". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Words

I've been thinking a lot about words lately. (I tend to do that.)

Most recently, I've been thinking about "bad" words--the ones we (or I) tend to avoid in polite company. It seems to me that the line separating "nice" words from naughty ones has shifted over the last generation and that expressions that were once considered vulgar are not anymore.

For example, here are a few words that I would not necessarily label as obscene but that I still think are inappropriate in most situations because of their coarseness:

cr*p
pi**ed
a**

I also cringe when I hear people using what I think are "soft" ways to take the Lord's name in vain:

"Jeez"
"Oh my God" or "OMG"
"Christ" (used as an interjection)
etc. (there are many variations of this--even "my gosh" and "golly gee" and "gee whiz" are permutations of the names of the Father and the Son)

And yet I see and hear them everywhere--on the radio and television, in status updates on Facebook, on blogs, and in everyday conversation--and from what I can tell I think I'm in the minority when I cringe at their usage. Am I wrong about that? Do any of you cringe, too? Or is it just me?

A few months ago President Obama's Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, got some grief for his pejorative use of the word "retard." That word was prefaced by another one that started with the letter "f" and ended with "-ing." I remarked at the time that I was more offended by the obscenity than I was by the word "retard." A friend of mine who has a Down syndrome child explained to me why for her it was the other way around--she was much more insulted by the use of the word "retard" than by the obscenity. I understand her point. But I find it revealing that I heard nothing at all in the mainstream media that was critical of Mr. Emanuel for the profanity. It seems that we have become so hardened to that sort of language that no one thinks anything of it anymore.

I am not saying that I never let a naughty word slip. My go-to profanity is the one that starts with "s" and ends with "t." It comes out when I stub my toe or break a dish or spill something or look in the rearview mirror and see flashing red lights coming up behind me. But after I use it I feel ashamed and remorseful that I descended to that level. What good did it do?

Come to think of it, that is about the only bad word that ever escapes my lips. It seems fitting somehow when something icky happens to use a word that names something icky. Maybe I'm rationalizing, but to me the "f" word seems so much worse. I can't make myself say it if I try. For me it is not just a passing expression but a word that invokes all sorts of things and has a power far beyond itself. It also horribly degrades one of God's precious gifts to humankind. And yet that's the word that everyone seems to be using and no one, not even the President of the United States, seems to mind. I find it beyond offensive that neither the President nore the Vice-President seem at all concerned about what sort of example they are setting for young people when they can so easily laugh something like this off.

So what do you think? Am I being hopelessly silly and pietistic? Am I attributing power to language that it doesn't or shouldn't have?

Maybe I am overly sensitive because of my upbringing. My father was an alcoholic who, when he was drinking, have a pretty salty vocabulary. He was also what he referred to as a "shade tree mechanic." I vividly recall multiple incidences of his working on our cars in the driveway and venting his frustration with the cursed machines through a steady outpouring of profanities, most commonly the "G.D." one, that must have been heard throughout the neighborhood. It was painful then and painful now to think of.

I wonder if my adult intolerance for just about any raw language is kind of like an allergic reaction. Allergies can occur when you go from excessive exposure to a substance to not being around that substance for a very long time. When the substance is reintroduced, there is no tolerance at all for it, and an allergy is born. My father was also a chain smoker, so I grew up breathing smoke. Now I can't be around cigarette smoke without a severe allergic reaction. Maybe it's the same with the language. I got enough of it my first 18 years to last the rest of my
life.

I would be interested in hearing your thoughts. What words bother you, if any? Do you think our society has become generally desensitized to obscenity? And if so, do you think it matters?

7 comments:

Laura said...

I agree with you Cheryl. I heard a lot of salty language growing up too...and used quite a bit myself. I don't mind the lesser words...cr-p, for instance. Sometimes I want a stronger word like that...I hate hearing the f word and God's name in vain. I hear it sometimes at the office by people that come into the office...and they always apologize to me....not to anyone else. You know I am the pastor's wife and all...makes me laugh. What about the other offended folks? It is troubling that no one cares about use of these words anymore...and I do think it is just another sign on how far our country is slipping in regards to being just a bunch of pagans.

