I believe that language always has meaning, and it sometimes has implicit or subconscious meaning that we’re not even aware of. Because we live in a culture of patriarchy, I’ve had to teach myself to question the things that I think and say, even in situations where it appears fairly innocuous. Recently an Aha! moment caught me off guard as I hurtled the words at someone: “You suck!”
I had a flashback to a moment of outrage in my high school history class. This one kid was a really popular soccer player, who was a real jerk to everybody but none of the adults seemed to notice – you know the type. He was bragging in class about how he had sexually harrassed a female soccer player on the opposing team that weekend (“sexually harrassed” are my words, not his). He ran past her as she slid and fell during a pass, commenting so only she could hear: “yeah, that’s where you belong – on your knees“.
It was degrading, and I can’t imagine how that other player must have felt. My 14-year-old self wanted to cry because of how unfair it was. He used sexism to deliberately undermine her confidence and imply that she didn’t belong on that field. She belonged on her knees – a submissive position if not a sexually submissive one. “You suck” could so easily have been substituted for what he did say- it’s meant to degrade, imply you are less of a person, worthless even – my mother used to reprimand me for it. It doesn’t mean “suck eggs” (thanks Spongebob), it means “suck penises”. Analogous to Less than. Inferior. Submissive. On your knees.
The Online Etymology Dictionary traces the slang version of “you suck” back to 1971 and yes, it did mean fellatio (particularly referring to women) meaning something “contemptible”. By implying that women are degraded by sexual activity, and that oral sex itself is somehow dirty/degrading/contemptible, we are sending a lot of bad messages. A friend that I usually rely on to keep my oversensitivity in check also pointed out the heteronormativity in my argument – degrading women by insinuating they perform fellatio on men. In which case they’re not degraded by the act itself, but by the idea of servicing men. Does the same concept apply to men who perform fellatio on men – that they are degraded through feminization? But Seth Stevenson has a different view. He writes:
“When someone says Bill Gates is a geek, do you picture him as a circus performer biting the head off a live chicken? Of course not. The word’s root meaning has been replaced with a new connotation. Similarly, when I call Paris Hilton a moron, I don’t mean she’s mentally retarded, and when I call bungee jumping lame I don’t mean it’s disabled. What once was offensive is now simply abrasive. Language moves on, and the sucks-haters are living in the past.” (emphasis mine)
What do you think – can words really lose their meaning over time, or does it always depend on the context? I don’t know if it would have meant something different if Tommy had said “you suck” to that girl on the soccer field. But maybe words really can be so removed from our conscious memory that they lose their original meaning. Maybe this is a sign that I need to choose my battles, and relinquish “suck” to its distant past as a word that implies sex-shaming and subservience.