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Word Study: “Freak”

November 10, 2012

Hello all! To break up the thesis stuffins, I thought I would write a quick little something for you all. This is a word study, which I’m sticking under the Fiction tab, though technically its genre is creative non-fiction. I did a previous word study of “selfish” and “selfless” in a poetic form which you can read here. In any case, enjoy!

Word Study: “Freak”

freak — (n.) informal: a person regarded as strange because of their unusual appearance or behavior.

I didn’t fully realize until College that “freak” was a derogatory word.

It’s not that I didn’t know it hurt people, or that people saw it as hurtful. I knew. I knew because I had heard it on television and read it in books. Psychologically-speaking, those are perfectly effective ways to take in societal norms and appropriate behavior patterns.

When I was a child sitting there taking in cultural norms, I also tried to take in the whole context. I don’t know if every child does this. Reading criticisms of Disney films, I feel like the adults at least think children don’t do this, but that’s a discussion for another day. In any case, “freak” was used to describe the protagonist, usually. The antagonist would fling the word at them, splash it scarlet across across their chest, rain it down in a storm of needles. The protagonist’s face would droop, their hands tighten, shoulders slump, give all the cultural and bodily indicators of sorrow.

But then the protagonist would beat the antagonist, often using the same features or skills they were ridiculed for, the abilities that made them a “freak.”

I thought about it as children do. “Freak” was a bad word, something you didn’t call people or the adults would punish you. Being a freak meant you were different or strange, overall not normal. It also meant the freak could win. Their reason for being called a freak was a strange, non-normal ability, one which would eventually allow them to re-assert themselves over the bully. There were two, almost contradictory narratives going on.

More importantly to me at least, it meant you didn’t have to be normal. People already saw you as operating outside of normal human behavior and that gave you power. You could go outside the rules, twist and turn and morph and change in ways that normal people couldn’t, or even dream of doing. It was a position of power beyond the rules, a standing where you could do what you wanted, how you wanted, because society wasn’t there to stop you. It had already marked you as a outsider, verbally branded it across your being, so you might as well use that label to its fullest extent. You didn’t have to listen to them. You could ignore them. They had abandoned you first. You were powerful.

This line of thinking leads down dangerous roads, I suppose: you can’t have all the people ever called a freak running red stoplights because they don’t want that societal mandate to apply to them. However, this study in semantics points out the power of reclaiming words, of having a new definition. Viewing the word “freak” through a different lens than others, of fleshing out its connotations and consequences, made me see the freedom of being a monster, or “a person regarded as strange because of their unusual appearance or behavior.”

The consequences of having such a view can’t be ignored, however. When I see someone called a “freak” or the occasional “haha, I’m such a freak” statement, I don’t quite understand the emotional pain meant to be inflicted or that often lies behind a self-label. I almost do, but not quite. In my strange way of thinking, I see it as an almost backhanded compliment. When BBC’s Sally Donovan calls Sherlock a “freak,” I forget that’s she’s being as base as a schoolyard bully. I know she meant it to be mean, but I don’t quite feel the jaggedness of such a stab. I’m actively double-thinking it: freak’s a word not to call others, but also a compliment to a person’s disregard of and freedom from society. I imagined that in later years Sally would call Sherlock a “freak” as a term of affection, once she got over herself and accepted him.

It took a certain college friend to starkly remind me that society considered freak as a wholly vile label. Whenever someone called themselves one, she would say sympathetically, “you’re not a freak.” It confused me at first: why are you taking back a compliment? But then I reminded myself of the two definitions, mine versus general society’s, and copied her sympathy to T when the next person claimed freakdom. It was expected of me so I followed through, though it was a consciously learned gesture instead of instinctual.

My personal world is a little brighter with my own definition. Others not so much.

Having different connotations for words is difficult in that way. You can easily have the word “orange” mean “terrible” but if no one agrees with you on this definition then only you will have it. That’s fine, but if you keep telling people you had “an orange day at work,” they’ll be pretty confused. No one knows what you’re talking about. With words like “freak,” they can be incredibly insulted. You’re speaking differently from everyone else, an unknown dialect, a personal language that only you hold the Rosetta Stone for. People who want new definitions of words, or to reclaim harmful definitions, they must advertise, gather crowds, spread the word, alert Webster, change the very language of a whole society. It’s quite the endeavor. But at the end of the day when 99% of the population is using the new/reclaimed definition and you have those moments when the 1% call you it as an insult yet your first instinct is that you’ve received a compliment, it feels worth it. It feels good. It feels nice. There’s been a revolution.

In the meantime, however, it’s a bit lonely.



From → Fiction

One Comment
  1. I came here looking for something else, but this enthused me regardless. Interesting stuff!

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