Lexiculture: expat

Michelle Layton

Wayne State University

Cite as: Layton, Michelle. 2016. Expat. Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 2, article 1. https://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/expat.pdf

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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Many everyday social interactions, such as meeting a new person, create first impressions and categorization of people based on a number of readily-apparent factors. These initial expectations about people are highly influenced, if not created, by cultural beliefs and norms. Although the labels that people give one another derive from a set of opinions or perceptions of the labeler, these categories are essentially formed by widely shared cultural beliefs and values within a society. Travelers are often the recipients of the most intense labeling because they are seen as outsiders or ‘them’ instead of ‘us.’ This way of thinking usually leads to harsh, unfair, or prejudiced attitudes toward people who were not born in the country where they reside.

This paper will focus specifically on the word ‘expat,’ how it came to be, and its contextual usage in relation to the words ‘expatriate’ and ‘immigrant;’ essentially, who is considered an expat and why? What cultural factors and labels, such as the desire to distinguish between types of travelers and visitors, caused the word ‘expat’ to emerge in a British context with different connotations than ‘expatriate’ or ‘immigrant?’ The primary sources used for this research are Pauline Leonard’s book, Expatriate Identities in Postcolonial Organizations: Working Whiteness, focusing on the racial and social implications of the word ‘expatriate’ or ‘expat;’ a very informative article, published in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, “It’s not what it was: British Migrants in Postcolonial Hong Kong,” written by professor of sociology in London, Caroline Knowles, who addresses British citizens’ experiences living abroad and specifically discusses the usage of the word ‘expat;’ and finally, University of Sheffield lecturer, Peter Matanle’s article, “Expatriate Games,” published by The Guardian news website. In addition to these sources, several dictionaries will be used to examine dissimilarities in definitions of ‘expat,’ ‘expatriate,’ and ‘immigrant.’ The contextual usage in various blog posts will also be analyzed, as the aim is not only to focus on official sources, but how the words are actually used in everyday life and viewed by ordinary people.

To study the usage and meanings of the word ‘expat,’ one must first dissect the word that it is shortened from—‘expatriate.’ The word ‘expatriate’ comes from the Latin words ‘ex’ meaning out, and ‘patria’ meaning one’s native country; therefore the simplest and most common definition of this word used today is a person living outside their native country (Expatriate). However, beginning in 1787 according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word was used as a verb in the sense that one could be expatriated, or exiled, from their country (Expatriate, v). This word has been applied to people living outside of their home country for the last couple hundred years and has consistently been used much more widely than ‘expat’ (as the graph below demonstrates), suggesting it can be used to refer to a much broader category of travelers or be used in more contexts.

2-1-1Google Ngram of the usage of ‘expatriate’ and ‘expat’ in books from 1800-2000

Expatriate was shortened, and the word ‘expat’ emerged as a largely British word in the 1960s with different connotations. The Oxford English Dictionary has two examples of the word beginning to be used, in 1962 and 1968, and both are used in a British context (Expat, n).

However, Grammarphobia states that the May 21st, 1961 issue of the New York Times uses the word in quotations, suggesting it was not widely known at this time and may have been the first published use of the word (O’Connor). The origins of the word lie in mid-20th century British beliefs and popularity for wealthy or well-known British people to temporarily live in a different country. At this time it was seen as a status symbol for authors, academics, and aristocrats to be well-traveled; and that holds true today as six million British people, or a tenth of the population, are not currently living in the UK (Knowles). Peter Matanle, a Senior Lecturer and Director of Research at the University of Sheffield, states that in the mid-1900s “being an expat amounted to a movement” in the UK (Matanle). It has become widely used more recently (as the chart below conveys) possibly to describe a larger category of people, but likely due to the effect of globalization and technology on mobility and the increased expectation for professionals to travel away from their country to work for a short time (Definition of “expat”). In the United States the word seems to be used more often to describe people traveling for business, while in the U.K, it is often used to describe wealthy vacationers (as they often spend weeks at summer homes abroad). However, the focus of this paper will mainly address the more common British uses of the word ‘expat’.

2-1-2Google Ngram of the usage of the word ‘expat’ in books from 1960-2000

It is also necessary to examine the word ‘immigrant’ in juxtaposition to ‘expat’. ‘Immigrant’ has been around since the 1700s and is most commonly defined as a person who goes to another country to live (Immigrant). Although this word has a more permanent implication than the most common uses of the word ‘expat,’ these terms are actually quite similar but are used in very different contexts. Although some bloggers who love to travel have stated that the words ‘immigrant’ and ‘expat’ are interchangeable, such as one blogger who claimed “an expat is also an immigrant of course” (Are You an Expat), it seems to be a much more widely held belief that these words are used to describe different groups of people and in very different situations, which will now be discussed in detail (Deo).

The amount of time one can live in a foreign country and still be called an expat is not strictly defined, as supported by the scholarly research of a professor at the University of London who claims that “temporariness involves a wide range of temporalities from a year, to what eventually accumulates to a lifetime of deferred decisions to move-on” (Knowles). This is also demonstrated in a blog post that got a lot of supporting comments, “The time you live abroad does not matter either; you are labelled as an expat whether it’s for a year to sixty years” (“Expatriate” ExpatWoman). The amount of time one intends on spending in a country often distinguishes the word ‘expat’ from the word ‘immigrant’ as a person who eventually plans on returning to their native country at some point. However, if one moves past the official definitions found in scholarly dictionaries and studies how the words are used in everyday language, it is evident that there are larger and more important factors in labeling someone as an ‘immigrant’ or ‘expat’ beyond their length of stay.

When the word ‘expat’ is used to describe someone, many people might instantly have a distinct mental picture of who that ‘expat’ might be (see pictures below). In the UK, this word is most often used to describe a high-class, professional British person who is going to a different country to share their expertise and work, or sometimes just to get out of paying higher taxes. Although this word can be used to refer to Americans or anybody born in a ‘Western’ country, there was not a single American that I mentioned the word ‘expat’ to who knew of the word or did not ask me to repeat it several times and then define it. This word is almost only used by British people referring to themselves or other ‘expats’; and many have claimed this word is elitist because it was produced out of the necessity to distinguish oneself from immigrants (Matanle).



These pictures are the first results of a Google search of ‘expat’ and ‘immigrant’

The question of whether one would be considered an expat or immigrant is very much based on class, race, and the country one is going to and coming from. According to Peter Matanle, the word ‘expat’  “is too easily used as a cultural marker to distinguish people from one another, making it easy for some Britons to feel both superior to and separated from the local people in their host cultures” (Matanle). According to Pauline Leonard, professor of sociology at the University of Southampton, a person usually has to possess three qualities in order to be labeled an ‘expat’: they must be privileged; they must come from ‘the West’; and they usually must be white (Leonard). These terms are often used to include or exclude certain people or groups who do not fulfill these requirements. It can be seen from the above photos, which were some of the most common types of pictures on Google for ‘expat’ and ‘immigrant,’ that these words are used to distinguish between people of different social classes, ethnicities, and cultures.

First, an expat must be privileged so this immediately excludes people who come from countries with few opportunities. Moreover, people who go to another country to try and better their chances for getting a reasonably-paying job or having a higher quality of life are also automatically excluded from ‘expat’ status. Therefore, one is labeled an immigrant instead of an expat if they are leaving a poor country and going to a more privileged one.  Since the ‘Western’ countries are often seen as the most privileged and ‘sophisticated’, a person must be traveling from a ‘Western’ country to either another ‘Western’ country or to a less privileged country in order to be called an ‘expat’ (Leonard). This idea will be discussed in more detail shortly.

The claim that a person usually has to be white to be considered an ‘expat’ can be seen in the above photos, or any photos that come up with a simple search of the word. In fact, many people do not like to use this word because they are aware of and sensitive to the class- and race- based implications. One blogger writes, “Some would reserve the word ‘expat’ for mid-20th century travelers,” as they were all elite white Britons during the period when it first became very fashionable to be well-travelled and cultured (Mark). Knowles discusses ‘postcolonial whiteness’ in her article, asserting that white people are “invisible in terms of ethnicity” and that the usefulness of ‘whiteness’ in suppression and superiority over groups lies in its ambiguity as it “occupies a central but undeclared and unmarked position” (Knowles, 8). Therefore, it is argued that ‘whiteness’ in postcolonial terms is just a concept, not a real thing or referring to a specific ethnicity, however it can still be seen in the context of who is considered an ‘expat’ or not.

