Friday, June 15, 2007

Bad language

All this swearing has got me thinking about bad words, and I should warn you I'm about to use pretty much all of them.

A random poppyI can’t be doing with superstition around words. Words are noises, expressed in the visual as sequences of letters and I’m not afraid of any of them. I will say them all out loud if you dare me, or write them down. Backwards, if you think that adds some satanic power to them.

A dictionary doesn’t give words their meaning. A dictionary ought to reflect. And there isn’t a word I can think of which was offensive at its conception. Fuck and cunt, our strongest swearwords, were always sexual references but existed for hundreds of years without being taboo; the shag and fanny of another age. There are words for innately bad things of course, but usage tends to remove the sting; he murdered that song, these shoes are torture and so on.

Words do not upset us. It is their order and context that causes the problem. But use them too often in that problematic order and that problematic context and the words themselves begin to rot.

Nigger, for example. Nigger didn’t mean anything bad. Its etymology is an innocent corruption of Negro, a black person, from the Latin niger, black. Yeah right.

I must say, I mention this particular word because it is the one word which raises some doubts for me. I mean niggling doubts about whether it is okay to say it at all. In my short and sheltered existence, I have never heard or read anybody use that word to refer to another person or themselves, not outside American books, movies and films. Which isn't a criticism of American culture; if the word is in use, it must be used, but it is not in use in my world.

Meanwhile, something weird is happening to the word in my world. The stirring monster of privilege, I guess; white people who have never used the word in their lives come out with, "Of course, we're not allowed to use the N word, even though black people use it about themselves and one another all the time."

Which is a myth on two counts. But why would any white person want to use it? Except in the context of talking about language. I associate the word with the very worse excesses of racial violence, slavery and oppression; nigger did not mean black person; from the books and films I surmise that it in fact meant person who is lazy and foolish yet pliable, a person who is animalistic and sexually predatory but easy to outwit and easy to correct with physical force, a person whose existence is inherrently paracitic but one whose physical strength and dim-witted nature can be put to good use in the right circumstances. Not a person at all, actually. It is an abhorrent sentiment. It is two syllables or six letters of hatred.

Is that superstitious? Of course it is. It is just two syllables, six letters; it has no real power, but it still makes me squirm. I have no idea if this word is to be reclaimed. I suspect that it may be beyond salvage, but it isn't any of my business; it does not belong to me and you'll never read it here again.

I suppose I have always seen other racist terms, the terms I am more familiar with, as fundamentally stupid and thus not nearly so potent. I knew, as a child, that Paki was supposed to be an abbrieviation of Pakistani and yet my schoolfriends who got called these terms descended from almost anywhere in the world but Pakistan - in one case, a friend got called Paki because his paternal grandparents were Jamaican. I therefore concluded that people who used this word had never seen an atlas and assumed that Pakistan was the only country outside Europe.

Similarly, Wog. Wog is a very British racial slur, starting out as an acroynym for Western Oriental Gentleman; a person native to what we now call the Middle East. T. E. Lawrence was criticised for dressing like one, as you might remember from the film. Yet the most famous incident in our history involving this word was when David Oluwale had the nationality of Brit crossed out in his police records and replaced with Wog. Oluwale was born in Nigeria and went on to become the first black man to die in police custody. The word wog didn't kill him; the sentiment did.

All the racist words I can think of are slang words in origin. The trouble with disablist words is that so many terms became playground insults five minutes after being used in a formal, often medical, context; cretin, cripple, maniac, midget, retard, spastic and so on, with a special emphasis on mental health and intellectual impairments. Other words became problematic because they were almost always used in a patronising way. When Devon MP Anthony Stern defended himself for parking in a Blue Badge Parking Space and insisted that there were too many such spaces, he was almost guaranteed to use the term handicapped spaces and go on to say;
"Of course we want to help the handicapped, and of course they've got to be given provisions, but not against the interests of the majority."
Handicapped really isn't a bad word; it can be argued to have etymological advantages over disabled. Only for some reason, it is usually only used along with this kind of nonsense. Oh and if you park illegally in a space designated not for helping disabled people, but for allowing them equal access to buidlings, goods and services, then you place yourself in a minority. The majority follow the rules and if in doubt, raise questions about the number of designated spaces. Especially if one is in the powerful position of MP.

The disability-related word that causes most regular shock and offense would be retard, which seems to still be used in some formal contexts in the US, but also much more often as an insult, sometimes as 'tard, sometimes fucktard and the other day I saw the portmanteau celebutard used to describe Paris Hilton (although I confess I was amused by the idea; I propose celebritwit as an alternative). Cripple is still shocking to me when used as a noun and a verb without irony, but I'm so used to its ironic use, or that of its abbrieviation crip among disabled people, that it has lost very much of its power to offend me. Words can have the power drained out of them.

