Monday, December 7, 2009

Origin Of The River Rats

Jay Nordlinger has written recently on the use of the term "teabagger" by liberals to disparage tea-partyers protesting Obama administration economic policies. One issue he raises is how conservatives should respond to the slur - challenge those using it, or, instead, take "ownership" of it. In his "Impromptus" column today on NRO, Nordlinger gives an example of one group taking ownership of an intended insult and making it its own. His segment is of special interest to me - I live in Ann Arbor and my three children graduated from Ann Arbor Huron High School where my wife taught briefly. Also, I wasn't aware of the story he tells. Nordlinger himself is an Ann Arbor native and he attended the University of Michigan there.

In my piece “Rise of an Epithet,” about the term “teabagger,” I mentioned some words that started out as slurs and then became accepted by one and all — including the original targets themselves. I listed “Methodist,” “Tory,” “Impressionist” — even “Christian.” Some people speak of “owning the insult,” which is to take an intended putdown and wear it as a badge of honor.

I was reminded, just the other day, of an example from my hometown, Ann Arbor, Mich. Once upon a time, there was just one high school: Ann Arbor High. But it became necessary to build another one, and it was built near the Huron River. This was Huron High. Apparently, there were river rats on the construction site. And the Ann Arbor High people started to refer to the split-off people — the Huron people — as “river rats.” There was a movement to adopt “River Rat” as the school nickname and symbol. Huron’s principal fought this tooth and nail, thinking it absurdly undignified. But the movement won out: and Huron High has been the home of the River Rats ever since.

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