A British website that encourages its users to come up with the funniest possible definitions for words, Uncyclopedia, actually presents some useful information on how the words ‘expat’ and ‘immigrant’ are viewed and used, even if it is used in a joking context and meant to be exaggerated. In discussing the ‘expat’ vs ‘immigrant’ label, the article states that the difference in ‘expat’ and ‘immigrant is that “an Expat is cool and rich whereas an immigrant is some poor person moving to a rich country to steal low paying jobs from honest folks” (Expatriate Uncyclopedia). The surprising thing is how many people actually embrace this view. Immigrants are looked down upon and thought to be a problem because they supposedly take jobs from native-born, hard-working people. However, when an expat is sent to another country to work there by their corporation, it is apparent that the company probably did not try to find a native-born person to take the job before looking elsewhere for someone to bring in. In this way, expats also take possible jobs from people who live in these countries, but are not generally viewed with this negative connotation.

It is clear that the word ‘immigrant’ comes with negative implications, and the word ‘expat’ comes with supposedly positive ones. It is evident from the debates over immigration policy that many people from ‘Western’ countries view immigrants as unhelpful, unskilled, and a burden. However, ‘expats’ around the world are viewed as having “skills that contribute to receiving countries and place no burden on host countries” (Knowles). Therefore, it can be concluded that a common belief is that immigrants take jobs and expats create them, or only take jobs that nobody else is skilled enough to do. Also, others traveling to the ‘West’ to live are seen as a problem, whereas ‘Western’ people traveling to other countries are seen as charitable or helpful to that country. This belief is based on factors such as socioeconomic and political conditions of one’s home country versus the country one is moving to (Knowles).

Many bloggers insist that people born in the ‘West’ feel as if their country should be reserved only for native-born people. Some bloggers rightly assert that there is hypocrisy in the idea that immigrants are unwanted in the ‘West’ but many ‘Westerners’ are immigrants themselves in other countries. One blogger, having a conversation with a British ‘expat,’ claims this man “told me how he hated immigrants and wished they would all bugger off to where they came from,” even though this man was on a cruise ship coming back from living in the Caribbean. This blogger, who seems to have a lot of contact with Britons, also states that many people hate being called immigrants because they contribute to their new country and are not “job-seeking flotsam” as he claims many expats believe (Deo). While many non-expats criticize the usage of the word, one blogger states that “people in the expat community, however, seem to use the word as a badge of honor rather than seeing the negative impression of it” (Caitlin). These statements are very illuminating as they demonstrate how one person, if not many, view immigrants, or anyone else for that matter, in relation to themselves as expats.

There is one more factor that is necessary to discuss in the labeling of an ‘expat’ or ‘immigrant’—assimilation into the new culture. Since ‘expats’ usually do not plan on staying long and often have a superior attitude, many do not bother learning the language or anything about their host country; however, immigrants are expected to learn the new language and conform to the new social customs. These processes of “transmission and accumulation are uneven” (Knowles). Emily Prucha, a blogger who focuses on bilingual and multicultural families living abroad, writes that ‘expats’ network and make friends in a very different way than immigrants or even common tourists. She also claims that there are “cohesive communities” of expats who keep to themselves, only visit ‘expat’ bars, and only socialize with other ‘expats’ (Prucha). There are also various websites for expats to come together to share their feelings and make friends online so they do not have to put  as much effort into getting to know people from the new country. Although immigrants might live in a community with people who share their ethnicity as expats often do, there are not accessible and far-reaching resources for them to discuss their experiences or make friends as there are for expats.

The more recent usage of the word ‘expat’ in British contexts demonstrates many cultural values and beliefs. The labeling of a person as an ‘expat’ or an ‘immigrant’ comes with positive and negative implications, as cultural views and stereotypes are ingrained in this labeling. Therefore, the words are used in a way to purposefully include or exclude groups of people, and distinguish someone as being high or low class, and a problem or an asset. So, are you an expat? There seems to be a choice, at least for some people such as wealthy ‘Westerners,’ to call themselves expats or not, but many people, such as immigrants, are stuck with the labels they are given.


“Are You an Expat or an Immigrant and Does It Really Matter?” Shelter Offshore. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2014. <http://www.shelteroffshore.com/index.php/living/more/expat-or-immigrant-does-it-matter-11011&gt;.

Caitlin. “Thoughts on the Word “Expat”” A Rant A Rave and a Little Bit of Everyday Life. N.p., 23 Apr. 2013. Web. 1 Nov. 2014. <http://ktayd13.wordpress.com/2013/04/23/wordexpat/&gt;.

“Definition of “expat”” Collins Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2014. <http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/expat&gt;

Deo, Ritwik. “The British Abroad: Expats, Not Immigrants.” The Guardian. Guardian News, 9 July 2012. Web. 27 Oct. 2014. <http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/jul/09/ british-abroad-expats-immigrants-indians>.

Prucha, Emily. “”Expat” – a Dirty Word.” Prague Monitor. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2014. <http://praguemonitor.com/2010/09/17/expat-%E2%80%93-dirty-word&gt;.

“Expat.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper. 1 Nov. 2014. < http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/expat&gt;.

“Expat, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 1 November 2014. <http://www.oed.com.proxy.lib.wayne.edu/view/Entry/66438?redirectedFrom=expat&&gt;

“”Expatriate”” Expat Woman. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2014. <http://www.expatwoman.com/global/features_define_expatriate_13846.aspx&gt;.

“Expatriate.” Oxford Dictionaries. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2014. <http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/expatriate&gt;.

“Expatriate.” Uncyclopedia. N.p., 1 Oct. 2014. Web. 28 Oct. 2014. <http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/Expatriate&gt;.

“Expatriate, v.” Oxford English Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2014. <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/66445?rskey=Bb91Qy&result=2&isAdvanced=false#eid&gt;.

Google Ngram Viewer. https://books.google.com/ngrams.

“Immigrant.” Merriam-Webster. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2014. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/immigrant&gt;.

Knowles, Caroline. “‘It’s Not What It Was’: British Migrants in Postcolonial Hong Kong.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (2007): n. pag. Oct. 2007. Web. 25 Oct. 2014. <https://www.gold.ac.uk/media/its-not-what-it-was.pdf&gt;.

Leonard, Pauline. Expatriate Identities in Postcolonial Organizations Working Whiteness. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010. Print.

Matanle, Peter. “Expatriate Games.” The Guardian. Guardian News, 11 Apr. 2011. Web. 27 Oct. <http://www.theguardian.com/media/mind-your-language/2011/apr/11/mind-your-language-expat-brits&gt;.

Mark. “Who Is an Expat?” TheNextRoad. N.p., 6 Oct. 2014. Web. 27 Oct. 2014. <http://www.thenextroad.com/expat/&gt;.

O’Connor, Patricia, and Stewart Kellerman. “Is “expat” Domesticated?”Grammarphobia. N.p., Web. 29 Oct. 2014. <http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2014/03/expat.html&gt;.


Lexiculture Papers, vol. 2

At long last, I am pleased to announce the forthcoming publication of nine new essays in the Lexiculture Project, my collection of undergraduate research papers on the history and cultural complexities of individual English words.   These constitute the contributions to the project from the 2014 (!!) edition of the course, long delayed to to editorial sloth, and will constitute Volume 2 of the series, with Volume 3 to follow in the summer.   Rather than publish these all at once, I’ll be publishing them one at a time, every Wednesday for the next nine weeks, clearly indicated with authorship, and including a link to the PDF version of the article for download as well as the HTML version.  When they’re all published, all of the links will be permanently archived in the Lexiculture section of the site.  Thanks to my students for their forbearance throughout this process.


Lexiculture: 2014 word list

As I mentioned a couple of months ago, I am doing a new iteration of my Lexiculture Project in my undergraduate linguistic anthropology course, which I ran last year to some success (with eight papers published here online).  Over the next month, each of them will research the history, social context, cultural significance, and transformations of one English word, chosen from the list below.  Today I shared the word list with my students, giving them a couple of days to mull over their choices before the signup goes live, and so, in case you’re interested, here it is!

baby bump
car phone
erectile dysfunction
going steady
Information Superhighway
make out
man cave
red Indian
rock and roll
soccer mom
soul patch
suntan lotion
ye olde

Lexiculture: vanilla

Cecilia Murrell-Harvey

Wayne State University

Cite as:  Murrell-Harvey, Cecilia. 2014.  Vanilla.  Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 1, article 8. https://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/vanilla.pdf

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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Vanilla is a word that I thought at one point, was simply the name of a plant species. I knew the extract of the vanilla plant was used for numerous reasons like flavoring my lip balm, adding depth and dimension to perfume, and making chocolate chip cookies taste better. However as I began my research it became evident that vanilla stands to mean so much more than just a type of plant species. It has shifted from being understood as a description of an actual flavor, to meaning plain or boring, usually not in reference to flavor at all. I first became aware of vanilla meaning more when I asked my sorority sisters what they thought of when I said the word “vanilla.” Most of the sorority members had similar thoughts to mine about vanilla, but one specific sorority sister had a different take on it. Her first response was “Vanilla men are alright, but I think you need some chocolate in your life.”  This was the beginning of my realization that vanilla is used as a descriptive word in different settings amongst people. Vanilla has shifted to mean plain or boring in some settings, when in all actuality, it is a plant with a vey strong flavor and smell. The difference between what vanilla is literally and what it has become to mean in various social cultures has led my research to figure out why this divergence from vanilla in a literal sense has happened.