Gauntlets said...

Vulgarities are sometimes contextually appropriate. Obscenities are just stupid. Profanities are always, always, always bad, bad, bad.

As for me and my mouth, interjections are just so necessary. But given enough torque, "wow" works just as well as something less savory. :D

Is "gee" really profane? Really?

Susan said...

You asked if you were the only one, Cheryl. Nope. But I've found that my sensibilities have changed over the last decade or so. I am now more offended by taking God's name in vain, and less offended by words associated with certain bodily functions. As you said, an icky word for an icky thing. (Maybe I've been reading too much Luther in the last decade?)

Even when I say "oh my gosh," it bothers me a little when I realize I've said it.

It took me a while to figure out why the f-word bothers me so very much, whereas the s-word doesn't bother me as much. I finally decided (or rationalized?) that the f-word strikes me as blasphemous. People have different words for human excrement, and some of them are considered more proper than others, and some are coarser; but they're all still about the same material than can be composted and made into fertilizer for your tomatoes. The f-word is different. If marriage is a sacrament (and most of you will disagree with me on that), and if marriage is an icon of Christ and the Church, the f-word twists and defames what love is all about, and turns it inward and self-serving. And that's why I find it was disgusting as straight-up examples of "Jesus Christ" used as a swear word.

Angie said...

I grew up nearly isolated from raw language (except for my grandma who still says s--- when called for) but I share your reactions. Not to say that I don't occasionally think (and on rare occasion say) certain words; never f---though, nor taking the Lord's name in vain.
The "lesser" words bother me a little less, but not much--I tell my kids that people who use any sort of raw language with frequency aren't smart enough to know other words. And I would much rather they call their little brothers "scurvy knaves" or some such, than "a--holes."

Cheryl said...

Gauntlets, what a perceptive comment. You have rightly differentiated among words I was using loosely and more or less synonymously. But you are correct--they are really three words for three different things and I appreciate the distinction. So that we are using the same definitions (the online thesaurus I consulted listed all of them as synonyms for one another), would you say that vulgar simply means coarse or rough, obscene means immoral or indecent, and profane means blasphemous? If so, then maybe the reason Susan and I are less offended by the excrement word is that it is vulgar but not obscene or profane. Interesting.

Susan, I agree with what you said about the "f" word degrading marriage. I think that is exactly it.

As for "gee" I guess it just depends on what one associates with the word. I don't think of the name of Jesus when I hear "gee." But I do when I hear "geez"--it just sounds an awful lot like "Jesus"--so I have asked my children not to use it(even though they hear it all the time from God-fearing people). But that's just me--probably most people don't hear it that way. Likewise, I don't hear the name of God in "gosh" and "golly." I didn't realize until it was pointed out to me a year or two ago that they were rooted in the word "God." Now that I have made that connection, though, I find myself avoiding saying either (not that they were staples of my vocabulary before). Like you, Gauntlets, I find "wow" to be an amazingly flexible and nuanced interjection, suited to all manner of situations.

Angie, LOL! "Scurvy knaves"--I love it!

Gauntlets said...

Yes. That's what I'd say. :D I'd go on to say that vulgarities aren't when they're properly employed. For instance, calling a mother dog what she is, is better than referring to her as a "dog," which she isn't. We're comfortable around the "B" word and the "A" word, even if they have been co-opted by a potty-mouthed public. :D

I also think the excrement word you're referring to is too useful to let go. Sometimes, excrement is a lot more than simple poo. ;)

Melrose said...

I prefer "good grief" I like it because usually when I say it I'm mad and it reminds me that God always works for the "good" of those who love Him, even in such hard times as "grief" or stubbing my toe :) silly but has cured my college mouth (of which cr-p and pi--ed were favorites...not sure I want to hear my 2 yr old saying those!)