Household Words: Bloomers, Sucker, Bombshell, Scab, Nigger, Cyber
Looking in detail at words that “treat people as things, and things as people, and do so at that strange space where joking, ridiculing, demeaning, oppressing, resisting, and regretting converge,” Household Words is a study of how certain words act as indices of political and social change, perpetuating anxieties and prejudices even as those ways of thinking have been seemingly resolved or overcome by history.
Specifically, Stephanie A. Smith examines six words—bloomer, sucker, bombshell, scab, nigger, and cyber—and explores how these words with their contemporary “universal” meaning appeal to a dangerous idea about what it means to be human, an idea that denies our history of conflict. She traces “bombshell” from Marilyn Monroe through women’s liberation and the sexual revolution to Monica Lewinsky, “scab” from blemish to strikebreaker, “sucker” from lollipop to the routinely cheated. Exposing the ambiguities in each of the words, Smith reveals that our language is communal and cutting, democratic and discriminatory, social and psychological.
Stephanie A. Smith is associate professor of English at the University of Florida and the author of Conceived by Liberty: Maternal Figures and Nineteenth-Century American Literature as well as three novels.
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