Bad Words

September 17, 1990… a day that will live in infamy.

Okay so I exaggerated… it wasn’t up there on a par with the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor or any other big dates in textbook history. However for those of us fascinated with words and the use and abuse thereof, that day ought to be enshrined in some sort of “Free Speech Hall Of Fame”. On that day on the CBS television network, actress Sharon Gless playing the title character of her new short-lived drama series “The Trials of Rosie O’Neill” muses to her psychiatrist “I’m thinking about getting my tits done.”

The use of the word “tits” was as far as I can tell the first non-accidental breach of George Carlin’s infamous “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television“.That famous comedy routine was recorded May 27, 1972 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and appeared on Carlin’s live comedy album Class Clown. Carlin was once arrested for obscenity for performing the routine live. When a similar routine called “Filthy Words” was aired uncensored on a radio station in California, it led to a famous Supreme Court decision that has formed the basis for most broadcast obscenity cases ever since then. A Wikipedia article about the routine does a fairly good job of recounting its history and its consequences.

An illustration of the ridiculousness of banning words is the use of one of the banned words “piss”. Its past tense form “pissed” is perfectly acceptable in certain contexts on broadcast television when used to indicate a state of anger. You can say “I’m pissed off” but you can’t say “I was so drunk I pissed on my shoes.” I’m not really sure whether or not “I’m pissed” meaning a state of inebriation would make it past the censors or not. Carlin was quick to point out the hypocrisy regarding banned words when he notes that even your mother would say “shoot” when she really meant “shit”. The words are used identically in both meaning and context yet one is acceptable and the other is not.

Of course “fuck” is widely considered the dirtiest of dirty words yet television programs routinely substitute similar words with obvious identical meaning and get away with it. Police dramas such as “NYPD Blue” routinely substituted “freakin” for “fuckin” when used as an expletive. However such substitutions on broadcast television rarely extend from mere expletive all the way to the literal meaning as a sexual act.

I always admired the Sci-fi Channel series “Farscape” for its use of the substitute word “frell” because it used a variety of forms of the word. It wasn’t just “oh frell” when trouble occurs or a personally directed “frell you”. You would also hear it used in a context such as “Come on baby let’s go frell.” Hands down the ultimate substitute word is Battlestar Galactica’s “frak” which is probably my favorite. I have to admit surprise when I read a recent recent article that reported the use of “frak” actually dates back to the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica TV series and not just the current remake which as been running since 2004. The use of “frak” in the show is used in absolutely every conceivable way that you would use the original “fuck”. I’m certain I’ve heard everything including but not limited to “Oh frak”, “come on lets frak”, “get the frak outta here”, “frak you”, “hand me that frakin wrench”, “I don’t give a frak”, “frak off”, and probably others I can’t recall right now. The only version I don’t believe I’ve heard is “mother-fraker” or “mother-fraking” but I wouldn’t swear they’ve never used it.

Although Sci-fi Channel is cable, it is basic cable which usually adheres to broadcast standards and I’m pretty sure that reruns have appeared on NBC broadcast uncensored. The hypocrisy of banning the use of a word while permitting a nearly identical word with identical meaning in a variety of contexts just drives me crazy the more I think about it.

While I appreciate the desire to in some form shield young children from vulgarity, somehow society has gotten to the point where the word itself… the symbol and not the thing or concept which the symbol represents… is what gets banned. If we really wanted to protect their children from vulgarity then a phrase like “go frak yourself” ought to be just as a offensive as “go fuck yourself”.

I’m not suggesting that censorship ought to be stronger and that “frak” in all its forms ought to be banned as well. I’m saying that if we are going to regulate speech at all (which I would rather not do either) then we ought to regulate the ideas rather than the words themselves. Again let me be clear I’m all in favor of free speech under 99.99% circumstances. I could even argue that could go as high as 100% deregulation of words because I think there is something to be said for going ahead and exposing small children to real-world discourse no matter how bad it is. Such exposure can then be used as a teachable moment. We need to teach our kids that there are “bad things” in the world. There is evil, hatred, prejudice, injustice, intolerance, violence and all sorts of other things which they should avoid if they want to be “good little boys and girls”. But the words in and of themselves are not bad. The things which the so-called bad words communicate is where in the evil lies.

Another problem with the idea that we must use only politically correct words is that times change and what is the proper word for one generation is improper for another generation. Descriptions of race are the prime example. The scientific and technical term for a person with dark skin and African heritage is “Negro”. The use of such words today outside some sort of biology or sociology text is archaic at best is offensive to many.  To some extent one can get away with using the word in those contexts on a limited basis. You can talk about the Negro race but you can’t call a particular person a Negro and get away with it. The word has stuck around as marginally acceptable simply because there are times when you need to describe that particular race of people as distinct from Caucasian, Asian, etc.

