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 “cunt,” however, is bad, though it doesn’t refer to anything bad, unless you’re going to say, which nobody does, that vaginas are bad. How would you explain such discrepancies to a little kid whom you had just chastised for blabbing “cunt” after hearing the older kids say it? Actually, of course, we never have to explain such subtleties to kids because they instinctively understand the badness of certain words. But what is it that they understand? And what do we adults understand about what they understand?
Let’s stay focused on “cunt” for a moment. I took as a given that humankind do not consider vaginas to be bad. History shows us, though, that the truth is not so simple. Christian Konrad Sprengel, 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 a wholly female flower is a type of vagina, that male-only flowers are types of penises, and hermaphroditic flowers are cocks with pussies attached that fuck themselves.
Sorry for the cheap shock value of my prose, but I’m trying to make a point. Sprengel turned “flower” into a bad word.
And now full disclosure: As an elementary and high school teacher I strove for years to dissuade children from saying bad words that denoted just such items as penises and vaginas. In this essay I ponder what I was trying to accomplish, and I hope you will find my musings edifying.
I’m one of those crossover people who remember bygone eras. In 1955 my family went to see “Picnic” because we’d heard that William Holden said “damn” (my parents were always looking for the cutting edge). 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 “damn” was about to burst (sorry).
Not long after this experience my friend John and I distinguished ourselves among our fellow 5th graders by creating the Swearing Club. No one could join unless they walked around the playground swearing with us. One day I said “poop” to Allison Rene (whose mom was a teacher) as she ostentatiously read Shakespeare in class. She recoiled at my foul mouth (evidently not having understood the obscene jokes with which the Bard peppered his opus) and informed the principal. I was summoned shortly to his office, where he allowed me to sit in anxious silence for some moments before uttering, “Do you know why you’re here?” I did indeed. The principal called my father, who, as Mr. Goddam This and Goddam That, was not sure how to handle my trespass. Finally he formulated a lecture in which I gathered that I couldn’t swear because I was a kid. I asked why kids couldn’t swear. His answer, as I recall, was something along the lines of, “Because they’re kids.” The issue was not settled in my mind.
Fast forward to San Francisco State, 1969- my Chaucer professor has just charged breathlessly into the classroom. Instead of giving us a page number to find, he asks us if we’ve heard what’s going on at U.C. Berkeley. 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! The rest is history.
Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Thank you Mario!
Flash forward again to 1983, when, as a new elementary school teacher in inner-city 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 that my approach to the zeitgeist needs adjusting.
Fast forward a few years and I’m a high school English teacher. I hear “mother-fucker” all day long and don’t bat an eyelash.
So what gives? Are words that were once bad no longer bad? Maybe we need to look again at the 60’s. The liberation of speech was part of a broader liberation that was largely sexual. Intercourse was good; therefore fucking was good. This might explain some of the dynamics, but not all. For instance, I don’t recall in hippie dogma any apotheosis of excrement. Hippies still, for the most part, hid themselves away while defecating, wiped themselves clean as a whistle afterwards, and did not excessively talk about the act, at least not in celebratory tones. Yet these days, as we all know, "shit” happens, especially in movie comedy, where many of the moments previously reserved for clever jokes are now covered by the phrase, “holy shit!” drawn out, to increase the hilarity, to "Hooooly Shit!"
Thus it is not sufficient to explain the badness of bad words as an attitude towards their referents. There must be something else.
I offer the Norman invasion, at least for the English language. The Normans spoke French (though they were only two generations removed from their Viking ancestry) and imposed their language on Anglo-Saxons, whom they despised 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, could say, in the French versions, “copulate” and “defecate.” Thus Mario’s battle for free speech carried on a thousand year struggle for the Anglo-Saxons’ right to speak the mother tongue.
What to make of all this? Bad words will continue to upset and delight regardless of analysis. Perhaps, ultimately, we think a word is bad just because everyone around us does. How else to explain why the English think “bloody” is a bad word and Americans don’t? The essential concern seems to be a matter of style.
In the high school portion of my teaching career I was able to formulate a policy on bad words for my students. “Plethora,” I told them, is a bad word because it’s ugly and every high school student’s idea of impressive vocabulary, and I forbade its use ("deontological" would be my current pick). Words are not really good or bad, I told them. They are just useful or not. They are useful if they carry meaning and force; they are not useful if they don’t. If I have to hear “mother-fucker” all fucking day, then that phrase is not useful. If you only use it once in a while, well then, maybe….