Vanilla is descended from the Spanish word vainilla, or “vanilla plant,” which literally means, “little pod.” Spanish settlers discovered the plant in the 1500’s upon landing in southeastern Mexico and named it from the shape of the pods. Vainilla is diminutive of vaina, or “sheath,” which comes from the Latin word for sheath, vagina (www.etymonline.com).  Vanilla has come a long way from it literal meaning, to its metaphorical meaning of describing something as plain or boring.

Most of the entries in the Oxford English Dictionary match the so-called “typical” and literal meaning of vanilla. The first few entries describe vanilla as “ a pod produced by one or other species of the genus Vanilla…” or “the climbing orchid Vanilla planifolia, or other species related to this; the tropical (American) genus to which these belong.” These definitions were used in written context as early as the 1600’s.  The OED does not document vanilla as “plain, basic, conventional; (esp. of a computer, program, or other product) having no interesting or unusual feature; safe, unadventurous,” until the 1970’s. Even though the OED doesn’t list vanilla being used in a different cultural sense until the 1970’s, there is evidence of it being used in a manner not describing flavor as early as the 1940’s.

A LIFE magazine article from 1942 provides an example of vanilla being used to describe something other than flavor. The article was titled “Willkie Evolves a Plain Vanilla Foreign Policy for Republicans,” (36). It is important to realize that the phrase “plain vanilla” is being used in a very popular magazine that denotes and captures much of what is going on in the world and also popular American culture. The phrase “plain vanilla” would not have been chosen if the readers of the magazine were not familiar with the descriptive choice of words.  It can be inferred that vanilla began to shift from a description of an actual flavor to something meaning plain or boring before the 1940s.

As mentioned earlier, the Oxford English Dictionary does not note vanilla taking on a meaning to describe things as plain or boring until the 1970’s.  This “new” meaning of vanilla is stated within the 1997 draft additions: “used orig. with reference to sexual activity (esp. in vanilla sex).” Most of the examples that the OED lists are all describing something sexual like “vanilla bar, a gay bar that is not SM” (Rodgers, 184), which happens to be pulled from Queens’ Vernacular, a dictionary defining gay slang from the 1970’s. It is interesting to note that most of the OED quotes pertaining to “plain” or “ordinary” are in reference to gay and lesbian sexual behaviors. The Ngram (shown below) for vanilla shows a definite increase of vanilla being used in printed text through the 1970’s, which happens to be a big period for gay rights. Such a significant increase of the word vanilla in the 1970’s brings me to wonder the correlation between vanilla and the culture of the time and how it is used.


The 1970’s were a monumental time period for homosexual people (who are also referred to as the LGBT community). Prior to the 1970’s, people who identified as homosexual were penalized and treated differently (Cruikshank, 2). This was a decade where movements for gay rights really took off. More and more individuals were open about their sexual preference and really pushed for equality amongst society.  This was a period that included the first official gay pride parade (June 28, 1970) and when the American Psychiatric Association voted to not consider homosexuality a mental illness in 1973 (www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/timeline/stonewall/).  These events were spurred because society was attempting to accept a new culture being brought into the mix.

The continuing openness of the LGBT community not only brought about the need for different cultural and political events, but also created a new social scene. As it was noted earlier, there is a text sample of vanilla being used to describe a gay bar that is not SM (Rodgers, 184).  SM refers to “sado-masochism, a combination of the words sadism, meaning to take pleasure in inflicting pain on others, and masochism, to take pleasure in pain inflicted on you,” as an eloquent entry on Urban Dictionary puts it. Wayne Dynes also uses vanilla in a similar fashion in Homolexis when describing SM aficionados who “dismiss gays of simpler tastes as mere fluffs, who limit themselves to timid exercises in vanilla sex” (Dynes, 123). The LGBT community uses the standardized meaning of vanilla to describe sex or gathering places as plain or boring. One of the many possible reasons the LGBT community probably used vanilla as their choice description is because it seemed innocent. The homosexual community was already, and continues, to face much hostility from general society. Why would they use a descriptive word that would only draw more negative attention to their personal lives? Also, vanilla was and is probably used amongst the LGBT community because it had already been standardized by American society. As it was discussed earlier, people began to standardize vanilla to mean plain or boring since before the 1940’s.  It would only make sense for the LGBT community to use a descriptive word that is already common amongst the society they are attempting to be equal members of.

The LGBT community circa the 1970’s and present day, is not exclusive in using vanilla as a description for sex. The Urban Dictionary has numerous current entries for vanilla, one example from 2003 being: “straight down the line, boring sex…” This entry is non-specific in regards to the word being used in a homosexual content. Both homosexual and heterosexual individuals probably use vanilla to describe sex for similar reasons mentioned before, like it seeming innocent and already being standardized. I would even go far as to say that some individuals might use vanilla to describe his or her sexual encounter, to seem polite. Some individuals may consider “boring” or “plain” as an insult, where saying the sex was “vanilla” at least makes it sound interesting and neither good or bad, just average.

The meaning of vanilla has expanded tremendously since the 1500’s, even beyond its adaptation to being a description for something plain or boring. Vanilla is even used to describe racial differences. The title of a research article discussing the shift of white individuals moving from the highly African American populated Detroit, to suburbs around the city says it all: “Chocolate City, Vanilla Suburbs: Will the Trend toward Racially Separate Communities Continue?” (Bianchi, Colasanto, Farley, Hatchett, Schuman, pg. 1).  The classification of individuals based on race, seems to be a perpetual occurrence. Since Europeans first settled America, there has been segregation amongst peoples of different skin color. It seems society establishes differences amongst groups of people at all points of American history.

It is interesting to note that the “pod-like” plant for which Vanilla originally got its name from is not white in color, yet people choose to use vanilla as word to describe white skin tones. Yes the blossom of the plant is white in color, but the actual appearance for which Vanilla is named, is not white. Nor, is the extract that most people are familiar with.  The eventual standardization of a word leaves society with uneducated members; people do not realize the knowledge behind the words they speak, that make up their languages. This exemplifies how disassociated people are with the goods they are consuming. Our consumer driven economy leads to a society potentially not ever knowing what the original form of a resource or word they use every day.

Vanilla continues to be used in numerous social settings to describe things as plain or boring due to its standardization in America. The word vanilla has even made its way into the world of business. The phrase “plain vanilla bond” is used to describe a United States issued bond that has “ (a) a fixed date (maturity or expiry date) when the amount borrowed (the principal or face value) is due, and (b) the contractual amount of interest which typically is paid every six months in the US and once a year on the European continent” (bizterms.net).  “Plain vanilla” used on its own, refers to a swap or derivative financial instrument that is issued with standard features (bizterms.net). It seems like vanilla is used in a way to make financial deals seem more approachable or safe. I think this is very representative of the financial burdens our society has gone through. America has had 2 stock market crashes, both ending with our economy struggling to get back on its feet. People who witnessed these crashes are probably more likely to invest in something labeled “vanilla” or low risk, because they have less to lose. On the other end of it, businessmen see these “vanilla” investments as boring, because they would rather be dealing with higher-risk financial deals to turn more of a profit. Regardless, the head businessmen of the finance and business departments recognize that they need to somehow appeal to a society that has been hurt economically before.

We are well into the 21st century, and vanilla still continues to be chosen as a descriptive word for even potential significant discoveries in the field of physics. Physicists had thought they had discovered a boson particle, but it turned out to be “pretty vanilla” (http://io9.com/).  Basically the physicists were not impressed with the final results of a test, deeming it a boring, or “vanilla,” particle in their world of physics.

I never realized a word as simple as vanilla could be used in so many different contexts. Since its first debut in the 1500’s, vanilla has underwent a major shift in meaning, from something that describes a flavor to something that describes a color or means boring, plain, or standard. The development of vanilla has shown that “the longer a word is embedded in the language, the more likely it is to develop transferred or figurative uses… “(Knowles, 135). The different uses of the word vanilla have shown insight into the different contexts it was and continues to be used in.

I now better understand the statement: “vanilla men are alright, but I think you need some chocolate in your life,” from my sorority sister when I asked about the word vanilla. I understand now that vanilla is used in so many ways because of the standardization our society places upon vanilla, and among other words too. I now question what other words have a similar history like vanilla. I think it is important to note also, that all of this information pertaining to the definition of vanilla is strictly based in the United States. It would be beneficial to find any differences the word might have in other nations. Obviously not every nation has the same cultural history, so it is very possible that vanilla could have diverged from its original meaning in a completely different way. People in China may not have a clue what someone from America is talking about when they talk about a “vanilla” course at school.  I think a shift in meaning of different words like vanilla, is unavoidable. Like William Safire wrote in his article, On Language: Forewords March:  “Here, then, is a word coming to mean in slang the opposite of its standard meaning. Farewell, tasty vanilla.”