Next we come to “nigger”. I’m not going to argue in favor of its use because it has and always will be a “bad word”. But it is bad because of the concept which it denotes, not because there is anything inherently wrong with the word. It has always been a deliberate derogatory term designed to demean people and it is inextricably attached to the practice of slavery. So it really is a bad word if there ever was one.

For some time African-American culture especially comedians like Richard Pryor in reflecting his culture use the word liberally in an attempt to diffuse the power of the word. By co-opting the word and changing its meaning as a piece of slang used by African Americans affectionately to describe one another it power was indeed diminished. Co-opting the word for another use made my point that the word itself is not bad. I always felt it was a clever attempt to take the sting out of the word. Rap stars and others have tried to make a distinction between “nigga” and “nigger” with the former being the affectionate slang for intra-racial address and the latter being the derogatory term it had traditionally been. However recent use of abuse of the word has even got the hardest of hard-core rappers reconsidering its use. They are, probably correctly, beginning to realize that legitimizing one use of the word invariably legitimizes all use of it.

For decades the politically correct term for people of African descent was “colored” but even that word took on a negative connotation with signs like “no colored allowed” or “colored only”. “Colored” became as tied to the practice of discrimination as “nigger” was tied to slavery. The word “colored” gave way to “black” which is still in use of course. At one point “black” gave way to “African-American”.  Technically a Caucasian from Africa… even a racist, apartheid loving South African… who moved to the United States is ironically “African-American”. So the term African-American is probably a little bit problematic from a technical point of view.

One of the problems with ever evolving politically correct terms is that certain anachronisms cannot be eliminated. The largest and most important civil rights organization in the country remains the NAACP which of course stands for the “National Association for the Advancement of Colored People”. There is a bitter irony in the fact that millions of black people proudly support the organization but would be highly offended if you called them a “colored person”.

In the end I appreciate and sympathize with people who are offended by insults. I’m not arguing in favor of maliciously insulting people. But I really think we’ve gotten much to sensitive and much too hypocritical about the use of words and their power to offend. I really wish people would go back to the “Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me” lesson that used to be taught to children.

Unless you’re from another planet you didn’t need me to recount the history of derogatory terms for African-Americans. But I wanted to draw parallels between that terminology and another set of terminology that is much more personal to me. As a person who has spent their entire life in a wheelchair, I’ve had to deal on a regular basis with the variety of shifting politically correct terms to describe people like me. In the next installment we’ll explore terms like cripple, handicap, disabled, challenged, differently abled (yech) and a variety of other labels related to disabilities.

About Words

“So the LORD God formed out of the ground various wild animals and various birds of the air, and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each of them would be its name. The man gave names to all the cattle, all the birds of the air, and all the wild animals…” Gen 2:19-20

The above passage from Genesis is not alone in its opinion that the ability to name things is something that separates us from other species. The use of words is really an amazing concept when you think about it. What is it about certain sounds emanating from a person’s mouth, certain symbols printed on a page, or written with a pen that allows us to transmit so much information. It is awesome to ponder the ability of the human brain to make the abstract connection between words and the endless variety of things which those words represent . Words allow us not only to name physical objects but to describe them. And it’s not just physical reality… abstract words can be symbols for abstract concepts such as love, hate, fear, beautiful, good and bad.

Some words such as “bang”, “tinkle”, “ding” have a direct connections to the things they represent. These words are symbolic of sounds and the words themselves are reminiscent of the sounds they represent. Such words are called “onomatopoeia”. However these words are the exception to the rule. For example if I write or speak the word “elephant”, there is nothing about either the sound of the word nor the written letters that make up the word that has any remote connection to the thing it represents. Yet if I speak the word or write it on the page for someone to read, immediately creates a picture in their mind of a large gray animal with a long trunk, floppy ears, and tree trunk legs.

In John 1:14 the evangelist describes Jesus as “the Word made flesh” with the word “Word” capitalized like a proper noun. He does so because Jesus is the ultimate example of the phrase “the medium is the message”. Jesus is both message and messenger. He is the perfect communication of the Father about who He is and His plans and expectations for humanity. Like all “words” he is a symbolic representation of something far bigger and far more difficult to grasp than the word itself.

Information technology pioneer Alan Turing once speculated that someday computers would achieve the level of artificial intelligence that was indistinguishable from genuine human behavior. He suggested that if you got in a chat room with an intelligent computer and could not tell whether or not you were talking to was a computer or a live person then that computer had been passed the Turing test of artificial intelligence.

