July 16, 2001
Today, I want to talk about language: the primary tool we have for communicating, for expressing who we are, how we are and what we need. Sometimes, the words we choose are considered to be taboo, and we don’t allow them to be used in polite company.
I suspect that places like China have lots of taboo words, given that it’s such a tightly controlled society. I know that Hitler’s Germany had a lot of these words, as did Stalin’s Russia. In each of these cases, dictators truly feared the honesty in these words.
Today, we have words that most of us are not allowed to say in some places at some times. But since it’s all a part of language and self-expression, it just shouldn’t be this confusing.
About thirty years ago, one of my heroes, the comedian George Carlin, tried to attack this dilemma by saying these kinds of words on the radio. A lot of stations lost their sponsors, and some were even threatened with losing their FCC licenses. I love WTBQ and its sponsors, so I wouldn’t think of jeopardizing any of our relationships.
But the fact that some of these words may be offensive to some of you wouldn’t stop me from using them, since I believe that language that is not really harmful toward any one is just as legitimate a way for us to express ourselves as any other.
There are at least a half-dozen words that I use in daily speech that I am not allowed to use on the radio and at certain kinds of events. For instance, I do a lot of public speaking on a variety of subjects. Though there is no rule about what I can or cannot say, I know that if I use certain words, I will either lose my audience or be stoned to death. Now, if I said these words to most people who I know in a one-on-one conversation, they would think it quite normal and would most likely be using the same kinds of words. But for some reason, language that is both perfectly acceptable and even fun in private conversation is taboo in public conversation.
I wonder why the eff this is true?
Some of it, I have discovered as I travel the world of language, has to do with gender differences. And some of it is generational.
Some of it has to do with how we label some parts of language — like “dirty” words.
By the way, once you say a dirty word, is there any way to clean it up before the other person hears it? I’m just curious.
I find it weird and quite telling that only those words that are connected with sexuality and the human elimination of waste are considered dirty.
I mean, certain words that describe the act of going to the bathroom are just not permissible in polite company. But yet, I can use homicidal phrases like “Let’s nuke ‘em back to the Stone Age” or “mutually assured destruction” without offending anyone. God forbid, though, that I tell you that I just “effed up,” because that’s a dirty word.
With respect to gender differences, it’s just a fact that men talk to other men differently than they talk to women. Women may or may not talk to women with a different language than they use with men; I wouldn’t know.
Men, virtually all men, use language with each other that they don’t generally use with any women except their significant other — and sometimes they don’t even do that. My father was a good example of this. He had a life at home with his wife, two sons and a daughter, and when he was there he spoke a certain language. He also had a life down at the gas station he ran where he talked to the other guys with a different language. That language had more than a few of what we call “dirty words.”
Like most men of his generation, it wasn’t like he felt that he had to censor himself at home. It was just that there were two languages: one meant for home, and another for work and hanging with the guys.
And then there is a generational thing. I am a product of the ‘60s, a baby boomer. In case you haven’t noticed, my generation’s language isn’t the same as my folks’ generation. This is not to say that the men of my father’s generation didn’t use these words; I just think they used them less often and certainly less often in public than my generation does. My father served in the Army for five years. Not for a second do I believe that he and his buddies said things like “Oh my goodness, I was just assigned to the front lines and I am most unhappy about that.” You can bet your sweet petunias they didn’t.
In my father’s day, it was okay to say something like “War is Hell” to my mother or in public, but not okay to, say, put an eff-word modifier in front of that word.
I remember the very first dirty phrase that I ever used. I called my brother a “stupid ass.” Mom told me that was dirty. She should have heard my old man down at the gas station — maybe she would have gone a little easier on me. (Nah, she wouldn’t have.)
Actually my mother is pretty cool. She and I lived together for a couple of years recently, which was great. I couldn’t help the fact that even living with my mom, these unclean words would just sort of fly out of my mouth. After a while they did not seem to bother her, which allowed me to feel really comfortable and like she accepted me, dirty words and all. Once, she even said one of them. She wouldn’t admit it, but I suspect she got a kick out of it.
Mom, you are wonderful. And by the way, I have a rule: nobody but me is allowed to say these words in front of my mother. If anybody else does, I’ll just have to kill them.
I suppose when I get really angry at somebody, I could just say “Go global thermonuclear yourself” instead of what I really want to tell them to do with themselves.
One of the reasons I think that my parents’ generation used fewer dirty words is because of the movies they watched. I think the dirtiest word I ever heard come out of the mouths of movie stars like James Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper or John Wayne was “gosh.” I liked the character actor Walter Brennan because he occasionally went way over the top and uttered a “Gol’ darn it.” Can you imagine me saying “gosh” or “gol’ darn it” under any circumstances?
Now, when they write scripts for contemporary actors, it is as though the screenwriters have some sort of formula: insert a dirty word every other sentence, and then double that rate for the action sequences.
Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is language in the ear of the be-hearer.
Now, there are certain words that I find offensive, and they are usually used by people that I find offensive. These are words that are intended to inflict pain or fear. They refer to a person’s nationality, race, religion, gender or sexual orientation in a derogatory fashion. Words that are only used in order to inflict pain or fear or perpetuate hateful stereotypes are not okay with me. I don’t think they should be banned; I just think that anyone who uses them is an a******.
I always like the fact that some words are okay when used in some contexts.
For instance: I can cock my gun and I can suck a lollipop, but I cannot say that I suck the thing on the gun.
A female dog is a bitch.
A donkey is also an ass.
If you shoot a donkey and put a hole in it, I can say “donkey hole,” but that’s it.
I can prick my finger with a needle.
I can have a friend named Dick.
I can play with rubber balls, but not the other kind.
I can claim that we are playing tit for tat.
My kitten is also my pussy.
Beavers make damns.
I can blow out a candle.
I can have a job blowing candles, but I can’t have a you- know-what job.
In the end, if you asked me what the point of this discussion is, I would probably tell you that I really have no effing idea.