Dirty Words (part 1 of 3)

Let’s talk about swear words—I mean, of course, that special category of taboo words. These remarks will start out completely uncontroversially and end up, by part 3, in tinfoil hat country.

We all know that swear words are arbitrary, in so far as there is nothing inherently obscene or bad about certain collections of phonemes: that’s why we can say “chits” with a straight face, or “Hoover Dam.” There is not even anything inherently obscene or bad about the meaning of most of these words, which is why we have words like “feces” or “copulate” that may not get trotted out in the politest of companies but serve their purpose when needed. As always, a road is made by walking on it—and these words are “swears” solely because we all agreed they are swears.

Of course, many more words used to be swears, used to be taboo, than are now. I mentioned once the consternation the word “shift” (as in chemise) occasioned in Synge’s play Playboy of the Western World. Mencken, who may have been joking?, mentions in supplement one to The American Language a bunch of words that were once taboo that we hardly can comprehend today: “bug,” for example (that’s why ladybugs are sometimes called “ladybirds” in old books), or “stallion.” An old euphemism for a bull, “top cow,” is far more vulgarly evocative to my imagination than just saying “bull,” but these were the preferences of the past, of the late eighteenth through early twentieth centuries specifically. They look silly to use because they are other people’s taboos.

The previous century saw a roster of progressives, such as Lenny Bruce or D.H. Lawrence, who pushed the boundaries or what “could” be said or written, and they did so at some personal risk. Lenny Bruce was not afraid, but he should have been: he went to jail! This sounds ridiculous to us, and we make folk heroes out of these pioneers who taught America that these are merely (as Dorothy Kilgallen testified at Bruces’s trial) “words, words, words.” And now, at long last, we of the present have learned from their examples and are far too open minded to punish people for using words arbitrarily designated as taboo.

Ha ha! I am joking, of course. If there’s one thing you could never call us at the present moment, it is “open minded.” We make fun of the taboos of the past, because they were silly taboos; and we defend the taboos of the present because they are really serious and important taboos that we recently discovered thanks to advances in taboo science! We were consistently wrong for hundreds or thousands of years but now we are right at last.

This is possible, of course. Sometimes there is progress and we find out things we didn’t know before, which is how we eradicated measles in America (ha ha! that is another joke!). When a Smith College newspaper (The Sophian) printed the phrase “wild and crazy” as “wild and [ableist slur],” maybe they were making progress in what should be allowed to be printed by and for adults.

I want to look at two recently tabooed words. These are words that are not only considered impolite (many of us would say “puke” is impolite without being taboo) but are, like “crazy” at Smith, censorable. They are words you can get in trouble for using, not in the wrong context but at all. In order to protect the delicate eyes of my friends, I’m going to self-censor here, and say things like “f-word,” like a third grader. (I assumed you could handle “crazy” and “stallion.”) We run into a problem, because both words I want to talk about are r-words. I’ll say them once, so look away if you must. I want to talk about “retarded” (which I’ll call “r-word”) and Redskins (“R-word” with a capital). These are both words I have seen normal, adult humans censor out of their writing, like a date in a Jane Austen novel, and “call out” others for speech uses, so I know they are taboo, even though you can probably still say them (pace George Carlin) on television. My hope is that we can draw some larger conclusions from these individual cases.

(continued tomorrow)


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