Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Bad words

I'm sure you've heard by now about Ann Coulter calling John Edwards a "faggot." I'm not really interested in Coulter and, until I got sucked into a couple videos of her on YouTube, have managed to avoid ever seeing her ignorant spewing (but then, I mostly watch SciFi and the Food Network, and sometimes Comedy Central. Hey, I wonder if she'll be on "The Daily Show"?).

The discussion in the press has gotten me thinking about words and the contexts that turn them into "bad words." Apparently Coulter has defended herself by saying that it was "a schoolyard taunt" and I am reminded of how many teachers I've known who have tried to put the kibosh on the use of "fag," "faggot," and "gay" (the adjective that means "stupid") in their schools, because those words hurt students. In the Battlestar Galactica universe, "toaster" is a common pejorative used for the Cylons, to further distance our heroes from the enemy (much like the word Coulter used last year at CPAC). To lend the show authenticity, the producer had to invent a word that would not be censored, so all the soldiers use "frak," a word that is slipping into regular American English, without the baggage of the Anglo-Saxon word from which it is descended. Oh, the joy of the kids who are using it in school!

On those old Anglo-Saxon words for a minute: I had a professor in college who held all those words near and dear to his heart. I had an entertaining conversation with him in the very echo-y stairwell of the library about how Anglo-Saxon was big on strong consonant sounds, like "F," "K," "SH," and "T." I seem to remember him saying that the Normans, who spoke Old French, further marginalized the defeated Anglo-Saxons by creating a culture in which their speech was "bad" - hence, the "bad words" that in Anglo-Saxon were just words.

I was discouraged to see the word "bitch" crawl onto our TV screens some years ago. I do not use it because in 1996 a 16 year old asked me not to, and I use "kvetch" instead of "complain." Probably because it is a gender-specific noun in a language that for the most part (except for pronouns, as S. Bear Bergman points out) has dumped gendered words. Is there even an equivalent to describe a male? Even worse, the phrase "bitch-slapped" is so accepted that the first time I heard it was on a sitcom (I was in so much shock I can't remember what the sitcom was - perhaps "Frasier"). To me, that's a double barrelled word - a word that not only disrespectfully describes a woman, but also violence against women.

There are other words I won't use, ones that are called by their first letter only, because people take real offense at them for the way they have been used in the past. There has been a lot of discussion about ownership of those words... discussions I have been part of when the word is "queer" or "dyke." "I can use it, but you can't" types of words, and I don't use them if I'm not in the group that is "taking back" the word.

I don't think any of the Seven Dirty Words are particularly bad words. I never use some of them, by chance, and don't use the rest when I think I'm around people who might be offended. I do not use, and ask people around me not to use, nouns that describe a group of people in a disrespectful way, because those words offend me.

Update: Sorry, I didn't get the whole quote from Coulter about "faggot" being a schoolyard taunt. What she actually said on "Hannity and Colmes" Monday night was, "'Faggot' isn't offensive to gays; it has nothing to do with gays... It is a schoolyard taunt."

Like so many other people, my response is: Uhhhh, yes it is, and yes it does.

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