Bizterms.net. Web. 13 Nov. 2013. <bizterms.net>.

Cruikshank, Margaret. The Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement. N.p.: Pyschological Press, 1992. 1-27. Web. 12 Nov. 2013. <http://books.google.com/books?id=iVJ1TtTjXOcC&dq=homosexual+movement+1970’s&lr=&source=gbs_navlinks_s&gt;.

Knowles, Elizabeth. How to Read a Word. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 62-135. Print.

Farley, Reynolds, Howard Schuman, Suzanne Bianchi, Diane Colastano, and Shirley Hatchett. “Chocolate City, Vanilla Suburbs:” Will the Trend toward Racially Separate Communities Continue?” Social Science Research . Web. 12 Nov. 2013. <http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/22472/0000013.pdf?sequence=1&gt;.

 Hershey’s. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Nov. 2013. <http://www.hersheys.com/our-story.aspx#/the-man&gt;.

Online Etymology Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2013. <http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=vanilla&allowed_in_frame=0&gt;.

Oxford English Dictionary . N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2013.

Rodgers, Bruce. The Queens’ Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon. N.p.: Straight Arrow Books, 1972. 100-84. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.

Safire, William. “On Language; Forewords March.” New York Times 3 Nov. 1985. Web. 11 Nov. 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/1985/11/03/magazine/on-language-forewords-march.html&gt;.

Timeline: Milestones in the American Gay Rights Movement. Web. 8 Nov. 2013. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/timeline/stonewall/

“Willkie Evolves a Plain Vanilla Foreign Policy for Republicans.” LIFE 19 Oct. 1942: 35 -36. Web. 8 Nov. 2013. <http://books.google.com/books?id=UUEEAAAAMBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false&gt;.

Urban Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Nov. 2013. <http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=vanilla&gt;.

U.S. History. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2013. <http://www.ushistory.org/&gt;

Lexiculture: ratchet

Jessica Hurst

Wayne State University

Cite as:  Hurst, Jessica. 2014.  Ratchet.  Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 1, article 7. https://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/ratchet.pdf

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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Ratchet:  it’s what Miley Cyrus was trying to be when she wagged her booty all over the stage during this summer’s Video Music Awards. Ratchet, a slang term, is loaded with nuance and entrenched in racial and feminist commentary. Ratchet first appeared in rap music in the late 90’s. Rapper Anthony Mandigo, of Shreveport, Louisiana is often credited with being the first to record a song-using ratchet as slang. From here, the word took off; Mandigo’s song was later recorded by a more popular rap artist, and since has made its way into pop culture through music and other media sources (Ortved).

So what does ratchet mean? Defining it can be a little tricky, as the term has made its rounds in the spotlight; it has taken on different shades of meaning. To some, ratchet is only negative.  To others, when used in a different context it can also mean something that isn’t entirely negative. Some reserve the term for women only, while others use it in a more all-encompassing way. Ratchet is used in a similar sense of words like ghetto and hood-rat, while also taking on characteristics of words like bitch and slut.

The meaning of the word ratchet diverges based on which speech community is using it. The first recorded definition of ratchet is as follows, “1. To be ghetto, real, gutter, nasty. 2. It’s whatever, bout it, etc.” (Ortved). Since this definition was written in 1999, ratchet has become a more and more widely used slang term, and as with any piece of language, it has continued to change over time. As we continue, we will explore how the use of the word ratchet has changed over time as it has taken on popular usage, and analyze how this word is used by speech communities to have both negative and positive connotations.

Most recently, the word ratchet has caught the attention of many people because of the antics of pop star Miley Cyrus. To understand what Miley, a former Disney Star, and daughter of country music singer Billy Ray Cyrus has to do with a slang term originating in southern rap scene, we must discuss her preoccupation with African American culture. Miley has been getting a lot of attention in the media for her cringe worthy quotes. Referencing her new album she said, “’I want urban, I just want something that just feels Black.’”(Platon).  She has also had questionable performances such as in her VMA appearance this summer. Many are up in arms about Miley’s selective and flippant use of ratchet culture as cultural exploitation.

As is pointed out in a Jezebel article by Doadi Stewart, there is not a problem between the exchanges of ideas between cultures. In fact, this is an inherent part of what happens whenever different cultures interact with each other; however, what Cyrus is doing is appropriating the ratchet culture, her particular brand of appropriation is considered by some to be cultural exploitation. Cultural exploitation is when a dominant culture appropriates elements of a subordinated culture in a way that treats it as a resource to be mined (Rogers, 486). It is important to note that appropriation in its essence is not determined by the intentions of those involved such as Miley, but instead by the social, economic, and political environment in which they occur (Rogers, 476). This means that culture politics and power relations matter very much when discussing the phenomenon around Cyrus, as this is the primary way one can categorize cultural appropriation.

So what does Miley’s portrayal of ratchet culture have to do with the overall perception of this word? A whole lot. In the 90’s, a similar word to ghetto similar to ratchet became very popular. Ghetto came into the everyday lexicon, and the word hit such a peak that it could be used to describe anything from a girl’s butt, to a broken blender (Bowen). Ghetto aesthetics became so visible in pop culture the girls on Sex and the City could be seen wearing ghetto inspired styles and accessories (Stewart).

Ratchet is going in the same direction; it is becoming a blanket term for, “all things associated with the linguistic, stylistic, and cultural practices, witnessed or otherwise, of poor people; specifically poor people of color, and more specifically poor women of color.” (Bowen). It is easy to be like Miley and borrow from the experiences of others, while discarding anything that may be unpleasant about it. Being ratchet is cool for play, not as a valid cultural practice from learned experience, that is the message Cyrus is sending (Stewart). Being thrust into more popular culture has turned ratchet from a nuanced term, to a blanket term, the original meaning discarded in popular culture for a more watered down, less sophisticated and offensive version of itself.

Ratchet originally appeared in a rap by artist Anthony Mandigo. His single, “Do tha Ratchet” was first released in 1999 (Ortved). When his rap was first recorded, it was not a particularly popular song.  People from Mandigo’s locale of Shreveport, in northern Louisiana had heard it; its popularity did not stretch much further than that. It wasn’t until five years later in 2004 when Mandigo collaborated with rapper Lil’ Boosie to produce a new version of, “Do tha Ratchet”, that the song came into wider play (Latin Rap). This later version of the song has an accompanying music video. In the music video clubbers are filmed doing the ratchet, a dance that goes with the song. While Mandigo states he got the word ratchet from his grandmother, he does not provide details on the context (Ortved). The dance however, many people point out, is akin to the movement of that socket wrench makes (Latin Rap). In this way, the word has a double meaning. When used as a verb, it is describing a dance move. For example, “I’m not very good at doing the ratchet, could you teach me how?” This usage of the word is not in flux, when used as a verb ratchet has a very straightforward meaning. It is when ratchet is used as an adjective that things get more complex. Today, most nouns can be described as ratchet. It is the development of ratchet as an adjective that has continued to change as it passes into greater usage.

When the term was first coined, it was supposed to be a word for just getting loose, and being silly. It was used to describe mainly what people did when they go to the club; dance, drink, be high energy, let loose and have a good time (Porter). This original meaning is pretty harmless. It was just a slang word used to describe partying in a small speech community in Louisiana. Earl Williams, producer of Lil’ Boosie’s version of, “Do tha Ratchet” suggests that it is tied to a proud working class mentality of being real, and unapologetically what you are (Ortved). It may not have been the original intention; however ratchet came to embody of a way of life for some in working class Louisiana.  Not something negative, just a way of saying, “I’m proud of what I am, I work hard to get by, now let’s get stupid and let off some steam.”

Southern native, and radio host Charlamagne sees ratchet in this way. He describes being ratchet as being young, wild, and free, letting loose. Charlamagne sees ratchet as having two forms, intelligent ratchetness, and ignorant ratchetness (The Root). The difference between the two can be very subtle.  Intelligent ratchetness still conveys the mentality of going hard. Ignorant ratchetness adds a level of negativity, such as a person who makes reckless or poor decisions, does things that are unsafe, or in poor taste. Filmmaker, and creator of Ratchetpiece Theatre, Issa Rae describes the difference as this, “Ratchet is a word that was intended to describe someone who is “all the way turnt up,” “buck,” “crunk,” or “hyphy”. It’s now plumbing the depths of “Hood Gone Wild” (The Root). It is this change in meaning, the turn away from intelligent ratchetness that has swung the word into a negative direction.

