Monday, June 28, 2010

Let's have words

  Shit. Fuck. Son of a bitch. Are you offended yet? Why so? They’re just words, after all.

  Words carry an incredible amount of power. Much more so than I think the average person realizes. By average, I mean the type of person who can walk around a supermarket, happily chatting away on their cell phone, throwing the word “fuck” around as if it were the color of their shirt. It’s not that people mean to be offensive. I really believe they just don’t get it.

  A person’s words can tell you a lot about them in just the first few seconds of meeting them. Choices in language can immediately speak volumes about a person’s culture, education, and yes, even their opinions about themselves and you. Now I’m starting to sound like a sociology textbook.


  “Curse” is a pretty strong way to describe it. Do these words really curse anybody? Maybe calling them “terse words” would be more appropriate. I suppose, if you’re some kind of religious fundamentalist, you might believe you could get sent to Hell for saying such things. You certainly could for taking the Lord’s name in vain. But what does it all mean? What’s the stigma with these words? Why is the word “shit” any worse than “poop” or even the clinical “feces?” It refers to the same thing- something unpleasant; something to be discarded.
  There’s even a term for uncontrolled swearing: “Coprolalia.” It originates with the Greek “copro” (dung) + “lalia” (chatter, babbling). It’s literally “shit talk.”
  Maybe it’s the intent behind the words. Certainly calling somebody an “asshole” conveys so much more than calling them an “anus.” Yet, again, why? It refers to the same anatomical part. Why do some words have such strong qualities while others do not? Why are some words “bad” words that should never be used in “polite” company?


  Likewise, what’s the deal with words we use to degrade people? Ethnic slurs such as “nigger” or “gook,” or terms we might use against people of a different sexuality. “Faggot.” “Dyke.” These are terrible words, to be sure, but I often wonder how these kinds of words are invented, and how they can cement themselves into culture as being so incredibly offensive. It’s no secret to anyone how the dreaded “N-word” got its start, but is it possible to invent new ethnic slurs? How do these things catch on and flare? If I started referring to Chinese as “pons” would it offend somebody? It might. The intent could still come across. Using a term other than the “official” one to describe a race can cause quite a stir. By that same school of thought, could you use an already established word to insult a person’s race? I don’t think you could. The reason a lot of these terms are so derogatory is that they were invented with the sole purpose of being insulting. We, as a society, are offended by these words because we MAKE them offensive.
  When I was just a kid, about five years old, I once used the word “nigger” to describe the color black on a person’s sweater. This happened at school, and it upset and offended a lot of people. My parents got a talking to from the teacher, and they were understandably disturbed that I would say such a thing. I certainly didn’t hear that term at home, and from what I can remember, a kid at school had pushed me to say it. The point is, I didn’t know that was offensive. To me, it was just a word- a combination of letters that, when put together, represented “black.” The true nature of the word was a learned thing, and I find that fascinating about language.


  Words on a page can keep you up at night, too, as I’ve discovered many times from reading Stephen King novels. I’ve always been astounded as to how this is possible. How can somebody think something up, out of the blue, write it on a piece of paper, and then terrify me so much with it that I can’t sleep? It’s ink, on a page. It’s not even something that really happened, and it definitely didn’t happen to me. It’s pure fiction, and yet, with the right combination of words, you can use a person’s imagination against them very effectively.
  Some words can even stand alone with impact. Take the word “terror.” Just reading it isolated on the page, the meaning is clear. An emotion is conveyed. Even more so with the word “rape.” One single word; and yet, reading it, your mind is conjuring up everything that comes with those four letters: Horror. Violation. Shame. Abuse. Hatred. That’s a powerful word, and it stirs things in a deep, dark corner of the soul.


  Now, there’s a flip side to all of this. Not everything is about hate or vulgarity or fear. There are some considerably beautiful words. I’ll take for example another word of singular power: “love.” There’s almost a smile to it. You see that word written by itself somewhere, and it warms you. The very word glows. It feels light, and delicate, yet substantial. Sure, people can use it casually, too- “I love ice cream,” for instance, but you can’t diminish the word itself. There’s so much weight to this word that when we say it to somebody for the first time in regards to how we feel about them, it changes everything. Those two people now become connected in a rare and uniquely wonderful way. All from one little word.


  As a blogger, and as a used-to-be aspiring screenwriter, I’m very aware of the power of words, or sometimes the very lack thereof. Words on a page, with nothing to really say, simply take up space. I once read a quote that said, “Good writing means never having to say ‘I guess you had to be there.’” There’s so much truth in that.
  I like descriptive language. I want the words to take me there. I admit, I tend to get a little flowery with my writing sometimes, but that’s just the way it comes out. I like vocabulary. I like discovering new ways to say things. I like to capture sight, sound, and emotion and communicate that to others. I think I still need to work on editing myself, though. I tend to ramble in the details. Like right now.

  “Words - so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” ~Nathaniel Hawthorne


  1. I'm fascinated by my daughters appreciation for the word "cunt," a word that has uniformly and dramatically offended probably every other XX chromosome carrying person I've ever met. Don't get me wrong, she fully grasps the vulgarity of the word.

    My theory is most words that were previously considered "highly offensive" have largely lost their impact due to over exposure. There are a select few that still carry the same punch.

    Those of us that have spent much time in service industries understand the importance of the mental names reserved for a certain key segment of our customer base. I'd stake serious money on a wager most of that segment has never held a service related position.

  2. For my money, "cunt" is the most vulgar word of the English language. As a certified swearologist, that's a very rare one for me, and one I really don't particularly like. As I understand it, it's much more common for girls to use that term. Interesting.

  3. I'm with you two. That is my least favorite word, and I curse like a sailor. However, the people I hear use it most are gay men.