was refering to oriental and pan asian myth, not people). I have had men say calling them blokes was offensive, and I have been told that saying that a woman was acting like a biddy was also offensive. Most of the time I capitulated for reason of clarity or lack of offensiveness.
I admit that I have used gay as a descriptive- like Wow, that Christmas Tree looks gay. But it was not a pejorative description. It was a synonym for festive looking or merry. I have used dike but as a description for seabound walls. I don't even use lame as a description. Since I came to America, I would not say Lynch even in private.
Fag was the only time I put up a spirited defense against all that ranted and raved. For me, it was inexplicable that my slang for cigarettes was used as a pejorative descriptor for a homosexual man. Afterall, I was never using it to describe people, or events. Just a cancer stick. It took a calm, rational gay man to tell me why the word fag was offensive and after that- I couldn't call a cigarette one again.
The first point to this diary is yes, I absolutely agree that sometimes words have different origins and meanings and it seems unfair that you often feel compelled to refrain from using them because it has since been associated with something else. Yes it seems like the PC police has descended upon you.
The second, and more important point is that sometimes your love for a word, no matter how you justify it in your head, no matter how righteously you may wield it is not worth the pain. Words like lynch, symbols like the swastika, and yes even a slang like "fag" is hurtful. It is not your `fault', it is not the fault of the people who it was used against...it is the fault of those who made those words and symbols ugly.
And it is difficult to be a person with a conscience and think that any justification is worth the use of that one word or that one symbol when another, far less hurtful word, far less reprehensible symbol with far less baggage and ugliness can so easily suffice.