Friday, October 15, 2010

Continuing Yesterday's Discussion: Can a Word Actually Be Bad?

by Scott Rhoades

I enjoyed yesterday's post about swearing in novels. I'm going to look at the same topic in a little different light today. Don't worry. This is not a blog extolling the virtues of swearing. In general, I take the same point of view as yesterday's post, although perhaps not quite as stringently (I did once, though, so I understand why many of you feel that way). But I do want to discuss the concept of bad words in general. I also want to apologize in advance for the length of this post. It touches on some of my favorite subjects, so it's likely to be long. Whether you agree or disagree, I hope you at least find it interesting. And don't worry. You won't find any of the words here that are likely to offend some of you.

I love language in its various notes and tones, and tend to believe that there are no bad words, only words badly used. This view comes from my studies of language and language history. Many of the words we now consider taboo have perfectly innocent roots, and were commonly used, even in polite society, as late as the 17th Century, when some of them were already 1,000 years old.

Here's an example. Chaucer used a certain word, often considered to be The Big One, avoided even by people who drop F-bombs the way Hansel and Gretel dropped breadcrumbs. He spelled it differently, but it was still the same word. That word was not considered rude at the time, appearing in an infamous London street name in 1230, in several family surnames recorded as early as 1066, and in a medical textbook around 1400. It was merely an anatomical term, one that survives in many Indo-European languages as a term for woman or wife. We use it all the time in words like Queen, or names that contain gwen- or gwyn-.

It's interesting that, in Catholic cultures, blasphemies against deity are usually considered the most taboo, while in Protestant countries, it's body parts and bodily functions. In English, the most common impolite word that can legitimately be called a curse, the D-word, has blasphemous roots and is low in the swearing hierarchy.

Anatomical terms fell into hard times as the Puritans, once considered radical religious fanatics not so unlike the Taliban today, ceased power in England. With Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland, the Puritans were able to legislate a lot of matters that they had tried to influence for the preceding 50 years or so. One of these was language. Suddenly, words for body parts and functions that started out as neither profane nor impolite—they were just the words for those things—became “bad” words, and the subject of laws. Especially words of Anglo-Saxon origin, which tended often to be monosyllabic with hard sounds in them. You know which words I mean. In the meantime, words with the same meanings were allowed to be used, usually words from the softer-sounding French and Latin, many of which were several hundred years younger in the English language. “Manure” sounds much less harsh than its Anglo-Saxon counterpart.

Even the planet that sustains us became a bad thing. Certain words and behaviors were described as “dirty” or “earthy.” The substance in which food was grown, and to which our bodies return after death, and, in fact, from which our bodies are said to have been created, became a negative thing, something to be avoided, an adjective for unacceptable things.

The fact is, those words we're supposed to avoid have no power and no special meanings. They're just words, with origins and meanings no more offensive than acceptable alternatives. The only power they carry is the power we give them. That power doesn't come from the words. It comes from us. Many words that we use daily were once considered rude, but we've robbed them of any power we once gave them. For example, the word “girl” was originally a mildly insulting term for either a boy or a girl, a synonym of knave. The cognate “Kerl” is still used in German.

I found yesterday's comments about swear words taking the reader out of the flow of the story especially interesting. Not interesting in a negative way, interesting in that they interest me. They actually contribute to the point I'm trying make behind all of this rambling.

I am not a swearer. Or, I should say, it's a very rare thing when I swear, either in person or in writing. But when I do, it gets attention. It can stop a conversation cold. If I swear, my family and friends know I mean it. I have yet to use a serious swear word in any of my fiction for an audience of any age. But I refuse to rule it out. There might come a time, when there's no better word, when I want to really get the reader's attention, when I actually want to make the reader stop short and notice. When I use one of those words, I'll mean it, and the reader will know.

As I said at the beginning, I love words. I play with them, and I study them, and I try to understand connotations and denotation so I can use the right words in the right ways to create the right impression in the reader's (or listener's) mind. Knowing that sometimes the good old Anglo-Saxon word creates a different picture than its Latinate counterpart means that I can choose the right one for the image I want to create. They both have the same meaning, but they produce different results. Writers are supposed to choose strong words over weak ones.

I want to close by recommending a book to those who are interested in the meaning of words. Whether you want to learn what some of those taboo words really mean and where they come from, or you want to find “cleaner” or more interesting alternatives, Wicked Words: A Treasury of Curses, Insults, Put-Downs, and Other Formerly Unprintable Terms from Anglo-Saxon Times to the Present by Hugh Rawson is a useful resource, and it's fun to read if you enjoy word origins. Sometimes it's just plain funny. If you are sensitive to those words, though, be warned that they are in this book, discussed in linguistic terms.


Julie Daines said...

That was a #*@~ good post, Scott! But I'm not sure what words you're referring to. Can you be more specific?

Julie Daines said...

And another thing. It sounds like what you mean is that if something unsavory leaves our mouths, we should not say, "Pardon my French" but rather, "Pardon my Anglo-Saxon."

Scott said...

Exactly, Julie. (Good one!)