As ratchet left its original speech community and was introduced to a larger audience, the meaning began to change. Hurricane Chris, a local rapper from Northern Louisiana, was the first from the speech community using ratchet to reach a large audience with music using the term. Hurricane Chris was signed to a nationally known record label where he released a hit called, “Ay Bey Bey” which reached #7 on the US Billboard Hot 100 charts (The Root). This hit was released on his album 51/50 Ratchet, the remix for the song “Ay Bey Bey” is titled, “The Ratchet Remix”, and includes Lil’ Boosie as one of the collaborators. On his journey to becoming a nationally known presence on the hip-hop scene, Hurricane Chris brought the word ratchet along with him. In his remix for the song, “Ay Bey Bey” Hurricane Chris, Lil’ Boosie, and the other collaborators do a good job of representing ratchet without being negative. They merely rap about representing Shreveport, having a good time at the club, and being known in the club and hip-hop scene.  After the success of this song, and Hurricane Chris, ratchet had officially arrived on the hip-hop scene, and in the lexicon of many new users.

As ratchet gained popularity in hip-hop, it became commodified. Those who used it were not longer in tune with the roots of the word, or had an understanding of how it came to be in hip-hop culture, and what that meant. The form of ratchet that came into popular use is the one described by radio host Charlamagne as ignorant ratchetness. One of the more well-known takes on this form of ratchet is a spoof music video created by Emmanuel and Phillip Hudson called, “Ratchet Girl Anthem”. In their music video for the song Emmanuel and Phillip both dress up as, “ratchet women” on the club scene and rap about the ignorant and loose behaviors these types of women exhibit when they are out on the town (Hudson, Hudson). In their song, they describe ratchet girls as those who, “Carry outdated flip phones, go clubbing while pregnant, and try to punch other women in the face. “Ratchet is basically a lack of home training — being out in public and acting like you don’t have any sense,” (Ortved). While Emmanuel and Phillip’s song is just a parody, their descriptions bring to light the way the word ratchet is being thrown around in pop culture, and by popular artists.

Today, artists who represent the, “Ratchet Movement”, or ratchet music scene do not even always do Shreveport the honor or representing the root of ratchet. In fact, some even have begun to claim ratchet as their own word, and their own movement (Geezy). Dj Mustard, who is the producer of many club hits such as, YG’s, “B**ches Aint Shit”, and Tyga’s “Rack City” has claimed to be behind the ratchet sound. As ratchet has reached a new level of popularity, people such as DJ Mustard have been able to claim the word as their own. Those who do, don’t necessarily understand, or represent ratchet as Mandigo or Lil’ Boosie would have liked. They associated the term ratchet with pride from the place they had come from, as well as their penchant to have fun. Producers such as DJ Mustard have taken ratchet the, “Hood Gone Wild” level that filmmaker Issa Rae discusses. Mustard associated the, “ratchet movement” with artists from the west coast who are making party music (Geezy). The problem with this newer claim to the ratchet movement is not just the fact that this is not how the word was originally intended, but the fact that it has now acquired a more derogatory meaning.

Ratchet music is known today in popular culture as music that has vulgar and outrageous lyrics (Nathan). These lyrics are also often degrading towards women. The word ratchet is being used to describe things such as a woman’s genitalia, as in the Juicy J song, “Bandz That Make Her Dance”:

“She got friends, bring three, I got drugs, I got drinks
Bend it over, Juicy J gon’ poke it like wet paint
You say no to ratchet pussy; Juicy J can’t
Racks er’where, they showin’ racks, I’m throwing racks.”
-Juicy J (Prod. Mike WiLL Made-It)

In this song, rapper Juicy J is insinuating that ratchet women are attracted to a man who has drugs, booze, and money to spend at the club. This is not a very attractive portrait of a woman. Juicy J seems to realize this, stating that, “you say no to ratchet pussy; Juicy J can’t.” He sees that the appeal of ratchet women is not universal, but he finds something appealing about a woman who is attracted to and is down for a party.  The song “Bandz”, by Juicy J, is a prime example of how the word ratchet has been twisted in the spotlight.

This brand of ratchetness has also been exploited on shows such as, “The Real Housewives of Atlanta”, and “Flavor of Love”. Both shows highlight behavior between women that is uncouth, baiting the women into drama for television ratings. Women in these shows have been depicted as women that do not have moral and professional compasses (Jackson). It is these types of images that are getting the most radio and television play representing ratchet.

While ratchet may have reached a level of distaste and offensiveness in the public eye, it has not gone without notice. Movements such as writer Michaela Angela Davis’, “Bury the Ratchet” are taking a stand against this negativity towards women in the media. The aim of her campaign is to transform the ideologies that are being associated with the word ratchet (Membis). She considers herself an image activist, one who draws attention to the inequalities in image and works to correct them. Davis hopes that her campaign will spark a conversation among young women who are caught up in the ratchet image that in popular culture. Davis’ campaign seeks to reclaim the word ratchet, to highlight the success of women, rather than the negative stereotypes.

Davis’s campaign is not the only push back is popular media against the ratchet craze. Jay-Z, long time respected hip-hop artist has commented on the course ratchet has taken on his newest album, “Magna Carta Holy Grail”. In his song, “Somewhereinamerica” Jay-Z raps,

“They see I’m still putting work in
Cause somewhere in America
Miley Cyrus is still twerkin’


Twerk, twerk (Miley, Miley)
Only in America”


Jay-Z’s commentary may be more subtle than Davis’s Bury the Ratchet campaign, but the message is no less clear. He, as a major player on the hip-hop scene sees what is happening here. There are women, such as Miley Cyrus who are willing in ignorance to represent a negative image of women to earn money.  What’s worse is the image she is appropriating is from a culture that she is uneducated about and she does not respect in her public productions. Jay-Z rarely praises white women in his music as many other on the hip-hop scene do. In this way, it is obvious to those who are familiar the hip-hop scene that he is calling out Miley and those who are like her for misrepresenting, and profiting from this bastardized version of ratchet culture (Viera).

Fame really hasn’t been good to ratchet. While it was originally just a harmless slang term in hip-hop, just as, “jiggy” was for Will Smith, popularity left ratchet with a much less attractive image. Ratchet went through many changes as it climbed to fame. Beginning in Shreveport, Louisiana, ratchet was just a term for partying hard. As the public caught hold, it came to mean so much more, a music movement, a distasteful act, or most troubling, a distasteful woman. While ratchet is no longer contained by its original speech community, at least there are some who recognize where it came from.


Bowen, Sesali. “Let’s Get Ratchet! Check Your Privilege at the Door.” Feministing. N.p., 28 Mar. 2013.

Geezy, Nicky. “DJ Mustard Talks Ratchet Movement.” Sway’s Universe. MTV Music, 21 Apr. 2012.

Hudson, Phillip, and Emmanuel Hudson. “Ratchet Girl Anthem (SHE RACHEEET!).” You Tube. N.p., 16 Jan. 2012.

Jackson, Jenn M. “Michaela Angela Davis Gives Us “Bury the Ratchet”.” The Worth Campaign. N.p., 7 May 2013.

Latin Rap. “Ratchet Does Not Come from Wretched – Slang Word Origin History – See More At: Http://latinrapper.com/blogs/?p=8810#sthash.ItZRzsAu.dpuf.” Latin Rapper. N.p., 29 Sept. 2013.

Membis, Laine. “It’s Time to Bury the Ratchet.” Clutch Magazine Online. N.p., 10 Dec. 2012.

Nathan, Anthony. “‘Ratchet’ Is the New Fad in Rap Music.” The State Hornet. Sacramento State University, 20 Feb. 2013.

Ortved, John. “Ratchet: The Rap Insult That Became a Compliment.” New York Magazine. New York Media LLC., 11 Apr. 2013.

Platon, Adelle. “Miley Cyrus Asked For A ‘Black’ Sound For Single, Says Songwriters Rock City.” Vibe. Spin Media, 12 June 2013.

Porter, Terrance. “Let’s Get Ratchet: The Origin Of Ratchetness.” Nappy Afro. N.p., 23 May 2012.

Rogers, Richard A. “From Cultural Exchange To Transculturation: A Review And Reconceptualization Of Cultural Appropriation.” Communication Theory (10503293) 16.4 (2006): 474-503.

The Root. “The Origin Of The Word Ratchet : The Word Is the New “ghetto,” and It’s Everywhere.” Dallas Black. Washington Post Company, 16 Oct. 2012.

Viera, Bené. “Miley Cyrus and the Obsession with ‘ratchet Culture’.” The Grio. MSNBC, 13 July 2013.