Jesus being “the Word made flesh” is such a perfect symbol… such a perfect expression of that which He symbolizes… that He passes the theological equivalent of the Turing test.  In John’s 14:8-9 the disciple Philip asks Jesus to “show us the Father.” Jesus replies almost in anger “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”

In my own struggles of faith to understand what it means to say that there is “real presence” of the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Eucharist and in wrestling with the millennia-old debate about whether the Eucharist is just a symbol or is something real, it’s been useful to me to think of the Eucharist as a perfect symbol in the same sense that Jesus is the perfect Word. Jesus is such a perfect representation of the Father that he becomes indistinguishable from and one with the Father. For me that Eucharist is such a perfect symbol that it becomes indistinguishable from that which it represents. That’s probably not a theological explanation that would get an imprimatur from any Catholic cleric but it sure helps me wrap my brain around the biggest of Christian Mysteries.

Unfortunately not all words are as perfect at representing or communicating what was intended as is Jesus as the Word made flesh or Jesus in the Eucharist. Words are only effective if both the transmitters and receivers have some sort of communal agreement as to what the words really mean. The Oxford English Dictionary is by consensus the ultimate collection of definitions of words in the English language. However it’s not just a bunch of stuffy British linguists sitting around in overstuffed chairs with leather patches on their elbows and bow ties around their necks arbitrarily deciding what is or is not proper English. It is a large group of researchers who scour the written and spoken word to gauge how words are used in society. When a new word gets sufficient use in public discourse or an old word takes on a new meaning with sufficient frequency, in the dictionary is augmented or amended to reflect these changes in the living English language.

One of my favorite (somewhat ridiculous) pieces of the English language which has come into existence in my own lifetime is the suffix “-gate” meaning some sort of political scandal. I’ve not found a better example of how a word has taken on a new meaning so totally unrelated to and so abstract from its original meaning. The source of this strange usage is of course the Watergate scandal in which the Nixon administration engaged in burglary and other illegal acts in order to preserve the Nixon presidency. This scandal ultimately led to his downfall because of the egregious obstructions of justice carried out at his orders in order to cover-up the offenses. A few years later Lieut. Col. Oliver North under the Reagan administration was caught in a scandal involving Central American rebels and the illegal sale of arms to Iran. The scandal became known as “The Iran- Contra Scandal” which was soon redubbed by the media “Iran-Contra-Gate”. From that moment forward the suffix “-gate” took on a whole new meaning. Of course the media had a tough time adapting this strange new meaning of the word when Bill and Hillary Clinton were investigated regarding a questionable real estate deal known as “Whitewater”. Somehow calling it “Whitewater-gate” just didn’t seem to work given that the whole “gate” thing began with a different kind of Watergate.

Words are a strange thing indeed. They make civilization possible because they allow us to communicate. They allow us to grasp the ungraspable and ponder the unreachable. Words are such a bizarre thing that we even send our children mixed messages when trying to teach them about the power of words. On one hand we teach them “The pen is mightier than the sword”. On the other hand we teach them “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” In that respect words are like water. Water is essential for life but too much water is deadly. If the pan is indeed mightier than the sword then perhaps it is a two edged sword that cuts both ways.

In my next installment I hope to explore how words, especially words whose meanings evolve over time, strangely seem to evolve from innocuous and neutral means of expressing reality into powerfully painful weapons some of which society has concluded ought never be wielded.

Changing my blog software

You may have noticed that my blog looks significantly different than it used to. That’s because I switched from using Google’s service to using WordPress installed on my own domain. I’m going to be using WordPress for blogs on my website for St. Gabriel Church so I thought I would just convert everything over.

This means that many of my intra-blog links will be broken for a while and if you’ve bookmarked any of my links they will no doubt be broken. As far as I can tell all of the content including comments is still there. It just is probably going to have a different name.

I hope this isn’t too confusing for my readers but in the long run I think it will work better.

One of the things I like about WordPress versus blogger is that WordPress automatically cross-links each individual entry so that I don’t have to put any “next entry” and “previous entry” link in each of my posts. Because I write so many blog entries that are actually serial articles it was really hard to navigate under blogger unless I went to a lot of trouble to manually add links. I won’t have to do that anymore.

Fall TV schedule

Every year for my own purposes I put together a fall TV schedule that shows me what’s new, what got canceled, what got moved etc.

I figure if I’m going to go to all that trouble just for myself I might as well share it with everyone else. Usually I get the information directly from the network websites but they didn’t do a very good job of putting up an actual schedule. Fox used to put up one that not only showed the upcoming fall season but previewed the January replacements as well. No more this time.

Wikipedia has a pretty good schedule and it was the source for much of what I did. You can find it here.

Click here for my version of the schedule especially color coded to show what’s new and what moved.