READER DISCRETION ADVISED: If you’re offended by the words “shit,” “damn,” “bitch,” “ass,” or “fuck,” then … well, I suppose it doesn’t really matter at this point, does it? In all seriousness though, I’ll be using these and other words from the English language (some of which genuinely do have shock value and are offensive) in this post to the end of having an informed discussion about a relevant topic–namely, why certain words are tabooed and others aren’t. If that’s something you can’t handle, stop reading now.
There’s been a kerfuffle of late concerning Rick Santorum’s altercation with the New York Times reporter who asked him to clarify some statements he’d made about Mitt Romney. Santorum apparently thinks Romney’s the “worst Republican in America,” but only in certain contexts, as he curtly informed the Times reporter. Aside from there having been little to no reason for Santorum to get his tighty-whities in a tangle since the reporter’s question was completely legitimate, the entire basis for the news coverage was utterly inane.
What was the problem people had with Ricky?, you might be wondering.
Well, Mr. Santorum lost his nerve for a bit and, in the midst of signing autographs and kissing infants, said “bullshit.”
THE HORROR. Pardon me for a moment while I convulse in self-righteous indignation.
I can’t believe that I’m coming to this guy’s defense even a little, but honestly, people, can’t we all just grow an IQ? You might have noticed that I began the title of this post with the phrase “socially tabooed words;” that’s the terminology I use for the words that our society has arbitrarily decided over the course of time to be unacceptable for polite conversation. In some cases, the basis for these determinations is legitimate as some words genuinely do have a negative connotation inseparably infused with people’s collective consciousness of them. That is to say, the user’s intent is irrelevant; the word itself is tainted. Some examples of these types of words include the racial slur “nigger” and the derogatory term for female genitalia, “cunt” (in American English).
Are these words inherently bad?
No, they aren’t; no word is inherently bad. The way in which it is used over time and the connotations it develops are what drive people to taboo a word. In fact, using the words “nigger” and “cunt” actually communicate more about the speaker than the person (or persons) to whom they are addressed. They communicate–among other things–ignorance, insensitivity, and predjudice; one (usually), against people of sub-Saharan African descent and the other, against women.
So, in some cases, the tabooing (the linguistic term is “pejoration”) of a word is probably justified. I used two of the more prominent examples but with them are some words and terms that people might be less familiar with. Among them are “mongoloid,” which was how people once described individuals with Down syndrome due to the shape of their eyes; “raghead” or “towel head” (these are interesting because, in the U.S., people who wear headdresses tend to be Sikhs, not Muslims, though the assumption tends to be that all people from the Middle East who wear turbans practice Islam and are, by extension, Islamic extremists or terrorists); and “wetback,” a slur against Mexicans based on the ignorant assumption that they came to the U.S. by swimming the Rio Grande. So, in short, tabooing a word can serve a greater social purpose.
My pet peeve is when a word is tabooed for no apparent reason–or, at the least, a reason that is no longer relevant. “Shit” is one of these. I pose this question all the time and have never received a logical answer: “If it’s bad to say ‘shit,’ why is it usually acceptable to say ‘crap’ and common to say “poop”?” Whatever you might think, it’s a legitimate question as all three are four-letter words that denote the exact same thing.
Anyway, I need to get to my point.
What’s almost as frustrating as the sheer illogicality of the words people get upset over is the terminology they use to define them. I haven’t read most of the news stories about Rick Santorum’s verbal slip-up but I guarantee that between them, the words “cursed,” “swore,” and “used profanity” will be used interchangeably.
Now, pay attention because I’m about to make you smarter: none of these words will be used in a way true to their meaning. The word “curse” used in a transitive sense (which was the original usage) means to speak evil against someone or turn them over to evil spiritual powers; in a word, to “damn” them, but it can also mean simply to speak bad things on someone. To “swear” means to take an oath (usually by something, like God or the Bible) and “profane,” in its original usage, is merely the counterpart to “sacred;” essentially, anything that was secular in nature was profane and the word didn’t have a negative connotation. Now, of course, I’ll be the first to say that the meanings of words, just like their connotations, are arbitrary and change over time. However, a word that means everything means nothing. What the writers of these stories are intending to say is “Rick Santorum used socially tabooed speech,” which doesn’t sound as good, of course, but is more accurate in its meaning. It’s also advantageous because it draws more attention to the fact that “shit” is only a bad word because people think it is.
Furthermore, when we talk about these actions according to their original meanings, it opens up a new understanding of what should and should not be accepted. Instead of getting in a tiff when a politician says “shit,” as a society we might unanimously condemn hateful ideologues when they baselessly call university students who testify before Congress in favor of a policy they dislike “sluts” and “prostitutes.” We might do so because, in effect, they’ve “cursed” another human being by speaking bad things on them. We might also reject the terse and annoyed apologies they give out as not in line with what we regard as acceptable reconciliation in those situations.
When society decides that certain words aren’t welcomed in civilized discourse, it often is to a good end. In effect, it’s a way of demonstrating what are and what are not acceptable modes of thought and debate. Tabooed slurs undermine the legitimacy of normal discourse by reducing an opponent to a particular physical or cultural attribute; they are tabooed for a reason. Demeaning verbiage such as that used by Rush Limbaugh against Sandra Fluke is unacceptable because it is cursing, in the truest sense of the word. Rick Santorum, on the other hand, can call people out on their bullshit as much as he wants.
THIS PARAGRAPH IS AN UPDATE: A conversation I had with a floor-mate about this post after he’d read it brought a couple of additional thoughts to mind. Some people dislike when African-Americans call each other “nigger,” but they’re actually on to something. As I’ve said, a word’s connotation, like its meaning, is arbitrary. By taking a pejorative and using it in ways that deconstruct its offensiveness (a process called “amelioration”), they effectively take the word off its pedestal and draw a distinction between appropriate and inappropriate usage. The same is true when high school students are reading Huckleberry Finn; by skipping over the word “nigger,” they give the word more power than it deserves. Giving words over to academia and informed discussion is a highly effective way of ending the process of arbitrary pejoration and ensuring appropriate divisions are made between acceptable and unacceptable usage. Thanks, Austin Mace; you’re very good at helping me see the things I overlook.
In summary, let’s be rational about the things we choose to make offensive. It’s a tired old cliché, but let’s stop majoring on the minors and minoring on the majors. Some words genuinely do deserve to be rejected from polite conversation, but the way some people get riled up over mundane diction … well, as Rick Santorum would say, that’s just bullshit.
Note: I didn’t discuss every socially tabooed word in this post; if you’d like learn more about a particular word’s origins, refer to the Oxford English Dictionary (not Merriam-Webster), or you can post a question about a word as a comment and I’ll do my best to answer it or track down the answer.