Lexiculture: radical

Mohanned Darwish

Wayne State University

Cite as:  Darwish, Mohanned. 2014.  Radical.  Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 1, article 6. https://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/radical1.pdf

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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I regularly hear, on Arabic and Hebrew political talk shows, the word ‘radicali’, an Arabized/Hebraized form of the English ‘radical’, used in the same context as its English counterpart to refer, more often in a negative sense, to a fringe group/person of an extreme ideology. Arabic and Hebrew are certainly not without native words that carry the same meaning, so why some speakers of these Semitic languages opt to use the loanword instead has been a mystery to me. This made me wonder if the word ‘radical’ carries an intrinsic concept that can only be conveyed if the word itself or an altered form of it is used. Moreover, how did it acquire its negative sociopolitical connotations and maintain them through the many other languages that borrowed the word?

The first step in unraveling this mystery was to consult different English dictionaries. According to the Oxford English Dictionary[1], as a noun, radical has four main, yet very distinct definitions:

  • Politics: ‘is a person who advocates thorough or complete political or social reform; a member of a political party or part of a party pursuing such aims.’
  • Linguistics: ‘Any of the root letters that form a base word.’
  • Chemistry: ‘A group of atoms behaving as a unit in a number of compounds.’
  • Mathematics: ‘a quantity forming or expressed as the root of another.’

All these definitions point to the fact that the radical serves as a basic unit of something bigger and more complex.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary,[2] the etymology of the word comes from Late Latin radicalis, ‘of or having roots,’ from Latin radix ‘root’.

As a political term meaning ‘reformist’, it had first appeared in English in 1802 as a noun and in 1817 as an adjective. This came as no surprise to me since this semantic shift had occurred during a period riddled with revolutions and social change. The 18th century came to an end with the conclusion of the French Revolution, a decade of radical social and political upheaval in France, and the 19th century began with a rise in German nationalism, which fuelled the road to German unification and statehood.

In its political context, the idea of “radical” essentially starts with the French Revolution, which gave birth to the tripartite idea of “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” From this beginning, the radical idea spread to the east through several iterations. Put differently, the radical idea was met by the counterforce of “reaction,” creating wars and revolutions that, it can be argued, continue to this day. It is worth recalling that many radicals, including Robespierre, who was the preeminent exponent of the “virtue” of revolutionary terror, was himself sent to the guillotine. Additionally, Napoleon used the French Army to fire on the radical Parisian mob. This “whiff of grapeshot,” as many historians call it, effectively ended the French Revolution, and after Napoleon’s empire was destroyed, the French Monarchy was restored.

The pendulum swinging towards and away from radicalism never rests. Further revolutions occurred in France and in central and eastern Europe. The “bourgeoisie monarchy” of Louis Philippe was put into power by one revolution in 1830 and ended by another in 1848. It is that revolution of 1848, derided by the historian Lewis Namier as the revolution of the intellectuals, which showed, if further proof was needed, that ideas (radical ideas especially) divorced from power of arms are worthless. Or are they? The picture is far from static.

The Paris Commune of 1871, in the wake of a bitter and humiliating defeat in foreign war, delivered power into revolutionary hands of a Paris under siege and facing starvation. Radicals ruled, and it was a very bloody affair. And yet, it was the idea of the Paris Commune that fired the minds of the radicals in the Russian Revolutionary movement. Whereas it can be said that the French Revolution was more or less “spontaneous,” its Russian counterpart was probably the most anticipated event of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Lenin, after taking power and feeling his hold on it tenuous, counted the days in the hope of achieving and then surpassing the tenure of the Paris Commune. What Lenin ensured at the same time was the use of revolutionary terror to maintain his grip on the state. Proponents of radical policies have not forgotten this lesson in the past 100 years.

The word’s negative connotation is also connected to the Progressive Movement that began in the 19th century, which asserted that advances in science, technology, economic development, and social organization can improve the human condition. Since progression entails refining our ideas about a particular subject matter, the more we progress in this regard, the less ‘root’ ideas become pertinent to our existing state of affairs. So by virtue of this, when one continues to adhere to what becomes regarded as rudimentary, that is, the ‘root’ ideas, one regresses and thus falls out of favor with the status quo.

Though a period of drastic social change is needed as a fertile ground for new ideas to grow, it is only after enough time has elapsed for these new ideas to fully develop that the contrast between ‘rudimentary’ and ‘progressive’ becomes wide enough for “root” ideas to be regarded as extreme. A consultation with Google’s Ngram Viewer[3] best demonstrates that.


It is only after the 20th century that the word ‘radical’ becomes more frequently used and mainly done so with political overtones as seen in the examples of ‘radical change’ and ‘radical reform’. This reflects that time is needed as a catalyst in societies to make more visible, when looked at in retrospect, the chasm between ideas that emerges with any sociopolitical change. Meanwhile, the word’s usage in any other sense declines like in the example of ‘radical cure’.


This phenomenon is also found in other languages, like Hebrew, that use the loanword in the same sense. It is worth mentioning that though the word in Hebrew carries the sociopolitical overtones found in its English equivalent, the factors involved in bringing about this semantic shift in Hebrew-speaking societies came at a later time than in English-speaking ones, hence the word’s frequency in Hebrew not picking up until the 1940s. For the Jewish world, this decade was preceded by a period of intense sociopolitical change that culminated in the formation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the modern Jewish identity that rose out of the ashes of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment movement of the 19th century from which came the founders of the Zionist state. It was then that the Hebraized term was used to distinguish the modern Jew from those refusing to migrate to the Holy Land, choosing instead to live in ghettos around the world. To the modern Jew, these people constituted a fringe group that held on to what is regarded as the ‘roots’ of their religion, which call for them to dissimilate and live in diaspora, a group that was not compatible with the new ideals of the modern Jewish state.


This table from COHA shows the 10 most common ways ‘radical’ as an adjective has been used in American English from 1810-1900.  This indicates that initially the talk about radical change was more of a domestic phenomenon, as it dealt with constitutional change, differences amongst national parties etc. This is best seen in the first American use of radical in a political sense, which dates back to July 1827 and comes from the North American Review[4], the first literary magazine in the United States:


The shift in the word’s usage from a local to a national level came after the Age of Globalization to describe those outside a particular mold who are viewed as a threat. From 1990-2010, ‘radical Islam’ becomes the most frequent use of the adjective, most notably during George Bush’s administration, under which the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq took place. This period also witnessed an increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric from the Republican Party after the September 11 attacks.


Islam in the West, particularly in the United States, is thus perceived as a religion whose core beliefs promote backwardness and justifies violence, or ‘jihad’, against the ‘other’. The term ‘Islamic radicalism’ has been criticized by American orientalists like Bernard Lewis and John Esposito, who regard the expression as an antagonistic misinterpretation of Islam which attempts to denote that violence and backwardness are ‘basic’ attributes of the faith.

On second glance, the word radical seems far more neutral than it had perhaps seemed initially. For example, “radical surgery” to completely remove cancerous tissue, is a very positive usage of the word. In a different fashion, the notion of “radical chic,” as Thomas Wolfe has shown[5], conveys a type of playfulness among the social elite who are prone to dabbling among the fringes of radical politics in a purely vicarious way.

The journalist and social critic, H.L. Mencken, also saw the concept of the political radical in a positive light. He said, “The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naive and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair.”[6]

A variation on this theme centers around the cult of Che Guevara, the Latin American revolutionary, which exists in many academic and other social circles in America today. The community-organizing group, Acorn, virtually worships Che, and Breitbart and O’Keefe found posters of him in many Acorn offices while investigating Obama’s ‘roots.’[7] [8] The relative nature regarding the perception of “radical” is exemplified by the treatment accorded to Guevara. For supporters of revolution, he has become, literally, the poster face for leftist causes. For traditionalists, however, Che represents a self-absorbed destructivism that more than countenances murder.


The word “radical” is more neutral than I had assumed upon starting this project. It is actually a very flexible word that is used in many fields, as noted above. Thus, I have learned that my interpretation of it had been a reflection, quite possibly subconscious, of my own interest in politics, especially with regard to the Middle East, where important political news is made virtually every day and the word “radical” is used predominantly in a very emotionally charged way. However, my newfound realization that the word can also be used in positive contexts shows that many words, and even language itself, says something important about the conditioned nature of all human thought. Indeed, the words we use and the words we hear never exist in a vacuum. By trying to understand the social aspect of language, we understand ourselves better.

Lexiculture: punk

Michael Elster

Wayne State University

Cite as:  Elster, Michael. 2014.  Punk.  Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 1, article 5. https://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/punk.pdf

 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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“‘Punk’ is a totally stupid word and I feel like I should be thrown in music jail for using it…one of the worst things about the word: It’s so fucking broad.” (Dan Ozzi, 2013).

