E.g. "geek" or "queer" were originally meant as an insulting term, but were taken by the recipients as titles of pride.

Is there a term for this phenomenon?


4 Answers 4


Reappropriation is the word you are looking for.

... the cultural process by which a group reclaims— re-appropriates —terms or artifacts that were previously used in a way disparaging of that group. For example, since the early 1970s, much terminology referring to homosexuality—such as gay and (to a lesser extent) queer and poof—has been reappropriated. [...] A reclaimed or reappropriated word is a word that was at one time a pejorative but has been brought back into acceptable usage—usually starting within the communities that experienced oppression under that word, but sometimes also among the general populace as well. [...] This can have wider implications in the fields of discourse, and has been described in terms of personal or socio political empowerment. [...]


However, the phenomenon is much older, especially in politics and religion. Cavalier is example of a derogatory nickname reappropriated as self-identification, while Roundhead, a Royalists derisory term for the supporters of the Parliamentary cause, is not (it was a punishable offence in the New Model Army to call a fellow soldier a roundhead). Tory (orig. from Middle Irish word for 'pursued man' Tóraidhe ), Whig (from 'whiggamore' (See the Whiggamore Raid)) and 'Suffragette' are other British examples. Yankee was originally used as an insult to America, but was reclaimed in the song "Yankee Doodle".

  • 4
    I appreciate the historical context that Mari-Lou A applies to this question. It is certainly better than what Michael Owen Sartin wrote. Commented Aug 5, 2013 at 2:09
  • 6
    More often, I've heard people say they're “taking it back” – although “take back” is essentially what reappropriate means! Commented Aug 5, 2013 at 5:42
  • Interesting, the Wikipedia article for 'pejorative' states the word is 'amelioration'.
    – deed02392
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 14:28
  • "amelioration" brings to mind tending to bruises rather than taking the stick Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 4:29
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    @MichaelOwenSartin - I actually think that what Michael Own Sartin wrote was more accurate and appropriate (if not necessarily better as such). "Reclaim" is far preferable to "reappropriate", to my mind (in fact, I'm not even sure that the latter is a real word -- it's not in the OED or Websters').
    – simon
    Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 14:41

The phrase "linguistic reclamation" has been used by academics. See "A Queer Revolution: Reconceptualizing the Debate over Linguistic Reclamation" in Colorado Research in Linguistics. http://www.colorado.edu/ling/CRIL/Volume17_Issue1/paper_BRONTSEMA.pdf

  • 1
    Interesting paper, especially the history behind "queer".
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 4:07

Co-opt is the common word for appropriating a derogatory term, especially in sense 3 of the linked definition:

To take or assume for one's own use; appropriate: co-opted the criticism by embracing it.

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    Co-opt is the usual word for “To commandeer, appropriate or take over” (and also for “To absorb or assimilate into an established group”) but that doesn't make it the usual word for appropriating a derogatory term, merely a word for that. Commented Aug 4, 2013 at 23:06
  • @jwpat7 Co-opt is the word I most often see used in print in this context.
    – Gnawme
    Commented Aug 4, 2013 at 23:38
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    +1 from me because I've actually heard this used in this way before, unlike the current top answer's "reappropriation" - which I've never heard in this context before. Probably, that's just too technical for everyday speech, while "co-opt" is short and to the point.
    – Izkata
    Commented Aug 5, 2013 at 15:25
  • Beyond not being specific to connotation-shifting usage, "Co-opt" if anything implies MISappropriation. Reappropriation or reclamation is always positive, so this is a bad fit. And yes, I'm saying that the dictionary's example is bad. As for "reappropriation" being too technical, I refer you to its use in an episode of 30 Rock: 30rockquotes.net/seasons/Season_5/… Commented Aug 5, 2013 at 19:36
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    Googling "co-opt slur" turns up about 14 million hits; I'd say it's common usage, and far from a 'bad fit'
    – Gnawme
    Commented Aug 5, 2013 at 20:37

The words I most often see used to describe this phenomenon have been mentioned in the body of other answers, but not actually suggested as answers!

I'm including some examples found with the help of Google:


  • Over our 23 year history, Outright Vermont has intentionally explored and then embraced the use of the word “queer” as a term used by our youth population.
  • Organizations that have embraced the word “queer” in their titles are not holding the standard higher, but instead have done a backslide into murky waters of ambiguity.
  • While formerly negative words with reference to sexuality such as 'fag' and 'dyke' have been embraced within certain cultures ...


  • I was also asked about the protesters’ use of the word “slut” and whether or not feminists can reclaim that word and use it on their own terms. Here’s what was said:
  • “Some people still see them as derogatory, but the words 'bitch' and 'slut' I think can be considered reclaimed,” Handler said.
  • On the other hand, the word nigger has been “reclaimed” by black youths

The difference seems to be that embrace means accepting the word as it is with its negative meanings whereas reclaim means that the new positive meaning has replaced the older negative meanings to some degree.

  • "reclaim" implies that one claimed it in the first place. "embrace" works, thanks Commented Nov 3, 2015 at 19:45

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