Friday, November 28, 2014

Bad words

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.  How does such a word become bad?

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 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.

As an elementary and high school teacher I spent a lot of time and energy trying to dissuade children from saying bad words that denoted sexual organs, various sex acts and, of course, excrement. In this essay I ponder what I was trying to accomplish, and what our culture is trying to accomplish.

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. 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.

Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Thank you Mario!

Fast forward from the 60's 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 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 60's style linguistic abandon.

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 some needed background. The Normans spoke French (though they were only two generations removed from their Viking ancestry) and imposed their language on the indigenous 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 Savio's battle for free speech represents a continuation of the thousand-year struggle for the Anglo-Saxons' right to speak the mother tongue.

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

1. There are dog feces on the mat.

2. 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 “mother-fucker” all fucking day, that phrase is not useful. If it's only used once in a while, well then, maybe….