Dan Ozzi, the columnist who wrote the above quote in an article for the blog Noisey, thinks that the word punk is “the grossest word in music” (2013). He says it is too broad, and that it is bordering on meaninglessness. He falls short of saying things like ‘punk used to mean something,’ but the gist of the article is clear: if punk were a word worth using it would point to something more concrete. He is not the only person to share this sentiment. A casual web search of “what is punk?” on Google will result in endless forum threads debating what punk is, whether it is or should be self-defined, or how it is a meaningless catchall category. This raises a few questions. If “punk” really is so broad that it is bordering on meaninglessness, why do people continue to use it, and what do they mean when they use it? Furthermore why do people who think it is meaningless, such as this columnist, have such strong opinions on it? How has punk gone from a generally derogatory word to a rather productive morpheme in cases like the word “steampunk,” “cyberpunk,” or any of the “-punk” musical genres in the late 20th century?

No good punks: origins as a derogatory word

The etymology of punk is unknown, but the historical meanings of it are clear. In the time of Shakespeare it was a synonym for a prostitute. He writes, “She may be a Puncke: for many of them, are neither Maid, Widow, nor Wife” (Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories & tragedies, 1623). In one of the first discernable semantic shifts, punk switched genders and social setting by the early 20th century to mean “a punk’s a boy that’ll…Give himself to a man,” (Berkman, A, Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, 1912). Despite this shift, the old meaning did not fall out of usage, and the Oxford English Dictionary cites usage going up to the 1980’s, but it was very rare to find it in this form. Still, it is clear that the conception of a punk is tied to people who commit sexually deviant acts, male or female. Most of the semantic shifts throughout the 20th century work along these lines: it becomes a derogatory word for homosexual men, whether in a prison setting or not, a word for a tramp’s sexual companion, and eventually just a stand in for “a contemptible person,” according to the OED. The transformation of the word punk to a specific word about people to a word that generally meant ‘bad’ is apparent in print media. “Punk Pitching,” an alliterative way of saying ‘bad pitching,’ appears in a headline from the Oxnard Press Courier from August 31st, 1944 and a similar headline about a “Punk Fight” from 1946 appears in the June 20th Toledo Blade.



While these examples demonstrate some isolated meanings, some uses relied on every meaning of the word punk in order to evoke the image of a totalizing bad rather than a specific instance of it. Another 20th century newspaper article is a good example of all of “punk’s” constituent meanings in one instance. The headline from The Miami News in 1960 reads: “Did Punk Kill Women?” The article describes a possible murder suspect (the punk of the headline) as wearing “tight, worn blue jeans, a leather jacket, leather gloves, pink socks, and dirty white shoes.” It later describes him as “walking in a rather effeminate way.” Not only does it make subtle reference to the potential homosexuality of the “punk,” (since homosexuality was largely associated with acting opposite gendered in the 60s) it also attributes markers of youth culture to “punk.” Based on the description in the paper, the scene could have been a screen shot from a movie with Marlon Brando. Furthermore, the article repeatedly calls the suspect “the youth.” So not only does this particular quote illustrate a combination of femininity, homosexuality, and contemptible qualities, it also adds an association with youth culture. Whoever wrote the headline read the description and thought that “punk” was the best was to imply all of these characteristics. The inclusion of youth culture to the meaning of punk is somewhat new, but it certainly lasted at least into the next decade. To this day Google’s ngram shows words like “young,” and “little” as the two top descriptors of “punk.” “Young” was in the lead up to the 80’s.


Burning Punk

A Google Ngram search for verbs that appear before the word punk essentially lists all possible conjugations of the verb “to be” in the top. In this sense, the verbs “feeling,” “called,” and “feel” all make sense. For most of the 20th century, someone called another person a “punk.” They did not ascribe it to themselves until the association of punk subculture. But one verb in particular that was popular from the 1930’s to 1950’s does not quite fit these definitions: “burning”


The OED lists a second entry for punk as “soft, decayed or rotten wood” that one uses for tinder or to start a fire. One cited usage is “As the East-Indians use Moxa [in blistering], so these [in Virginia] burn with Punk, which is the inward Part of the Excrescence or Exuberance of an Oak.” This citation, from 1687, is contemporaneous with Shakespeare’s usage meaning a prostitute. Although this is a separate entry, looking at the world in total provides a more robust understanding of the word. Uses that the OED cites for either of punk’s entries, whether it refers to gay men, contemptible people, and prostitutes, or subpar wood used for tinder and fires, occur concurrently with one another, and on the whole mean “bad.” However, the additional entry about kindling taken with the connotations of homosexuality in other entries provokes a comparison to another word: faggot.

The connection here is provocative—and may be nothing more than that—but the possible connection seems worth pointing out. Punk could be throwaway, rotten wood, only good for starting fires, or when it was aimed at people it could connote homosexuality, passiveness, contemptibility, or femininity. Both forms of the word existing contemporaneously set up a linguistic structure in which people that are “punk” are akin to the types of wood that are “punk.” That is to say, both words denoted valueless things or people. While I found no data with ambiguous examples of “punk,” where the speaker may have been playing off of either definition, searching for this in particular may help explain why the punk subject became increasingly male in the latter half of the 20th century, and would further an investigation into movements like queercore and riot grrrl that took the punk as a straight male for granted.

It is important to note at this point that punk was not nearly as severe a term as faggot by the 1960s, if ever. In a 1963 edition of The Lewiston Daily Sun, a newspaper from Lewiston, Massachusetts, the editors felt that “punk” was an appropriate word to appear in print. Furthermore, as the article shows, politicians felt it was appropriate to call a colleague a “punk” in public. The above examples are not meant to frame punk as a word that is as direct and violent as the word faggot, nor are they aimed at proving that it is or should be considered as such. They do provide a starting point for more research into more ambiguous uses of the word punk to see if the presence of both definitions ever affected its social meaning, and whether the connection between one definition of “punk” and “faggot” is a coincidence of no consequence for the creation of a punk subject or not.

punk5“Wallace Labeled ‘Punk’ By Morse,” Lewiston Daily Sun, Sep. 5, 1963

Complicating the case for language reclamation

Sometime in the 70’s or possibly the late 60’s, punk underwent another semantic shift. This is when punk became largely associated with a musical genre and its respective subculture. The early citations of this semantic shift seem more or less understandable. L. Bangs, a writer for Creem Magazine describes a band’s music by saying “Man, that is true punk; that is so fucked up it’s got class up the ass,” (1972). Considering the past associations with youth culture in the 60’s and the generally negative connotations, this shift seems like a logical—but still inventive—use. To describe a type of music that was more technically aggressive and vulgar, and to associate it with a rebellious youth culture, people used the term “punk rock.”  There is a degree of linguistic play here. Uses of “punk rock” make sense by the invocation of “punk’s” negative connotations, and this linguistic play ends up being culturally productive. In the late 70’s and early 80’s “punks” become a definitive group in popular culture. Still, the newspaper clipping below from 1977 has the rather looming headline “the punks are coming,” and the clipping from 1980 still conjures up images of the former definition of punk in the way it describes their dress and associates them with violence and negative connotations.

punk6“The Punks are Coming,” The Deserter News, Dec. 31, 1977

punk7“Punk Violence,” The Evening Independent, Jul. 10, 1980

In order to fully investigate the nuance around “punk” and its reclamation, it is worth asking who reclaimed it. At least until 1980, coverage of “punk” or “punks” still evoked images of violent youth and made use of negative connotations that were present in decades earlier. So even though there was a subcultural group using the word as a cultural identity, it is not the case that the meaning simply “flipped.” Most uses in popular media use it as a descriptive word aimed at evoking older negative connotations, not as an identity people are swarming to adopt. Even if headlines using phrases such as “The punks are coming” or articles talking about “punk violence,” are referring to a particular subculture, it is not clear that this is devoid of all the historical social connotations of punks as contemptible people. In some ways one can understand the new uses of “punk” in the 70’s and 80’s to be just another linguistic shift, one that recognizes the appeal or intrigue of danger, badness, and vulgarity.

Looking further into the question of who exactly is reclaiming “punk,” it makes sense to look towards the LGBTQ community, given the word’s historical context. There is no attempt by the LGBTQ community to reclaim “punk” as their own. In fact, the word the LGBTQ community is best known for reclaiming is “queer” (hence the Q). There were certainly allusions to homosexual fetish-culture in punk fashion, even as reported by the media: leather, chains, and bondage pants all conjure images of gay fetish scenes, but there is no clear indication that these fashion styles were inspired by or meant to promote acceptance of non-normative sexualities. Plus, when one considers modern derivatives such as “punk-ass,” that draw very explicit and clear connections to punk’s history as a derogatory term for passive homosexual men, it is clear that despite the reclamation of punk by a subculture, its past meanings still persist, and the latest semantic shift had nothing to do with reclaiming the word for all of the people to which it referred.

Looking to the founders or prominent voices of the subculture can yield a mixed bag of results. The closest the Ramones come to defining punk appears in lyrics to the song “Judy is a Punk.”

