What Makes a Bad Word a Bad Word?
I yelled out “Sh*t!” in the grocery store today. It was a little out of character for me. I rarely use profanity or bad language when I’m out in public.
In this case, I might have been justified. I was reaching for one of those metal handles in the refrigerated section, and I got zapped so hard I could hear the “ZZzzzpppp!” I yelped out my profanity and danced around swinging my hand when I noticed a family with a bunch of kids watching me. I’m not sure if they found my profanity or my dancing (or maybe both) curious, so I moved on, embarrassed.
Maybe I shouldn’t have felt bad. “Sh*t!” is just a word. I mean, it’s one of those words that I was taught not to say as a kid, but it’s still just a word. It’s a word that led to me getting my mouth washed out with soap when I was a kid, but it’s still just a word.
Years ago, after I had gotten my mouth washed out with soap (it’s worse than it sounds) and I’d had a moment to reflect, I wondered why some words were so bad to say. Why was it okay to say “defecation” but not “sh*t”? Why is it proper to say “copulate” or “fornicate” but not “f*ck”? Why is it tactful to say “male appendage” instead of “d*ck” or “pr*ck” or “c*ck”? I almost feel sorry for the male appendage because there’s almost no way to mention it without offending somebody.
As an adult, I understand. It’s all about the syllables.
If you’re going to refer to a socially sensitive body part or bodily function, you have to use a word with more than one syllable. “F*ck,” “sh*t,” “c*ck, and almost every other good cuss word has a root word that is only one syllable. “Fornicate,” “defecate,” and “appendage” all have several syllables. Yes, “motherf*cker has four syllables, but the root word is “f*ck,” and any word with “f*ck” is going to be considered a cuss word. The same principal applies to “sh*thead,” or “sh*tty,” or “sh*tfaced” or “pieceofsh*t.”
The good thing about multisyllabic profanity is that I have a chance to correct or censor myself before I finish swearing. If I’m with my kids, I try not to swear, but if I’m driving and others on the road aren’t cooperating, I can’t help it. I catch myself saying/yelling things like:
If I don’t complete the last syllable, it’s not really cussing. At least, that’s what I tell myself (and my kids). I’m an adult; I can determine for myself what is profanity and what is not, and a half-swear is not nearly as bad as a full-swear.
Kids, on the other hand, are not allowed to half-swear. If kids aren’t allowed to use full profanity, they shouldn’t be allowed to half-swear either. If a kid yells out “Sunuva….!” without completing the word, it should still mean a good mouth-washing (depending on the child protective laws of your state or country). I wasn’t allowed to half-swear when I was a kid. Today’s kids shouldn’t be allowed to either.
Since kids sometimes accidentally read Dysfunctional Literacy, I feel obligated to censor the profanity in some way. I’m not sure it’s effective. If I write “sh*t,” everybody knows what it means. The * sign isn’t really hiding anything or changing the meaning. It just makes me feel better as a human being. I’m a better person than a blogger who actually spells out “sh*t.” I don’t mean that, but it still makes me feel better.
H#ll, I don’t even know which symbol to use when I write censored profanity. None of them look right. Is there a standardized symbol for each profane word? If there isn’t, maybe somebody should develop one. I’d do it, but I’m kind of wishy-washy, and none of the symbols look right to me anyway.
It’s probably because of people like me that words are considered vulgar at all. After all, I have standards. I want civilization to be civilized. If it weren’t for people like me, everybody could walk around naked in public yelling “F*ck!” all the time and nobody would care. But yelling “F*ck!” all the time would get old quickly (and I don’t want to see most people naked). It’s not really censorship because I don’t believe the government should put you in jail for yelling “F*ck!” I think a disapproving look is enough (except for kids, whose mouths should be washed out with soap).
In a civilized society, some words (and maybe even ideas) should not be spoken publicly. And some words should not be spoken by kids until they’re adults. Kids should have something to look forward to, and freedom of profane expression is awesome when you’ve been getting your mouth washed out with soap for 16-18 years. I just realized that my mom wasn’t being abusive when she was washing out my mouth; she was guaranteeing that I would appreciate profanity when I was an adult.
Profanity has its place. It can be a useful stress reliever if the words are used sparingly. Spout your curse words too frequently, however, and they lose their power. I don’t know if that’s really true; it just sounds good to me.
So the next time you crack your head against a cabinet, and the only relief from the pain comes from screaming “F*ck!” really loud, thank people like me.
What do you think? Is there such a thing as a bad word? Is there any logic behind it? In what situations do you use bad words? Was getting my mouth washed out with soap that bad (or is my memory over-dramatizing things)? Is a half-swear as bad as a full-swear?
If you’ve read this far, you’ll probably enjoy my ebook…
And here is the true story of my one moment of high school glory!