By Amy Heard
As an English major who spends all my free time in the journalism, public relations and new media department, I am well aware of the power of language. Words have the power to build up or tear down, and the difference between a well-crafted piece of writing and a hasty rant is always apparent. As Mark Twain said (and Dr. Joe Fulton loves to quote), “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
There are right words and almost right words, but there are also wrong words. What is it that makes a “bad” word bad? The Lariat’s recent editorial on derogatory words in popular music prompted me to consider the use of derogatory language beyond the confines of the public arena.
There are two types of people who use profanity. The first, the casual swearer, says a cuss word about as often as most Baylor women say “like.” The words are empty, useless adjectives that have lost impact for the speaker, though not necessarily the audience. The second, the passionate swearer, generally reverts to cursing in moments of anger or extreme emotion. The language is thrown in to communicate tone, or sometimes for humor. Those who do not fall into either category are people like my mother, who find profane language to be unacceptable in any situation and don’t use it under any circumstances.
The relationship between casual, passionate and non-swearers can be tense. Passionate swearers are generally tolerant of casual swearers, though sometimes the sheer volume of offensive words can become grating. Interestingly, the presence of a casual swearer seems to increase the number of passionate swearers in a particular setting. People who never cuss find casual swearers very off-putting, and look disapprovingly on the moments when passionate swearers let a bad word slip.
We all know someone in each of these categories, but classifying people according to frequency of profanity does not illuminate what makes a bad word bad. Obscenities in the English language range from biblical (damn it) to anatomical (generally backside related) to simply descriptive (think female dog). In my mother’s house, “crap” and “that sucks” are offensive, though those phrases wouldn’t have earned me a detention in middle school.
Take it from another angle. Say “bloody hell” in England and you have made a strong statement. In America? My grandma probably wouldn’t bat an eye. She’s also in the ‘never sworn in her life’ category, just for clarification.
Twain also said, “under certain circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer,” suggesting that perhaps what is offensive about expletives is the release they provide. It is the lack of self-control implied by the hissed execration that is so questionable.
If it is the intention behind the words that makes them bad, then why is it is generally considered acceptable to substitute “fudge” for a stronger term, or “shoot” when you really mean “i” instead of “oo”? Are you any more in control of yourself when you say a substitute word instead of its four-letter version? (That was hypothetical, but just so we’re clear, the answer is no.)
The answer to what makes a bad word bad then must be a confluence of context and construct. An ass with four legs and a tail isn’t naughty, but put that word in a sentence with an ex-boyfriend and you have an insult. Certain words are offensive because society has made them that way, and because we put them into our language with specific intentions.
Words are just words, but everyone knows they can hurt just as much as sticks and stones.
As adults, we have the responsibility to watch what we say, whether that be for profanity, vulgarity or just plain insensitivity.
Amy Heard is a senior English major from San Antonio and is a Lariat copy editor.