Jackie is a punk
Judy is a runt
They both went down to Berlin, joined the Ice Capades
And, oh I don’t know why
(1976, track 3)

This is not exactly an example of clearly defining and owning a subcultural identity. Two years later, the British band Crass had proclaimed punk to be dead:

Yes that’s right, punk is dead,
It’s just another cheap product for the consumers head.
Bubblegum rock on plastic transistors,
Schoolboy sedition backed by big time promoters.
CBS promote the Clash,
But it ain’t for revolution, it’s just for cash.
Punk became a fashion just like hippy used to be
And it ain’t got a thing to do with you or me.

(1978, track 5)

Crass, a band that most would consider a classic anarcho-punk band, were not especially concerned with promoting themselves as punks, favoring instead to declare punk dead. However, the ability to declare it dead does demonstrate some sort of linkage to what punk is supposed to be or what punk was. In this passage it is clear that they equated punk to some sort of anti-capitalist or anti-corporate ethos, but they explicitly exclude the Clash from this definition, a band that is unquestionably a representative the punk subculture.

Rather than providing a clear and cohesive meaning of “punk,” the passage from Crass is an example of a usage of “punk” that aims to establish some sort of cultural identity or boundary. Similarly the publication of the magazine Punk in 1976 showed an intentional effort to align “punk” with a specific subculture. The magazine names the “first punk” as Marlon Brando, a clear reference to an image of youth culture that was imagined as dangerous in the 60’s.


The intriguing thing about this use and its attempt to establish “punk” as a cultural identity by reference to a proverbially ‘primordial’ punk is that it works on images of punks that were prominent decades earlier, such as the news clipping about the dangerous leather-cladded youth. Even in new or different uses of “punk,” all of its cultural connotations present themselves. In this way, the subcultural punk played off of the negative connotations of “punk” in order to produce a new meaning.  Ironically, because of the restrictiveness of the punk subject before the subculture, this new cultural identity was also predominantly straight and male during its subcultural reclamation (something that would become increasingly contested during sub-movements like riot grrrl, queercore, and anarcho-punk). How women punks made a claim to this identity is a provocative question that also escapes the scope of this paper.

So what exactly is it that Dan Ozzi, the columnist from Noisey, so upset about? “Punk” has always had a broad definition, and it has always been tied up in a number of cultural value judgments about people. The shift in the 70’s was originally an inventive descriptor of a new musical trend, and only clearly denoted a specific subculture later. On top of that, this shift did not dissolve the past meanings of the word.

The harsh reaction to punk’s broadness that is apparent in Ozzi’s column, or any number online forums dedicated to punk subculture, or Crass’ declaration that punk is dead, is borne out of an attempt to establish a hold on the cultural capital that punk has as a young, new, and cool cultural category. In earlier instances, such as those in Punk magazine or songs by Crass, setting a descriptive linguistic boundary was a way of establishing an identity that was part of a productive linguistic and cultural process. Ozzi’s column, on the other hand, is an extension of this, but it is a rather reactionary lamentation of the amount of linguistic productivity the word has, if not a call to control or restrict its linguistic productivity. Control or restriction of punk’s meaning would have barred the invention of words like “cyberpunk” and “steampunk.”[1] Both have nothing to do with the original subculture, but they play on connotations of youth-culture, inventiveness, and coolness, all of which are attributed to “punk” because of the subculture of the 70’s and 80’s. One could argue that its productive potential is the most punk thing about “punk.” Given these examples, it is ironic that “punk’s” linguistic productivity is what Ozzi identifies as the undoing of punk subculture. Further, movements within punk have generally condemned the restrictiveness of it, not the openness. The contradiction between needing to establish a cultural boundary and wanting to fall within it is the very thing that kept punk from becoming a simple synonym for rascal.


The word punk has had a colorful past, and it is easy to get lost in all of its constituent meanings, but two things about its social history are clear. The first is that despite its varied uses and meanings, they all worked off of each other and produced connections that reflect the social standing and conception of certain people. The use of punk as a type of throwaway wood, and its use as a derogatory word for a homosexual work in conjunction with dichotomies of morally pure and morally impure, or socially valuable and socially valueless, or dominant and submissive. This paradigm is applicable to any number of other English words. “Black” in comparison to “white,” or “queer” in comparison to “square” or “straight” are all examples of words that could have multiple meanings and interpretations depending on context. On one hand they are simply descriptors, and on the other hand they have implications about the social value of the things or people they describe.

Second, punk’s varied history is one of the main contributors to its productive capabilities. If it really were so broad that it is meaningless, then it would probably fall out of usage. But it is clear that any of the things that are considered “punk” have some sort of criteria that make them so, even if that criterion is confusing by nature of the word’s opposing definitions. Its reclamation by a subculture furthered the productive capabilities by shifting its connotations within the dominant cultural paradigm, which gave it the ability to play off of either positive or negative connotations. This in turn led to attempts of language control that hindered its productive potential by those who identify with the subculture. “Punk” demonstrates both the productive and restrictive potential of linguistic shifts resulting in the creation of a cultural identity.

Exploring the outline of punk’s history further, and considering the socio-historical relationship between “punk” and homosexual people, provokes another look at the word “faggot.” While it is still clearly an insult, and a very harsh one, it has experienced shifts similar to “punk.” According to the OED, “faggot” was once a term of abuse for women, is now a derogatory term for gay men, and at one time was a word for bundles of wood used to start a fire. But who would want to adopt the word as a cultural identity? Fittingly, an example of a potential shift comes from a punk band.

Fake fags on the radio don’t sing for me
metrosexuals annoy the shit out of me
fake fags in Hollywood don’t impress me
try to demonstrate how I’m supposed to be

(Limp Wrist, “Fake Fags,” 2006)

This usage is, of course, meant to be provocative, given the current cultural context. Arguably, so was the first use of “punk” to describe music. The lyrics here are also an attempt by Limp Wrist to declare that there is a social and cultural boundary for who is a “fag” and that “fake fags” do not represent those who take the word as their own, while simultaneously contesting the punk as a straight male and creating space for a queer subject in punk. This frames a “fag” as something that yields a boundary: something that someone may actually want to be, rather than an insult. Given the current cultural meaning, and despite Limp Wrist’s efforts here, it is still not likely that “fag” or “faggot” are about to undergo major semantic shifts that lead to the words denoting a celebrated cultural identity rather than a derogatory category. However, this use of “fag” does have two parallels with “punk:” the establishment of a restrictive linguistic or cultural boundary as an act of producing a cultural identity, and the linguistic play off of oppositional parts of social dichotomies.

That is to say, while linguistic structures may organize words into hierarchized social dichotomies, such as the one between a derogatory word and a self-proclaimed cultural identity, semantic shifts along these lines do not work solely within this framework, but interrogate it. Words that play off of or subvert social dichotomies may have some of the most productive potential. And that is pretty punk.


Author Unknown. (1946, Jun 20). Flock of Trouble Beset Jacob After Punk Fight. Toledo Blade.

Author Unknown, (1960, March 18). Did Punk Murder Women? The Miami News.

Author Unknown. (1977, Dec 1). The Punks are Coming. The Deseret News.

Associated Press, (1963, Sep 5). Wallace Labeled “Punk” by Morse. The Lewiston Daily Sun.

Bangs, L. (1972) Creem. From Punk n1 and adj.2 , Oxford English Dictionary online

Berkman, A. (1912). Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist. From Punk n1 and adj.2,  Oxford English Dictionary online

Clayton, J. (1687) Philosophical transactions. From punk n.3, Oxford English Dictionary

Crass, Punk is Dead (1978). On The Feeding of 5000 [CD]. Small Wonder Records: London, UK

Google ngram for “*_VERB punk,” and “*_ADJ punk.” Retrieved from: http://www.books.google.com/ngram

Holstrom, J. (1976). Table of Contents. Punk. Retrieved from: http://www.punkmagazine.com/vault/back_issues/01/toc-vol1no1.html

Limp Wrist, Fake Fags (2006). On Want Us Dead EP. Lengua Armada Discos: Chicago, IL.

Ohland, G. (1980, July 10). Punk Violence: Blood Flows as Rock Craze Swells in Southern California. The Evening Independent.

Ozzi, Dan. (2013, June 13) “Punk is the Grossest Word in Music,” Noisey. Retrieved from: http://noisey.vice.com/blog/punk-is-the-grossest-word-in-music

Punk n1 and adj.2, (2007) in The Oxford English Dictionary online.

Punk n3, (2007) in The Oxford English Dictionary online

Ramones, Sheena is a Punk Rocker (1976). On Ramones [CD]. Sire Records: New York, NY.

Shakespeare, W. (1623) Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories & tragedies. From Punk n1 and adj.2, Oxford English Dictionary online

[1] One could argue that “-punk” is describing “cyber,” or “steam,” and not the other way around. That is to say, “-punk” is denoting how these particular subgenres of science fiction, “steam” and “cyber,” have “punk” qualities.