- ‘Shouldn’t people know better than to use bad words?’
- ‘Bad words shouldn’t be in the dictionary in case children see them.’
- ‘Why are we even talking about this? Everyone knows some words are bad.’
Who is they and who do they think they are?
Whoever they are this blog is for them.
For my part, there’s a weird liberal thing going on here. In this blog I am going to attempt to be tolerant of the intolerant, at least in as far as avoiding the actual use of words that may upset some sensitivities.
Those items of everyday vocabulary that they deem unspeakable and hold hostage in the shades of a nebulous moral high ground: these are ‘bad’ words, allegedly.
Who is or are this they? In this case it is those who might tend to conjugate deprave to deprive.
Elsewise it’s words. Words. Just words. Not the meanings. Just the words. The shapes. The bricks that build language. Piled high in dictionaries, tickling the tip of your tongue and lurking in the corner of your mind. Devoid of meaningful life, words are no more than bunches of letters that sound out in agreed patterns. Little works of art. I have known words I didn’t like the sound of but never met a word I didn’t appreciate.
Words, though, are more than surface beauty. They have been coined to do a job of work and, fair enough, some words have more going for them than others. But every word has purpose. Even the uglier ones. Certain words feel great: they roll around on the twisted tongue in an ecstasy of euphonious sensuality. And then there are those words that, when emptied of consequential purpose, simply look great on a page or a wall: the lexy curves and jags, dots and strokes of alphabetical anatomies. What’s not to like? Taken for themselves all words are good words. Of course, this is the English language: we all know better, we should never take a word on trust.
The trouble is that words do so get tangled up with meanings, and those meanings can be confused in the heat of a kneejerk. Particular words, without regard to particular sense, are deemed to be ‘bad’ words. How can a word be bad? Yet their expression may be discomfiting enough that otherwise rational language users, persuaded into the ranks of the hapless they, and happy to wear the straitjacket of the quick-to-take-offence, conspire to cast out these guilty items of vocabulary and prohibit them from the high citadel of niceness. ‘Bad words’, quoth these believers in the purity of language, ‘should be aborted, unfrocked, forbidden, ducked and burnt at the stake.’
Hey, it’s up to you if you wish to avoid using such words. It’s your choice. My selection of unspeakable words may well be different from yours. Why should I respect your words if you decry mine?
It’s not just elsewise words, obviously. It is different understandings of a word’s meaning. Why certain people – and they are always certain – decide that certain words are of negative value is not that easy to understand. But caution is advised around such letter-bombs. Word-deniers can be quite vehement and self-righteous. Do try not to upset them, unless you have a good time set aside for rancorous debate (of course, rancorous debate may be your idea of a good time). Words don’t stand alone, they are found guilty by word association and that link is in the made-up mind of the ‘bad’ word banner. Yet why certain ordinary, meaningful words are judged ‘bad’ and hence, to a great degree, unshareable and unbroadcastable is often a mystery.
Next time someone says, ‘don’t say that, it’s not nice,’ ask the question, ‘why?’. Ask yourself. Why is it not nice? It may be nice, very nice; full of ‘pleasure’ in the right contextual coupling.
What are these ‘bad words’? Oh, come on! You know what they are. How else do you recognise them? Do they look guilty? I am sure that every reader has sufficient vocabulary to fill in any imagined gaps. However, for now, you can look elsewhere in this Internet for an unashamed beauty parade of 4-, 5-, 6- and more-letter words. Here I am toying with the concept of ‘bad’ as it might be applied to any word that they conspire against.
Many contentious words are concerned, in certain of their senses, with bodily parts and functions. Whoop dee doo! Much if not all of the human race or gender holds a contentious part or function in common. Try this NSFW exercise:
Think of a well-used word that in one fundamental sense refers to a below-the-waist body part. Got one in mind? Good. The odds are that your word has been in our vocabularies for many centuries. So, now, don’t ever use that word you are thinking of because it’s not ‘nice’. How ridiculous is that? The likelihood is that I have one of whatever it is you are thinking of in my pants, and it’s nice enough, thank you very much, nothing to be ashamed of. Personally, I had ‘arse’ in mind. What were you thinking?
Oh arse! Stop arsing about. How can I be arsed to get through the day without my arse? In what kind of a mind is the arse word badmouthed? Still, ‘polite’ society takes a narrow view against these parts in our vocabularies and …
– ‘Ugh! No! I don’t like that word. It’s not nice.’
