Life and Living: What Makes Bad Words…Bad?

RRated Language

CAUTIONThe following article addresses the use of language that some may consider foul or coarse, and includes words to that effect. Readers who possess strong reservations against this type of language are advised to proceed with discretion.

TLDR ADVISORY: This article exceeds 1,000 words, and may be lengthy for some readers.

     My father is a church board member. He attends services most every Sunday, and is an upstanding member of the community. At home, he does his very best to live his life accordingly, the way that he believes that God would want him to. I love my father very much.

     That being said, I do have a slight issue with his restrictiveness of my speech freedoms whenever I’m down visiting. I am a former soldier, and as most people know, soldiers tend to pick up quite a bit of “colorful language” along the way. As a result, sometimes I slip and give utterance to words that my father doesn’t necessarily appreciate; and of course, he’s quick on the trigger with the “hey, language,” or “watch your mouth” retort. So, I started wondering; what exactly is it that makes “bad words” bad?

     Now, up to this point in my musings on and forays into the human condition here at The Cybersattva, I have done my level best to do so without resorting to using language that some would deem “profane” or “coarse,” words that one would normally hear in another setting, such as a bar or a pool hall. The “F” word, the “S” word, the “P” word and the “B” word are nigh present as of this article. I find myself wondering, for the sake of the article itself, if I should include them…

     What makes bad words bad? Is it the words themselves? Let’s look at a few, starting with the venerable George Carlin’s list of the “Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television.” (For those of you who are absolutely averse to “coarse language” of any sort, now would be the time to go browse for nice pictures of cats or flowers.) These words are:

  • Shit
  • Piss
  • Fuck
  • Cunt
  • Cocksucker
  • Motherfucker
  • Tits

     Does anyone besides myself notice a pattern forming? If one considers the generally accepted definitions of these “cuss words” and others, they will begin to note that almost 95 percent of them describe functions relating to, or parts of the human anatomy and human sexuality. Then there are words such as;

  • Bitch
  • Bastard

     These are words used to disparage a person directly, although they also have more acceptable uses within the English language. For instance, a bitch is the proper term for a Canine female, and a bastard is a male child born out of wedlock. These types of words make up about four percent of the “cuss word pie.” The other one percent is taken up by words such as “damn” and “hell,” which are words with a decidedly negative religious connotation.

     What makes bad words bad? Is it their intended effect or contextual use? If I stand up before leaving my parents’ house and say, “Well, it’s time to get my shit together so I can get on the road,” is the word “shit” within the context of the previous sentence, still a “bad word”? What I’ve done there is use the word “shit” as a synonym for the word “stuff” or “items”. Now, I know some people who purposefully use words that are considered profane, purely for their “shock value”. However, if that was not my intent, why would it still be a “bad word”?

     Is it how others perceive what we are saying? If you did not speak or write even a blip of English, and I walked up to you on the street and said, “Hey! How the fuck are you doing?” and shook your hand, you would only know that I was greeting you, and would do your best to respond in kind, with no offense taken. If on the other hand, you do understand the English language fairly well, you might or might not be offended, depending on what context you apply to what I’ve just said. In other words, exactly how much of the onus for offense lies with the offended person, if any at all?

     What makes bad words bad? Why are they collectively referred to as “profanity”? Let’s stop for just a second, and examine the definition of the word “profane”:

pro·fane  /prəˈfān,prō-/
1. relating or devoted to that which is not sacred or biblical; secular rather than religious.
2. (of a person or their behavior) not respectful of orthodox religious practice; irreverent.
1. treat (something sacred) with irreverence or disrespect.

     Once again, we see religion’s influence on society, specifically how the expression of thoughts and ideas through language is measured against a sense of what is “holy” or “sacred”.

     There are also words (and please forgive me ahead of time for committing these words to electronic media!) that have been used throughout history to disparage select groups of people, words used to discriminate;

  • Nigger
  • Spick
  • Wop
  • Chink
  • Chin
  • Dago
  • Raghead
  • Kike

     These and similar “racial epithets” have varying degrees of conversational acceptability, depending on the company one keeps. I even know people who are perfectly comfortable using a racial epithet, but cringe at words such as “fuck” and “shit”, regardless of their contextual use. (If you ask me, no racial epithet is acceptable at anytime.)

     Gets you thinking, doesn’t it? In my own, not-so-humble opinion, we should all give a lot more thought to the words we use, and how we use them. What does our vocabulary say to others about us? How does it convey what kind of person we are, our upbringing, our value system and our level of consideration for our fellow life travelers? Within this respect, there are words which should be considered far worse for use than words such as “bitch” or “fuck”;

  • Idiot
  • Dummy
  • Retard (or any of its politically-motivated variants!)
  • Stupid
  • Moron

     To what degree do we value our fellow human beings? The words listed above are used primarily to demean another’s intelligence. Other words, such as “ugly” or “fat” are used to demean appearance. Shouldn’t those words be considered equally as unacceptable as the original seven? What does it say about us as a society, or individuals, when we have no problems calling someone a “dummy”, but cringe whenever someone says the word “fuck”? What does that say about our value system?

     I’ll close with this thought; be excellent to each other. Communicate better with each other, and use your words meaningfully!


3 comments on “Life and Living: What Makes Bad Words…Bad?

  1. Mark says:

    I think swear words are “situation specific”. For instance, the last group you mentioned, idiot, dummy, retard, stupid, moron, could be considered just light playful words in some groups. As soon as you add an element of an intellectually challenged person for whom those terms could be considered pertinent, the words become off limits.

    So yes, it is about perception from both the speaker and the audience that makes words into swear words.

    In Australia our language is often coloured by what others would consider swear words, but to us they are simply colloquialisms. Watch the movie “Crocodile Dundee” for an example of this.

    Another thing that makes a word a swear word is the intent in which it is said. The word “Bastard” is used often in Australia as a familial term of affection yet it can be used in a derogatory manner which totally changes the meaning.

    I have noticed that SOME swear words are becoming more acceptable and some are becoming LESS so. It is 100% about perception and intention.

  2. You know, I’ve noticed something else as well, something that has to do with the MPAA ratings and the word “profanity”. There seems to be this concerted effort within society to move farther away from the religious underpinnings that we started out with. The MPAA ratings USED to say “profanity”. Now, they say “strong language”.

  3. fojap says:

    Interesting. I live in a milieu in which cursing is taken for granted and those racial epithets are almost never heard. That final group also tends to be used with caution. Retard is absolutely out. My mother was a special ed teacher. Growing up, I was definitely given the message that cursing was no big deal but putting people down with the kind of words you mention at the end was very bad.

    By the way, I like the name of your blog. It made me smile.

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