Women, whether consciously feminist or not, have taken the edge off all number of words which used to be used to undermine or dismiss us. Bitch has been a great success. Bitch could be one of the worst insults a woman can receive; it is everything she is not supposed to be, aggressive, manipulative, cold and cruel. And while yes, it is still a term of abuse, it has far less power against the strong and assertive women who have claimed it as their own. Some fine on-line examples being Disability Bitch, Angry Black Bitch, Fussy Bitch, Bitch PHD and Bitch Lab (as was).

Many of the sexual name-calling terms have also been subverted, partly because of increased sexual freedom for women. Some women cheerfully refer to themselves as tarts, sluts and whores in the same way men might refer to themselves as studs. This subversion, though far from uncomplicated, is a thousand times better than attempting to annihilate words from our language. It's also growing increasingly comfortable to use these words affectionately and without gender.

I was going to write about my favourite term of abuse, since subverted, but I'll leave that for another day.


Anonymous said...

I love "celebritwit." I shall use it every day from now on.

I must point out, however, that the words "tart," "slut" and "whore" are not really equivalent in value to the word "stud," which is considered a compliment. Breeders pay for the services of a stud. A stud earns his position and is considered valuable.

By contrast, a woman falls to the position of tart, slut or whore. Womanizers pay much less for the services of tarts, sluts and whores, whose services are illegal in most places and whose persons are considered automatically demeaned by virtue of their profession.

When heterosexual British men start referring to themselves cheerfully as "rent boys," then perhaps we'll have some parity. I can't think of an American equivalent to that expression, and I only ever hear gay men cheerfully calling themselves and each other "tarts," "sluts" and "whores." Interestingly, I don't think I've ever heard an American gay man refer to himself or another gay man as a "stud."

My favorite example of a curse/non-curse word is "bloody," and also "bleeding." In the Victorian era, overhearing such language supposedly could make a British lady fan herself in agitation. I always found this terribly amusing. Maybe it's because I'm a rude American.

Anonymous said...

If "retard" really is considered, among Americans, an acceptable means by which to refer to persons with learning, psychological, or other disabilities these days, I'm ashamed for us-- not to mention fearful of the things we do with language. In my experience the word has never been used in any context other than the derogatory, except possibly on sheet music. I find it troubling to put such terms into formal use without any consideration for their history.

Of course, I feel absolutely no qualms about referring to Paris Hilton as a pointless bint. Or a vacuous parasite. That's just fine.

S. said...

I think that there's a difference in usage of "retarded" and "retard" in the US--in some populations (gossipping grandmothers?) the first might still be used without an intention to wound, but it can also be slung pretty hard on the playground, while the second is really entirely pejorative.

But I think that by the time most kids hit middle school the slur of choice is "gay."

Is it only Yanks jumping in today?

The Goldfish said...

Sara - Hmm, yes, I did say not uncomplicated. I don't like these words but I suppose a part of me would rather women owned them instead of them merely being sticks with which to beat us - or at least those women who get so labelled.

When I was little, I used the word bloody whilst playing in the garden with my sister. She giggled and told me that was a rude word.

I said, "Don't be ridiculous! Bloody bloody bloody bloody!"

This made her giggle some more, so I started shouting it, "BLOODY BLOODY BLOODY BLOODY!"

At which point I got called indoors by my red-faced mother, who persuaded me that it was indeed a very rude word. It really was as rude as shit or piss when I was growing up; it has diminished a lot, because well... why would it be rude?

The common belief is that it is blasphemous from by our Lady but I don't think there's any proof of that - I think it's the Victorians with their gentleman cows and turning haycocks into haystacks and so on.

Jess and S., I think S. might be right about retarded or retardation being used in a formal context. If you put retarded into Google, most of the results are about intellectual impairments. Still rather too close to one another for my comfort, but then for whatever reason, we just don't use the word over here at all - well people do say "retard" as an insult but it's an Americanism, something we pinched from the movies.

I love "gay" as an insult; I find it so bizarre. I especially crack up when you hear little boys teasing one another; "Jonny loves Jennifer! He kissed her! That's so gay!"

Zephyr said...

I might be alone in this, but I'm arthritic and on a mission to reclaim crippled or cripple...and I'm Canadian. Perhaps it's because I grew up with an uncle who had a fused knee joint, who matter-of-factly referred to himself, to me, and to his nephew with CP as crippled. No one else ever used the term pejoratively. In fact, the insult of choice hurled at me on the playground was "stiffy" and "robot".

Elizabeth McClung said...

I spent my teen years in LA so I don't think I have ever used the N word, though have gone to many events including comedy which did - it was simply a word you didn't want to even think about because at the most basic level, saying it could get you killed (Seriously!) - ironically, it was in the UK that I heard it used the most (along with most anti-jewish slurs).

Brits love to use cunt - which I hate and no one seems to be reclaiming, I like words reclaimed "inwards" like Dyke and crip. Though if someone calls me either, that is telling me a lot about them (like how I don't want to know them).

