What it means to be a ‘divorcee’ in young people’s language: How the word lost its negative connotation

On social media, young women and the LGBTQ community are re-signifying the word to give it a positive meaning

Qué significa la palabra divorciada
You don’t have to be divorced to be a 'divorcee.' In the picture, Sofia Vergara.Jill Greenberg (ABC via Getty Images)
Andrea García Baroja

On social media, the meaning of the word ‘divorcee’ is undergoing a radical change for certain groups of young people, who are stripping the term of its old negative connotations. For them, divorced is no longer a marital status, but a way of being, the hallmark of a woman who has taken over the reins of her own life, freeing herself from obsolete conventions and embracing her authenticity without reservations. She’s unabashed and talkative. And no guilt, misery or cats are required.

“That word always had a very negative connotation because the separated woman was a disgrace. Not anymore. A divorced woman is a person who chooses herself, who leaves behind something that is not good for her and prioritizes her own care. She goes to the things she likes, enjoys her friends, her free time, without thinking about much more than that. It’s a bit of a modern carpe diem,” says Brontë, a sociologist and content creator, who uses the word regularly.

In Spain, it has been popularized by different influencers on social media, as in the recent success of the couple, the Verdunches. There is also a clear inspiration from the drag world, and it has spread fast thanks to TV shows like Drag Race. But Carmen Merina (@rayomcqueer), a viral phenomenon who has made the word ring out on thousands of young people’s electronic devices, takes the cake. “They are trendsetters when it comes to speaking, especially in certain communities,” Brontë says, referring to the female and LGBTQ population. “It’s fair to give them credit for changing the way we talk, especially Rayo [Lightning] McQueer.”


recién divorciada y aun pasito de la jubi tmb! #divorciada #mujeresqueinspiran

♬ sonido original - rayomcqueer

The plans of these “divorcees” do not include crying at home, distancing themselves from their friends or forcing themselves to go on a diet, an archetype to which we became accustomed in romantic movies from the 1990s. Nowadays, a divorced woman enjoys herself and unabashedly drinks a dry martini in a downtown club at 6 p.m. And that’s great.

The term has undergone a re-signification or reappropriation. “A reappropriation is the adoption of words or expressions with pejorative connotations by the community they denigrate, which gives them a new neutral, positive or critical meaning; that is why it is also known as re-signification,” explains Nacho Esteban, a linguist specializing in discourse analysis.

This new meaning of divorce is made possible by a social and cultural shift in the perception of femininity and women’s roles in society over the past few decades. “Today there is an understanding that a divorce can be liberating and that it doesn’t have such a strong link to gender expectations. There is also more looseness about what constitutes a failure: in a generation that cannot be an adult financially, well, it is not so important not to fail, because we all already failed a little bit and nothing happened,” adds sociolinguist Sara Engra.

The re-signification of insults or words with a negative connotation is a very common phenomenon in history, Esteban explains. “Jesuit, anarchist and punk were originally derogatory. The word feminist itself began as an insult. Women have been experts in re-signifying disqualifiers. Moreover, reappropriation has been very common among racialized groups, as in the case of nigger and Chicano in the United States or pied-noir in France,” he explains. “The example of ‘faggot’ is super-clear,” Brontë says. “[It goes] from [being] an insult to the way we refer to ourselves. Whenever you are part of an oppressed group, whether socially, by the state or whatever, you tend to create words that identify and unite you with the rest.”

One of the groups that has historically made the most use of re-signification is the LGBTQ community, precisely those who most promote and defend the new philosophy of divorcees now. Although the term is generally used by younger people, girls and members of the LGBTQ community are the ones who use it habitually. “Generation Z is not a monolith: they are people of different ages, genders, backgrounds, political affiliations. No generation is homogeneous in its use of language. These kinds of expressions, like PEC, divorcee or slut, have come up more in LGBTQ and politicized cis-heterosexual girl environments. I don’t think that cis heterosexual Generation Z-men have led these particular changes,” Engra clarifies. According to Esteban, “The new meaning is tied to divorced and not divorced; there is a dimension of gender empowerment that probably doesn’t appeal as much to heterosexual males.”

This defense of the useless, the jocular, the shameful and self-care is inherent in a Generation Z that spends so many hours on the internet. “Young people have many of the traits that are conducive to the emergence of slang: they are an endogamous community, more or less closed, with a subversive, creative, playful and somewhat cryptic eagerness; no one wants to talk like their parents and, if we can disconcert them on top of that, so much the better. What social media in particular and the internet in general have done is to accelerate changes and trends,” says Esteban.

For Brontë, the immediacy of social media comes into play, which facilitates the creation of new terms that become popular in a few days and, in most cases, fall into disuse in a short time. “On social media, we are an exaggerated version of ourselves. We are ourselves, but even more so,” he says. That exaggeration includes intrinsic humor in many young people’s activities. The term ‘divorcee,’ in this case, also incorporates some humor. And a certain degree of madness or derangement is exhibited among divorced people, who don’t necessarily have to be middle-aged women, anyone can plan to be divorced. “We need humor to vindicate. Vindicating is tiring, it’s mentally exhausting. Humorously re-signifying these words is a way to feel like you’re still doing things on a political or activist level,” says Brontë.

Humorous irony is well-regarded now because, as Esteban points out, “discrimination is not as stark as it used to be.” He adds that “the needs of vindication give way to other functions of language in general and of reappropriation in particular, like humor. It is easier to joke about something that seems subversive but, deep down, is a more or less accepted reality and does not necessarily have to involve suffering.”

For a generation facing bleak economic and occupational circumstances, the new philosophy of divorce vindicates the small moments of happiness with a group of girlfriends, being oneself. “As long as there is discrimination, pejorative terms and meanings will continue to appear; as they fall into disuse or their primary meaning changes, new terms and meanings will be invented to replace them, as each generation comes to update the old lexicon,” Esteban concludes.

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