OK, so what do you call yours (whatever body part of speech it was you first thought of)? Can you take pleasure in the use of it? And is your word as multi-functional as a good old-fashioned English lexeme that carries that sense as standard?
‘From now on the word ‘pleasure’ will only be used under advisement. There will be no references to immorality of any kind, to lavatories, to effeminacy in men, honeymoon couples, fig leaves, ladies’ underwear –’
That quote is taken from Christopher William Hill’s 2008 BBC Radio comedy Tomorrow, Today!, a gentle spoof of golden-time BBC standards. It gives us an amusing glimpse of a legendary lost world in which everything was, perhaps, decent and nice. But, oh! how the world has changed from those days when so much was not suitable conversation for Auntie’s nursery. In some ways you could have it both ways then – and in other ways even the thought of it was illegal. Is it a better world here in tomorrow, today? Whether it is or not this is the world we have inherited. We have no choice but to engage with it. It’s a new dystopia every day.
It would be fair to say that we live with a transformed set of political realities. Different words have become ‘awkward’, and are now seemingly owned and restricted by natural sections of our society. These awkward words are characterised as the product of previous use by those newly arrived on the politically correct high ground. Once again the words are blamed, now dubbed as ‘inappropriate’ and ‘offensive’, for the baggage of bigotry and bias they carry. It’s almost as if sections of society believe that if you control the lexicon you can control thought…
Worst of these are the words lately categorized by political necessity as ‘hate words’. We’ve not yet arrived at the ever-shrinking word-base of Orwell’s Newspeak, but.
Then there are the words that carry the pious condemnation of blasphemy. (I’ll do you the courtesy of not trashing whatever it is you choose to believe in. That’s my choice. Do me the courtesy of not using words, or an intolerance of words, to foist your opinions on me. I may choose not to listen.) And still ‘bad’ lingers, desperate to reinforce division, to maintain yesterday’s standards, to turn back the clock.
Nor does the sniffy label ‘bad language’ make any sense in the way it is intended. The purpose of language is to communicate. It can only be ‘bad language’ if it fails to achieve that end. Given that both spoken and written communication can be enriched by the intensifying fullness of a rounded vocabulary, it surely cannot be derided as a failure to communicate on the communicator’s part. It follows therefore that any listener or reader who refuses to engage with ‘bad language’ must in fact a ‘bad listener’ or ‘bad reader’. Yet to hide behind an excuse of being offended by ‘bad language’ rather than accept responsibility for a failure to be communicated with is standard practice in some quarters.
That’s also the reason I have avoided some corners of my personal lexicon in this opinionated piece. I don’t honestly care if the mythical they might be offended (if someone wants to take offence they will regardless) but I want to give my point of view the chance to be considered and not dismissed simply because they refuse to engage.
Words are not ‘bad’. Not a one of them. The expression, the intention, that’s what matters in a tolerant society. The freedom to speak. The offensive use of any word is governed by context, intention and expression. Not the word itself. Don’t blame the bricks for the architecture. Anyway, all ‘bad’ words, for good or ill, are empowered by outlaw status. And the double standards in language use are as mind-boggling as the gradations of certification employed by film and TV censors, a world where sexual activity and ‘strong’ language are more troublesome than CGI-enhanced violence, blood and gore.
We have a wonderful language. It’s bad (where bad = good, cool, etc) and it’s evolving. Strong, vibrant, expressive, demotic. Our words are not set in their ways but that’s not how those who think the worst see it. Imagine a world in which society allowed a minority to stunt the growth of majority use. Hardly thinkable, is it, unless you open your eyes and look around. When the language is bland and neutered what would the linguistic puritans want to white out next?
In this bright and breezy scramble through the privet hedge of words I have deliberately swerved ‘foul language’ – but that’s another goody: ‘foul’. On a par with ‘bad’, up there in the taxonomy of disdain with ‘strong’, ‘adult’, etc, etc. The English tongue is a great resource. If you disapprove of some of its content and use please pause to explain why. Express yourself clearly to help me understand. And, please, can we stop with the banal use of ‘bad’ now. Its mealy-mouthed drool befouls the language. If you really love the language and sincerely wish to proudly uphold your standards then you really must make better use of the available vocabulary; use adjectives that mean something.
Oh. One last thing. Don’t accuse those who use the words you pretend that you wouldn’t dare to mouth of having a limited vocabulary. Patently, we enjoy the use of several more words than you.