I use disabled, though here, even 10 years ago that was a hotly debated issues, I went to an advertised meeting for "people with different abilities" because I was pretty good at juggling (this is when I was able bodied) - which is when I found out it was that years phrase for disabled. I am not against evolving language but standing in a doorway with people in wheelchairs, with walking assist devices staring not so friendly as I stammer about how I can juggle, that's why I'm here.....

Thanks for explaining Wog - I had read it in British tales often but never knew exactly its meaning.

Katy Murr said...

First time I stumbled across this blog, and very interesting... you seem to relish word :)

Katy Murr said...


(too much wine?...)

Anonymous said...

Isn't it easiest just to stick with "Johnny Foreigner"? At least then people know you're taking the piss and don't mean it seriously... (hopefully).

And I would apologise for swearing - but you started it :-)

There was an interesting debate on the word 'niggaz' on BBC editors blog the other week, suggesting that it's this spelling which is used by the hip-hop crews, rather than the 'er' version which they think is always offensive.

Personally, I'll happily swear with the best of them, but the only time I'll use specifically offensive racially-related language is when I'm talking about that language. In which case I think it's fair and fine to do so. Although I sympathise with your niggling doubts. And then end up wondering whether the word 'niggling' relates to the same etymological root...

This also reminds me of having to try to put together a filter list for a web mail service in order to pick out/highlight emails with offensive terms. Me and another person spent the best part of a day coming up with every offensive term - sexual, racial, you name it - as a perfectly valid if somewhat unusual piece of work.

seahorse said...

This is very timely, as I have had to pull my son up on his choice of language this week. It's really hard knowing exactly how to pitch your response when as a parent who has experienced mental distress, your son uses words like mental and crazy and nutter. He hears them all the time in the playground and on TV. If he read The Mirror, he'd have seen maniac on the front page today (he doesn't, incidentally, and I only saw it cos I was in the corner shop).
But because of what we've been through he also understands the words depression and mental illness (yes, I have a knee jerk reaction to wishing he didn't...but then why shouldn't he understand these words if it leads to a fuller understanding in general?). I've told him to think about people who may be hurt by him using the words mental, crazy and nutter, which to me are not very imaginative or clever insults. Children actually have fantastic imaginations, and I just wish he hadn't grown out of Roald Dahl, who did more for his vocabulary a year or so back than any schooling has done.

Mary said...

I hold firm to my belief that it ain't what you say, it's the way that you say it.

eg if a doctor says of a young patient "his speech is retarded by about five years", that's very different from kids in the playground going "He's retarded! Hahaha!"

Very occasionally I've been angry enough to have such a go at someone that they have ended up crying. My vocabulary hasn't been any words that I wouldn't comfortably use in front of my mother/a nun/a disabled person/a teacher/a child, it's been the context and the tone that has made it so upsetting.

Maggie said...

I was told (when small) that WOG stood for wily oriental gentleman - the insinuation being that they were untrustworthy. My father still uses the word, but he's 88 so has used it for well over 60 years. He was stationed in Egypt for part of the war, so probably picked it up in the army. It's not a word I like.

Great post.

Best wishes from Liverpool

The Goldfish said...

Zephyr - In the UK, among some disabled people - certainly the crowd I know - crip is a perfectly acceptible term, but as Elizabeth says, it's not so acceptable when a non-disabled person calls one of us a cripple.

I can't remember where it was, but at one point some folks came up with a list of different classifications for disabled people, so you had wheelie-crips, ouchy-crips, sticky-crips, blindy-crips, auti-crips, nutty-crips, deafy-crips and so on

Elizabeth - There have been some feminist attempts to reclaim cunt I believe, but it's not really taken off. It is much much more acceptable in Scotland than it is in England; up there it is still a swearword, but not nearly such a rude one.

I love all those differently-abled, challenged, handicapable type euphemisms - for euphemisms they surely are.

Katy - Hi and yes, I suppose I do. :-)

JackP - You remind me of what might be an urban myth about loads of business e-mail systems which reject all mails that mention Scunthorpe...

Seahorse - I think it's great fun to make up insults, which sound insulting even though they don't use strong words. Like "You rotten great walnut-muncher!" or "You big bad cherry-chewer!"
(I think I must be hungry...)

Mary - I think you're basically right. I do think formal language needs examination every now and again. For example, you still hear the word spastic in a medical sense; a muscle in spasm. There are subsets of Cerebral Palsy which are spastic hemiplegia, spastic quadriplegia and so on. However, a person with Cerebral Palsy is never referred to as a spastic in any formal context (as far as I know). They used to - SCOPE used to be The Spastics Society, for spastics.

Maggie - It is a nasty word, isn't it? But yeah, it was probably completely acceptable in the military at the time.

Anonymous said...

Aims, Studying for joint Honours in Commerce and Tourism.
Not bad for a near Dwarf!

informed me some time ago that

BITCH is an acronym for Babe In Total Control of Herself which I thought was quite insightful!

Now I find myself when confronted with unpleasant words, creating wotsanemes of my own to suit!