Sunday, June 25, 2023

Bad words

Below is a guest essay from my altered-ego D.L. For more, go to Lasken's Log at All the best, Harry

Isn’t it odd that a word can be bad? Odd, that is, that the word itself is bad, not its referent. And odd that there’s no clear logic behind the bad word’s badness. For instance, “murder” and “torture” refer, in most people’s minds, to bad things, but the words are not bad. The word “fuck,” however, is bad, though it doesn’t refer to anything bad in an absolute sense.

"Fuck" is probably the most bad of the bad words, though, as noted, its referent, expressed acceptably in Latin as "copulate," ("couple together") is morally neutral.  Why is "fuck" bad and "copulate" is not?

History demonstrates the agonized process.  Christian Konrad Sprengel, 18th century German naturalist, was the first academician to suggest that flowers are sexual organs. For his pains he was hounded out of polite society and his work vilified. Today it is common knowledge that wholly female flowers are types of vaginas, that male-only flowers are types of penises, and hermaphroditic flowers are cocks with pussies attached that fuck themselves.

The point being that Sprengel turned “flower” into a bad word.

"Badness," apparently, is sexuality. That's a tough call when sexuality supports the imperative to reproduce. If sexuality is designated bad, does that make reproduction bad?

The ban against the English word for excrement is a separate puzzle. If we already abhor shit, why do we need to reinforce the abhorrence with language bans?

Teachers are expected to figure out such psychological and philosophical questions on their own, without a word of guidance from credential programs or staff development. As an elementary and high school teacher I spent a lot of time and energy in pursuit of what I thought was a societal goal: dissuading children from saying bad words that denote sexual organs, various sex acts and/or excrement. In this essay I ponder what I was trying to accomplish, and what our culture is trying to accomplish by designating certain words "bad."

I’m a crossover person who remembers bygone eras. In 1955 my family went to see the movie “Picnic” because we’d heard that William Holden said “damn." A hushed, almost worshipful audience awaited the big moment, and when the word was uttered a gasp in unison pervaded the theater. The movie producer’s gamble had paid off: box office dividends from a bad word. Few at that time realized that the dam was about to burst (sorry).

Fast forward to San Francisco State, 1969- my Chaucer professor charges breathlessly into the classroom. Instead of giving us a page number to find, he asks if we’ve heard what’s going on at U.C. Berkeley. A student named Mario Savio and an army of dedicated young people have taken a stand for free speech, he informs us. We can say “fuck” if we want to!  Add cable TV and the rest is history.

Fast forward to 1983, when, as a new elementary school teacher in south L.A., I face a demure little black girl who, standing before my desk, has just said, “fuck.” There is no context, just the word hanging understated in the air. I track down the mother’s work number and call. The mother’s response: “Let me get this straight. You called me at work to tell me my daughter said ‘fuck’?”

“Er…yes…” I stammer, and realize I need a zeitgeist upgrade.

Fast forward a few years and I'm a high school English teacher, listening all day to kids speak in linguistic abandon.

Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Thank you Mario!

Like everything else in our society, our language protocols are in a state of flux.  At times of head-spinning change, it's helpful to ponder history.  The Norman invasion of England in 1066 gives needed background. The Normans lived in France and spoke French, but they were only two generations removed from their Viking ancestry. In England they imposed their new language on the already established Anglo-Saxons. The Normans looked down on Anglo-Saxons for being Germanic, members of a tribe that had been the most resistant to Rome, marauding around Europe's forests like savages instead of paving roads through them. The Normans despised Anglo-Saxons beyond words, especially four letter words. The Anglo-Saxons said things like “fuck” and “shit,” scum that they were, while the Normans, heirs to Latin through French, could say copuler and defequer. The ex-Vikings may have heard a guttural sexuality in Anglo-Saxon that reminded them of the lowly language of their grandparents. Their dream was to abandon their outdated Viking culture (itself Germanic) and become Latinized aristocrats. To this end they needed to speak in multisyllabic words composed of phonemes that are not evocative of animals rutting.

Thus Savio's battle continued the thousand-year struggle to free the Anglo-Saxon mother tongue.

The "four-letter" words do of course have another property: they carry emotion.  Compare these two sentences:

 There are dog feces on the mat.

There's dog shit on the fucking mat!

The first sentence is devoid of emotion, an expression of information only; the second, identical to the first except for two bad words, a contraction and an exclamation mark, explodes with emotion.   It is their prohibition that has attached emotional power to the bad words. They are forbidden... special.  The process has given us useful words that express levels of emotion other words cannot.

Once the prohibition has been gone long enough, the words' power will diminish.

In the high school portion of my teaching career I formulated a policy on the goodness or badness of words based on their usefulness.  Plethora I identified as a bad word because it’s ugly and show-offy, making its common synonyms more useful.  When we read an Anglo-Saxon bad word in literature, I encouraged students to assess the word's usefulness in its context.  Words are either useful or they're not. They are useful if they carry meaning and force; they are not useful if they don’t. If I have to hear “motherfucker” all fucking day, that phrase is not useful. If it's only once in a while, well….

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