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Examining Expletives May 25, 2007

Posted by Tim in Humour, Literary, Thoughts, Trends.

I sometimes find myself “filtering” conversations with others.

Take for instance something that happened to me recently – two months ago, I borrowed a book from the library to refer to for an assignment. After I was done with it I passed it to a groupmate, who was supposed to return it to the library for me.

Long story short, I went to the library to fill in a clearance form before graduating and I’m staring at a big fat fine on the screen.

If I were telling this story to someone I don’t know well (including you, dear blog reader), it’d go something like this:

1) “You know, I reminded him many times to return it but he didn’t!”

Which is fine, but fails to convey how I really feel.

Telling this story to say, my mother, it’d go:

2) “You know, I reminded the stupid guy many times to return it but he didn’t!”

To a friend from church?

3) “You know, I reminded the guy so many darn times to return it but he didn’t!”.

You see where I’m going here? To someone I know well and am more comfortable with, I’d just come right out and choose the precise words to convey it:

4) “You know, I told that stupid fucker so many damn times to return it but the fucker didn’t!”

Only 4) properly conveys the extent of my aggravation then; 1), 2) and 3) are politically correct, but gives the impression that I’m only slightly annoyed.

Are You Sure You Still Want to Use That Term?

Now let’s digress a little for another story: about a week ago I came along a post in a friend’s blog. She was concerned about how people were using the word cam-whoring. She linked a definition from Wikipedia:

A cam whore (sometimes cam-whore or cam-slut) is an individual who exposes himself or herself on the Internet with webcam software in exchange for goods, usually via enticing viewers to purchase items on their wish lists or add to their online accounts.

ARE YOU SURE YOU STILL WANT TO USE THAT TERM??? (sic)” was her conclusion.

If you read through the rest of the Wiki, however, the entry continues:

While the label is usually considered derogatory and insulting,[3] it is also used by these people to describe themselves, occasionally in a self-deprecating manner.

The term “cam whore” is also used to refer to individuals who post pictures or videos of themselves on the Internet to gain attention. The term disparages those who post pictures of themselves at inappropriate times or places, and usually implies self-absorption. This second usage of the term, deriding vanity and histrionics, is overtaking the prior, more intuitive definition. It is usually synonymous with attention whore.

Trends in Terms

The first thing to realize is that the meanings of words change. Damn, for example, comes from damnnation: a punishment from God. Fuck is right up there on the list of expletives, of course. The etymology of fuck is actually a good read – mainly because for all its controversy, the actual origin of the word is obscure (For the more liberal readers, there is a popular Flash of the various ways you can use the word). It literally means “sexual intercourse”. But I was obviously not condemning the offending person to fire and brimstone, nor am I privy to his nocturnal activities.

The Guardian published a list of TV’s most offensive words based on a survey, assigning an “offensiveness” rating to every phrase (to my credit, I know only about half of them). It shows that different groups of people have differing opinions on how offensive the phrases are. Arse is only “mildly offensive”, while arsehole is “quite strong” for some. Yet, bum, which has the same meaning literally, is rated “mild”. The most offensive body part is cuntcock is only “a middle of the road” word (I wonder if feminists will be up in arms about this).

A common practice is to bowdlerize “offensive” words. “Oh my god” becomes “Oh my goodness“; “damn it” becomes “darn it“; “fucking terrible” becomes “freaking terrible“. When I was growing up I learnt the the thing in front was dadu (DARE-do); the thing I didn’t have was dudu. Internet slang has also conveniently introduced shorthand – people rarely take offense when you type OM(F)G, WTF, WTH, FFS, etc.

A friend of mine blogged about a comedy routine by George Carlin, who went one step further. Carlin made a list of “unspeakable” words, and assigned numbers to them. Now, would “You 6ing, 7ing monkey 5er. You think your 1 don’t stink well 3 off you 3ing 3er” be allowed on TV? Would it be any different from inserting strategically-timed beeps?

Enid Blyton was a very conservative children’s writer – you won’t find subtle philosophical insights or social upheavals in her writing (unless Georgina was a closet tranny!). But meanings change, and once-innocuous names like Dick (my favourite of the Famous Five) and Fanny have been censored with politically-correct versions. Same for the poor golliwog, a children’s toy that became a symbol of racism.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the most memorable novels a child can read – on one side a captivating tale of childhood adventure, on the other, a glaring look at the racism of those times. Jim, the black slave fleeing down the Mississippi River, is elegantly portrayed by Mark Twain: black people were regarded as inferior, but Jim proves to be the only good man in the story. And yet, to this day it remains one of the most banned books in the US. The century-old controversy revolves mainly around the usage of nigger and negro. Apparently this makes the book “racist” and “offensive” – never mind that this is precisely what the novel portrays, the racism of those times!

What Matters

We need to realize is that words are a social construct. Words have no power except what we choose to assign to them, and the intent behind them. Bocor isn’t a swear word, but in the context where it was used recently, it was definitely offensive. Which is not to say that I encourage freely replacing all your adjectives with expletives (mainly because people won’t be able to tell if you’re angry, or REALLY REALLY angry), nor should you throw insults around for no good reason – rather, examine the intent, not the letters on your screen.

For those still squirming at the un-PC-ness of this essay, I hope I may soothe you with a catchy advertisement you won’t find showing here any time soon.



1. Tim Examines Expletives « Earthwatcher - May 25, 2007

[…] pop a comment into his blog, but this is something which I feel should appear on my blog too. So go read that article. I can’t put it any […]

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